Tricky Tuesday: How to communicate with someone who won’t talk to you

Weekly lesson in how to deliver hard messages

Today’s Tricky Tuesday is about breaking through the silence when someone you care about is unwilling or unable to talk to you.

First off, you must understand the distinction between those two states—unwilling or unable. While the two may exist at the same time, they don’t necessarily.

You must understand the distinction between unwilling and unable. While the two may exist at the same time, they don’t necessarily.

Unwilling can mean many things:

  • I’m hiding something.
  • I’m afraid of your reaction.
  • I’m ashamed of something I did.
  • I’m stalling for time to come up with an alibi or excuse.
  • I’m showing you how it feels to be shut out.
  • I’m trying to guilt you into doing something you forgot to do, or don’t want to do.
  • I want you to suffer.
  • I’m trying to make you think I know more than I do about something you did (so you’ll confess).
  • I’m actually protecting you by not saying what I’d like to say right now.
  • I need to focus on another task or issue that can’t wait.
  • I refuse to talk about this with others present.
  • I don’t feel safe or equipped to talk about this topic, except in therapy.

Unable can mean something very different:

  • I’m over-stimulated right now and my brain isn’t working well enough to talk.
  • I’m not sure what I’m feeling because my body is flooded with multiple feelings at once.
  • I can’t find the right words.
  • I need more time to process what I’m feeling.
  • I can’t be pressured into talking.
  • I’m too tired.
  • I need to better-rested before we have this conversation.
  • You always interrupt me or tell me what I should be thinking or doing, so I can’t get my thoughts out.

 The situation

Ben and Joel have adopted a child. Initially, they were thrilled, but for the past few days, something hasn’t felt right.  Ben came home from work Friday, agitated. He barely acknowledged Joel or the baby the entire weekend.

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Before the baby came, the couple had agreed: Ben would keep working as a teacher, and Joel would take unpaid leave from work to stay home with their new baby. Then, once school was out, Ben would take over for the summer and Joel would go back to work.

The silence was deafening.  Joel knew something was wrong, but Ben refused to talk and insisted everything was fine. The truth was, Ben had lost his temper with a student who made an offensive joke about gays.  Witnesses saw Ben chase the boy down the hall and shove him against a locker.  Ben was fired.

There is nothing unusual about this kind of problem. When shame takes over, it becomes painful–if not impossible—to speak about it.

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The Talk to Me, Already!  card was designed to give the person who’s feeling shut out a way to connect with the person unwilling or unable to speak. It allows the Sender to express their hurt, anger, suspicions, or fears from a distance when the person in the room is unresponsive. Below is an example of screenshots I took of an Express Yourself ECard Joel might have written to Ben. The remaining checklists (not visible on the first screenshot) give Joel a chance to express both his hurt and his love for Ben, as well as his desire to know the truth so he can be part of whatever solution they need to come up with as a couple. The beauty of the cards is that they can be sent from a distance to anyone’s phone (even if they have an android) or tablet, since the link appears in an email.

TT Cropped tightly Oct 11 Talk to me double

Tricky Tuesday: How to say you’re Sorry so it really hits the spot

 Weekly lesson in how to deliver hard messages

“Sorry” is an easy word to spell. But it’s a meaningless word to say,  unless it’s delivered effectively.

Today’s Tricky Tuesday is about learning how to deliver an effective Sorry after screwing up again and after promising to do better.

The cast of characters

Jack and Shaya are a young couple with their first child on the way. Jack is one of those people who would do anything for his friends. Shaya loves that about him. What she doesn’t love is when he breaks his promises to her, either because he doesn’t want to disappoint his friends, he’s having too much fun, or because he doesn’t want his friends to think he’s being controlled by his wife.

In today’s example, Jack is in the doghouse and won’t get out by offering a quick and sheepish (dogish?) “Sorry.” For any apology to be meaningful, it needs to include real repair which—according to the Gottman Institute—is an essential skill to master if you want to be in healthy relationship.

The situation

Weeks ago, Shaya told him about an award she was receiving and asked him to put the date on his calendar so he could go with her to the awards banquet. The night before the banquet, a buddy called and invited Jack to go fishing the following morning. The plan was to leave the house by 6 AM and be back by noon. This sounded perfect.

Although in theory this plan would work, Shaya was worried. She wanted to say yes, but she knew from experience that once Jack and his buddies started fishing, they had a hard time stopping.

“I don’t mind you going,” she said, “but you have to promise to quit early. I don’t want to be stressed-out before the banquet wondering if you’ll make it home in time.”

