Friday, March 26, 2010

The Power of "AND": A tool for couples (and individuals too)

Almost every couple that makes it to therapy is struggling with some core issues. These issues include learning how to love one another (more on that another day) and learning how to communicate effectively. Today, I'm going to focus on effective communication. In that spirit, I will share with you one of the tools that I find myself using all the time when I do couples' therapy.

When I am working with a couple, I hear lots of communication that sounds like this: "I know that I hurt your feelings, but I was really angry." or "I know it's hard for you to be around my family, but they didn't mean to be difficult." At first glance, this kind of communication might seem okay. After all, there is an acknowledgment of feelings. Isn't that good communication?

Here's the problem. For most of us, the word "but" creates a sense that there is only one true way to look at a situation. On an emotional level, it feels like everything that came before the "but" was insincere, just an attempt to "say the right thing." It feels like what comes after the "but" is what the speaker believes is true.

So, in the examples above, what we hear is: "I was angry and that is more important than whether or not you feel bad." or "My family does the best they can, so why are you being so difficult?" This is clearly not effective communication. When you understand how a "but" functions on an emotional level, it is easy to see how it can sidetrack effective listening, hearing and problem solving.

There is a very simple language substitution that can have a significant impact on how communication flows in a relationship. Replacing "but" with "AND" completely changes the way a communication feels. Let's see how that looks in the examples from earlier. "I know that I hurt your feelings, AND I was really angry." or "I know it's hard for you to be around my family, AND they didn't mean to be difficult." As you read those sentences, compare your emotional reaction to the earlier examples with "but." Which set of sentences feels more conducive to continuing communication?

The reality is, particularly in relationships, that we often experience multiple truths. Sometimes, those truths even appear to be in opposition to one another. In the first example above, we see a common example of multiple truths. When a couple is in conflict, it can be true that one member of the couple can both be angry AND acknowledge the impact of their anger on their partner at the same time.

When we acknowledge that there is more than one truth affecting a couple, we create opportunities for more effective communication. Replacing "but" with "AND" reduces friction, because it states a permission for each member of the couple to have their own experiences. When we don't have to defend our experiences, we are more able and willing to acknowledge the experiences of our partners.

Give it a shot! As you move through your day today, be conscious of your language. Try replacing "but" with "AND". Notice what it feels like to be open to the possibility that more than one thing can be true. Then, practice using "AND" with your partner. I look forward to hearing how this simple change affects your communication.