How to Talk with Our Families and Neighbors When We Don’t Agree

This is a workshop my husband and I are putting on for a little neighborhood/church group tomorrow.

1) Know my own objective in the communication process.  

Karla and John’s goal:  Discuss how to connect to family and neighbors while maintaining personal integrity.

What do I want from this meeting? (Write it down)

Who are my most important relationships?  What are the obstacles in those relationships?  Keep these important and possibly problematic relationships in mind as we talk. (Write)

What are the communities that I’m in that I value?  Who are the people in these communities? What is it that makes it a community – the positives and negatives?  For example, I could be in a very supportive community that is also based on complaining (women about their husbands). (Write)

Some communications and even some relationships are simply not important, for example, the anonymous person we’re arguing with in an online comments section.  We’re not talking about that type of superficial relationship here.  Although civility matters, even online.

2) Why should we have empathy and respect for people we don’t agree with?

Karla’s belief as a psychologist and John’s as a teacher: people are generally good and are doing the best they can given their basic assumptions and life experiences.

Everyone has unexamined assumptions. Their belief patterns, logic, and assertions arise from these assumptions.  Once we understand their assumptions, we can understand them (much easier said than done). Think about your assumptions about people you don’t agree with.  (Write)

3) When the relationship is most important, emotions take priority over logic or argument.  This is both descriptive and prescriptive.

Identify and understand my own feelings about a conflict. Understand their layered complexity.  “I’m feeling 25% irritated, 20% hurt, 20% threatened, 15% bored, 10% hungry, and 10% miscellaneous.”  (Write)

It is axiomatic in psychology that anger is a secondary emotion, arising defensively to underlying feelings of vulnerability.  Irritation, frustration, resentment, and so forth are reactions to feelings of disappointment, hurt, injustice, etc.  It is very important to identify what is beneath the self-protective layer of anger.

Accurately identifying and understanding what I feel is even more important than understanding why I feel that way.

4) Paradoxically, when in the grip of strong (negative) emotion, communication is impaired.

In other words, don’t try to talk to someone who matters about something that matters to me while I’m mad.  Let my autonomic nervous system calm down first – do deep breathing, do some stretches, go for a walk, get a drink of water.  Wait until my heart rate settles and my blood pressure goes down before I make that phone call or fire off that email.

5) How to understand the other person during a conflict when the relationship matters.

Listen both actively and passively.  Actively in that I am using my imagination and empathy to put myself in the other person’s shoes.  Passively in that I am not constructing counter-arguments and rebuttals all the time they’re talking.  Set my own position aside for the time being.

Use reflective statements like: “I hear that you’re feeling [specific emotion].”  “Your experience of [whatever it is] leads you to conclude [whatever their position is].”  Check to make sure.  “Is that right?”  “Am I understanding you correctly?”

Axiomatic:  The other person will not hear and understand my position until they feel heard and understood by me.  The opposite is also often (not always) true:  When the other person feels heard and understood, they will hear and understand me.

6) A process for working through conflict in an important relationship.

John Gottman worksheet – see below.

How does this apply to personal relationships? How does this apply to larger discourse communities?

Write 3-5 issues that I feel are important but contentious.



The Rules For Constructive Conflict

based on the Gottman-Rapoport Intervention

Goal of Conflict: heal emotional wounds and learn to process fights and regrettable incidents.

  1. Take turns as Speaker and Listener—10-20 minutes each.  Two subjective realities, and both are right.
  2. Eliminate the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

Criticism: of personality, identity.  Antidote – a gentle start-up.

Defensiveness: counterattack or playing the innocent victim.  Antidote – accept responsibility.

Contempt: speaking from a superior place.  Antidote – build a culture of appreciation and respect.              

Stonewalling:  shutting down because of physiological overload.  Antidote – learn self-soothing and take breaks.

  1. Start as neutrally as possible.  Both must feel safe and open.  Both must down-regulate physiologically, and interrupt the discussion if heart-rate goes up, etc.  Empathy, rational thought, and ability to communicate vanish in the fight-or-flight mode.
  2. “What’s this?” attitude vs. “What the hell is this?” attitude.
  3. Speaker’s job – no blaming, use “I” statements, state feelings and positive needs.  State position thoroughly, with depth and background.  Use the following pattern:

“When ______________________ happens,

I feel _______________________________ (this is the most important section),

I think (perceive) _____________________,

I want ______________________________.”

  1. Listener’s job – take notes, summarize and validate Speaker’s position.  Ask questions about the history and deeper meaning in the partner’s position.  Validate emotions even if Listener disagree with position.
  2. Postpone persuasion and problem-solving until both people can state their partner’s position to the partner’s satisfaction.

Six Skills to Develop and Use During Conflict:

  1. Soften startup
  2. Accept influence
  3. Make effective repairs during conflict, and accept repair attempts from partner
  4. De-escalate conflict (take breaks)
  5. Compromise
  6. Physiological soothing
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Caregiver Support

Taking on the Job

  1. Identify your support team. Who else shares the burden? Recognize that although we may feel alone, there are usually others we can lean on to a greater or lesser degree.
  2. Be realistic with yourself about what you can do – emotionally, physically, financially.
  3. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of available public or private support.
  4. Don’t let shame, pride, or a sense of martyrdom keep you from reaching out to others for help.
  5. Identify the different kinds of help you need yourself – not just meals or driving or respite, but a confidante you can cry to, a support circle of people in similar caregiving circumstances, friends online or on the phone as well as in person.
  6. ALLOW OTHERS TO HELP. Ask for help. It is likely that they won’t realize what you need until you ask for it.

Staying Strong and Healthy

  1. Pay close attention to your own physical and mental health, with regular medical checkups for yourself. Being a caregiver is a little like being pregnant – you’re “eating for two.” It’s your responsibility to take care of yourself.
  2. Exercise every day. Start small, “pretend exercise” when you can’t do your whole routine, but get in the habit.
  3. Find time for mindfulness meditation. Some find this quiet space by reading scriptures or praying. Quiet contemplation is essential for you to survive and thrive.
  4. Treat and talk to yourself as you would your own best friend. Take time to prepare your own meals, socialize with others, take naps, write in your journal.
  5. If you’re caretaking an elderly or terminally ill person, prepare for the grief process. Research grief therapists or grief groups. Grief comes to all of us – and what can feel crazy is likely a normal emotional reaction to loss.
  6. Let go of guilt at not being perfect as a caregiver or self-caregiver.

Letting Go When the Time Comes

Whether the “letting go” is of a beloved spouse to death, a wayward child to their own road, or the realization that you are simply unable to do the job anymore, realize that you will not and cannot be the caretaker forever. Accept the sense of relief as well as the sense of loss when your role changes or disappears. Prepare for what you will do – who you will be – when your caregiving is over.

Online places to look for support:

AARP, Utah Coalition for Caregiver Support, Mountainland Aging and Family Services, Utah Parent Center – Google online, as sites and resources change.

Here is an article on caregiving from the most recent issue of the APA Monitor.

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The Novice Mindfulness Exercise (1-10-1)

This exercise takes anywhere from 9-12 minutes, depending on respiration rate. The goal of here-and-now training is to be fully present – not thinking about the past or worrying about the future, but gently focusing attention on where you are and how you are right now.

Counting your breaths requires this type of gentle focus. The basic exercise is to find a comfortable position sitting or lying. You can close your eyes – or – find a visual focal point in front of you. You will count your exhalations, up from 1 to 10, down to 1, up to 10 again, down to 1 again, up to 10 again, and down to 1, three times total, beginning and ending on 1. Breathe slowly and regularly, without forcing or control. If you can, let your breath return to its automatic, unconscious rate. Focus on the physical sensations of breathing in your nose, your throat, and your chest and abdomen. The counting is silent but regular. Once your breathing is settled, turn your attention to the physical sensations in your body, starting head to foot (or foot to head). When you have catalogued those sensations, focus on the sounds you hear in your environment. After the initial observation, switch focus between your breathing, your body, and your auditory surroundings.

If your mind wanders during the exercise (and it will), note whenever it happens by saying to yourself “mind wandering,” or “distraction,” or even “thinking.” Then resume counting your exhalations while focusing attention on your breathing, your physical sensations, and the sounds around you.

Counting can become automatic, and can allow the mind to be distracted from the here-and-now, but switching from 1, 2, 3… to 10, 9, 8… generally interrupts a wandering mind and brings you back to the present, at least briefly. You can make the rule that if you distractedly count past 10, you have to count backwards from wherever you noticed you had gone past the limit. I have had to count back from 25 when I was particularly anxious and distracted. I’ve not ever absent-mindedly counted lower than 1, but I suppose a mathematician who is used to thinking in negative numbers might do so!

At the end of the counting exercise, take a moment to note your state of mind and body. Are you relaxed? What physical sensations did you observe? Where did your mental distractions take you? – (these can be quite interesting as you deeply relax).

I find that it usually takes me about one cycle of 1-10-1 to become relaxed. By the time I finish the three cycles, I am (usually) deeply relaxed. There are times when I never make it to deep relaxation, and times when by the end I’ve fallen asleep. But I just do it again the next day. Ultimately, the cumulative effect of the practice is positive.

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More Writing Prompts for Fun and (therapeutic) Profit

Make several lists:
1. phases of my life
2. people in my life
3. places in my life
4. places in my head
5. the world outside my hometown – people/places/events I relate to or feel something about
6. things I know that matter
7. things I don’t know that matter
8. my regrets
9. my sorrows
10. my joys
11. my characteristics
12. things I’m not honest with myself about
13. things about me most people don’t know
14. things about me or things I’ve done that I am proud of
etc etc
Then sort the lists by heading a page with the following dichotomies and writing each list item in one or the other column:
important/not important
etc. with your own dichotomies
This kind of exercise is interesting to me because of what patterns begin to show up.  It’s a way of doing an informal factor analysis.  Give it a try and modify it as you wish.  You may find some accidental poetry forming – if it does, go ahead and use it to actually make a poem.  I haven’t done anything like this for awhile, but it can be fun and/or self-revelatory (not always the same thing).
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Time Travel: Or, A Phenomenological Demonstration of Context-Dependent Memory

A journal entry from some time ago.  First I should note that my mother and I share an inherited autoimmune blood-clotting disorder which can lead to mini-strokes.  My husband is a little paranoid about any memory lapse or other cognitive oddity on my part.

The other day–the day of the BYU Homecoming Game–I learned how disorienting time-travel can be.  I had been slightly ill for a few days, and had a rare Saturday appointment in my office which I had completely forgotten while working in the garden, and I arrived apologetic and flustered 30 minutes late.  The parking lot was empty on a Saturday, the building dark and eerie.  The temporal displacement was small–from weekday office to weekend office–but it was only the first of many that day.

Next, with The Game still on and a crowded parking lot at the Richards Building, my husband John the English Professor and I went swimming in the otherwise empty BYU pool.  Two or three years ago we were in the healthy habit of swimming twice a week, but have not been at all for at least a year.  So a year-plus temporal displacement.

After swimming, we climbed the hill on the stairs between the Richards Building and the Smith Fieldhouse.  I probably haven’t climbed those particular stairs since taking a swim class at the end of my undergraduate studies at BYU more than 30 years ago.  Temporal displacement number three–32 years.

Then we went to a film at the International Cinema, on the main floor of the Kimball Tower.  There I took many of my graduate psych classes 20 years ago, and there I completed my predoctoral internship at the Counseling Center in ’95-’96.  Time-travel number four.

The movie was interesting–the French film “Orpheus” from 1950–another temporal displacement (but one that probably shouldn’t count).

I was OK until then.  From the time we came out of the building, through eating dinner together at the “Legends” sports bar (on campus, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated) where I wandered down dim and empty hallways looking for the restroom, until I went to bed last night, I was extremely disoriented.

Part of it might have been the strangely empty campus.  Some of it was the sense of dissociation that one can feel while recovering from an illness.  But whatever caused it, John had more and more of that skittish, scared look in his eyes as he asked me about things he or I had said or done earlier in the day, and l didn’t remember.

What I did feel was the echo of memories, preoccupations, and worries that faded as I tried to pin them down.  It was like awakening slowly and remembering that I had dreamt, but being unable to catch the dreaming images.  They faded to nothing as I strained after them.  It was like being in a house with transparent walls that become translucent, then opaque, then solid.  It was like hearing sounds and voices loudly nearby, and then the voices diminish to faintness and silence.  It was a sense of having just forgotten what I was thinking about.  When I tried to grasp it, it slipped through my fingers.

So I have two choices.  Either I was experiencing the aftereffects of some kind of cerebral-vascular event (mini-stroke) or I was experiencing time-travel.  Or to be more specific, I was experiencing a form of context-dependent memory, where my recollections of preoccupations and concerns from one to 30 years ago were evoked because I was again in the places I first had them.

It was very weird.  I didn’t have any other symptoms indicative of a stroke, such as motor or visual or language problems.

On the other hand, maybe John is gas lighting me.

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Buddy Biofeedback

Many years ago, in a previous incarnation (in Houston Texas), I was a certified biofeedback therapist.  Here’s an exercise I wrote for partners.

Biofeedback for relaxation training does not necessarily mean being hooked up with electrodes to an expensive machine.  A biofeedback buddy can give you information about your relaxation level and spot tension of which you may not be aware.  This exercise is done with partners.  For best results, switch roles and repeat.

Biofeedback buddy, read the instructions in a quiet, low voice.  The sound of your voice and the touch of your hands will help deepen your partner’s state of relaxation.  Everything you do should be slow and gentle.  Give plenty of time for your partner to follow the directions.  For best results, at the end of the exercise switch roles and repeat.

Lie back on a bed, couch, floor with pillows, or comfortable reclining chair.  Put your arms to your sides (not touching your body) with your head and neck supported, and relax as completely as possible.  You may want to move around a little to get in a comfortable position.  Eyes may be open or shut.  Hands should be loose and open, fingers slightly apart.  Feet should be about 18 inches apart.  All parts of your body are supported, so that if every muscle became deeply relaxed, nothing would fall or move.

We will begin by checking your breathing.  Your partner will place a hand very gently on your stomach, just below the ribcage.  Between the lungs and the stomach is the diaphragm—diaphragmatic breathing is deep, relaxed, and slow.  Take a slow breath deep down into your diaphragm.  Your buddy’s hand on your stomach should move up with each breath as your lungs expand, but your shoulders do not move, and your chest actually moves very little.  Relax your stomach muscles and let the air down into the bottom of your lungs.  Buddy, count breaths softly and give your partner feedback.  Relaxing partner, breathe as slowly and naturally as possible.  With every breath, become more and more relaxed.  After ten or so breaths, we will move on to the next exercise.

Now we will check the relaxation of your major muscle groups.  Focus on the muscles in your ankles, feet, and toes.  Imagine all the cords and tendons relaxing and loosening; imagine all the small muscles of your feet becoming soft.  Your buddy will gently grasp your foot and move or shake it an inch or two from side to side.  Does it feel loose and relaxed?  Try the other foot.  Does the leg move also, showing relaxation of the entire leg?

Relaxing partner, focus on your arms and hands.  Let all those muscles loosen—your arms and hands feel heavy and warm, as if they could sink right down into the floor—as if they would melt from feeling so warm and heavy.  Your buddy will very gently touch your hand, pick it up from your side, turn it over, and feel the palm.  Does it feel cold or warm, damp or dry?  Buddy, shake the hand and arm gently.  Are the muscles loose and relaxed?  Bend the arm at the elbow.  Does it bend easily?  Relaxed people have warm, dry hands.  Give your partner feedback about the relaxation of hand and arms.  Do the same thing with the other hand.  Try to find the pulse in the wrist.  Is the heartbeat fast and fluttery or slow and strong?  If you are comfortable with more touch, you can give your partner a hand massage as a part of this exercise.

Relaxing partner, focus on your neck and shoulders.  Let those muscles loosen until they are very warm and relaxed.  Biofeedback buddy, take the head between your hands and move it very gently a couple of inches from side to side.  Does the head move easily in your hands?  Give your partner feedback about the relaxation of the neck and shoulders.

Now we will focus on muscles in the face and scalp.  Biofeedback buddy, look at your partner’s face.  Does it look easy, loose, and relaxed?  Are the forehead and eyebrows relaxed?  Touch the forehead.  Is it cool or warm?  To check the relaxation of the cheeks and jaw, biofeedback buddy, gentle grasp your partner’s jaw and move it up and down.  Give your partner feedback on the relaxation of the face.  If you are comfortable with the touch, you may give your partner a gentle face massage as a part of this exercise, tracing you fingers over the forehead, around the eyes, and over the bridge of the nose.  A gentle scalp massage of the temples area (between eye and ear) can be very relaxing.

Look at your partner’s total body relaxation.  Does the body appear to be calm, peaceful, and serene?  Is the breathing deep and slow?  Give feedback about the total level of relaxation.  Relaxing partner, as you stretch and sit up, give feedback to your biofeedback buddy about the effectiveness of their feedback.

Switch roles and repeat.

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Journal Writing Techniques

Here is a list of journaling techniques that I have used personally and with patients for many years.  Some come from my husband John the English professor, some from Progoff’s classic At a Journal Workshop, and some from Rainer’s The New Diary.  Enjoy.

Free writing.  Sit down for a predetermined amount of time, anywhere from 10 minutes to 2 hours, and write everything that comes into your head.  Don’t stop.  If you get stuck, write, “I’m stuck, I don’t know what to say next, I wonder why I’m not thinking or feeling anything right now…” etc. until you get unstuck.  The idea is to keep going and not to edit or hold back anything.  Don’t cross anything out.

Sometimes you can pick a topic ahead of time, like “Memories,” “My Family,” “Things that Make Me Sad,” etc.  When that happens, you may find that you are feeling some strong emotions.  Just go ahead and write through it even if you’re crying–don’t stop.

After you’ve finished, wait until the next day to read it.  Then you can underline or circle the important parts.  Some people wait until the end of a month before they reread.  It becomes like a letter from your deepest, hidden self.  There may be a lot of boring, silly stuff, but there will be important stuff too.

Lists.  Make lists of anything.  Make lists of lists.  For example–Emotions, Old Boyfriends, Favorite Foods, Happy Memories, Red Things, Things I’m Curious About, Important Days in My Life, The Person I Want to Be When I Grow Up–you can see that a list can be about anything.  Make lists of the issues that are close to you–your parents, marriage, love, etc.  These can be titles for your free-writing time.  But they don’t have to, necessarily.

Unsent Letters.  You can write letters to people that you know you will not give them.  You can even write letters to the past, for example, “To My Dad When I was Five.”  You can write letters from other people–”To My Daughter, Love Mom.”  You can write letters to yourself in the past, to yourself now from the past, or to yourself now from yourself in the future–”From myself, age 35 to myself, age 15.”  You can write letters from the different parts of yourself–”From the Angry Self to My Parents.”

Cued poems.  Write poems with any of the following beginnings for lines:

“Before, I used to….

But now, I…”    [repeat]

“I wish…” [repeat]

“[emotion] is [color], like [description]“  [repeat]

Example: “Sadness is deep violet,

Like the last hint of light in the West before darkness.”

Portraits.  You can write a description of a person or yourself.  Imagine it as a photographic or painted portrait, but include everything about the inner reality as well as the external reality.  Use drawing as a part of the portrait.  Again, the drawing doesn’t have to be realistic.  It can be symbolic or reflecting only a part of the person whose portrait you are doing.

Cathartic writing.  This type of free-writing is done in the heat of emotion.  When you feel very strongly, especially when you don’t know exactly how or what you feel, try writing as a way of expressing the emotion.  Don’t censor anything.

Reflection.  A quiet sort of writing, reflection lets you think about something, examine it, ponder its meaning.  Best done in a calm state of mind.

Altered point of view.  Try writing an experience from the other person’s point of view.  Try it from the cat’s point of view, or a fly on the wall.  Try it from your guardian angel’s point of view.  Try it from the point of view of yourself, at a wise, kind, generous age 70.

Dialogue.  Try writing a conversation.  The other speaker may be another person, another part of yourself, yourself at another time, a place, an object, a dream.  If something is bothering you, ask it why.  Then listen, and write what it tells you.

Dream log.  Keep a notebook by your bed and record your dreams.  Some will seem nonsensical or funny.  Some may have a very direct meaning.  Some will be messages from your unconscious mind.

Map of consciousness.  Instead of writing, try drawing.  Draw yourself as a map, with such areas as the “Dark Sea” or the “Valley of Peace.”  Explore the landscape and find more and more detail.

Journey (guided imagery).  The word “Journal” first meant a record of a journey.  Imagine yourself as on a journey through this phase of your life.  Create a landscape to reflect where you are now.  Put obstacles, helpers, and adventures in your way.  Imagine where it is you are going.  Then write it down.  This journey can evolve, and you’ll find many new and interesting experiences occurring as you let it grow.

These exercises can deepen your emotions, memories, and thoughts.  By understanding them, and working through them, you gain control over those that are frightening or painful and put them behind you, and you learn to love and appreciate those that are pleasant and good.

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