“I promise to be back before noon, so you can relax for the rest of the day.”

The next morning, Jack’s friend showed up 45 minutes later than planned. There was still time to go fishing and be back by noon, but Jack knew it would be tight. To keep his promise to be back before noon meant they would have to quit fishing an hour earlier.

But they didn’t quit an hour earlier. They quit 45 minutes earlier and then got caught in road construction. By the time Jack got home, Shaya had already left for the banquet.

Knowing he had blown it, Jack threw on some clothes and had his buddy drop him off at the banquet. As luck would have it, he sat down| moments before Shaya got up to accept her award.

By that time, Shaya wanted nothing to do with him. Not only did Jack break his promise, but he hadn’t showered and looked like he had just wandered in off the street.

The dinner was a disaster and the ride home was worse.

“Do not talk to me,” Shaya said to him. “And just so you know, I don’t ever want to hear your excuse for not being home by noon.”

Okay, so what’s the way back for Jack?

The Solution

There’s nothing Jack can do to erase the facts. He promised he would be home before noon and he wasn’t. Not only did he break his promise by not being home on time. He didn’t call Shaya to say he’d be late so she didn’t worry that he might have drowned or been in an accident. He just showed up at the last possible moment looking like a rumpled mess.

What Jack would like to do is explain to Shaya why he was late: He left in time, but got Shaya about the road construction,

But explaining won’t help.  When you break a promise, it doesn’t matter that you meant well. It doesn’t matter that you were caught in traffic. The only thing that matters is that the other person feels like you understand how your actions hurt them.

For example, if you accidentally run over my dog because it got off its leash, I don’t want to hear a lecture about what a bad dog owner I am for not controlling my dog. What I want is for you to stop your car and run out into the street to see if there’s any way to save him, If there is, I want you to do it, and no matter what happens next, I want to hear how sorry you are and how terrible you feel about my poor dog.

When you break a promise, your reasons don’t matter. What does matter is that the other person feels like you understand how your actions hurt them, and believes that you are going to do whatever you can to repair the damage, as quickly as possible.

The Sorry card was designed to teach you how to apologize effectively, without making excuses, or explaining how or why you did what you did. The only time the other person is going to care why you did something that hurt them is after they believe you understand how your behavior affected them, and that you want to do something to show that you get it.

For example, say you forget to pick up your child because you forgot which day she had soccer. That doesn’t make you a bad parent.  But that little person standing all alone in her blue knee-highs may be scared, or angry, or be feeling like you didn’t love her enough to remember. The point is, an apology is about them, not you. So don’t be quick to explain. Or add a ‘but…’ to your Sorry.

Here is the start of the Sorry card Jack might have written, using the Sorry card from the Express Yourself Ecard app. As you can see, nowhere does he defend or explain his reasons. His first priority is to acknowledge his screw-up and take full responsibility for it. And because it can be sent via email, even if Shaya’s not ready to talk to him, she probably would be curious to read a heartfelt Sorry if it dinged her on her iPhone.express yourself ecardsSorry Express Yourself ECard

 

Ask Betsy: Why do I feel better when I fill out an Express Yourself E-Card?

Why do I feel better when I fill out an Express Yourself E-Card?

Because your brain loves you when you get it right! It’s a fact. Something changes in our bodies the instant we find the words we’ve been searching for.

The best example is the feeling you get when you see someone you know coming toward you, but you can’t remember her name.

You know the feeling, right?

It’s physical. You smile awkwardly, while your mind scrambles through your mental Rolodex of names:

“Sarah?”

“Sandra?”

“Sally?”

“Shoot! What is her name?”

And then, it happens. Her sister shows up and instantly, you remember. “It’s Charlotte! Charlotte and Cherise Beignet. The Beignet sisters!”

The correct labeling of objects and feelings is soothing to areas of the brain associated with survival. Your life doesn’t depend on you remembering the names of the Beignet sisters. But it might depend on you properly identifying the word “snake” when you hear a hissing rattle coming at you in the desert.

Emotions come to us through our senses. We see, smell, taste, hear, or feel something, and our bodies react. We don’t consciously think “snake,” for example, and then run. We hear hissing and our brain says, “Run!” Only later—once we feel safe—do we have the luxury of time to reflect and accurately label the reason we reacted the way we did.

Anger is a destructive force in most relationships. It’s not a bad emotion. It’s just that its expression generally scares people without telling them anything useful.

Anger is blunt instrument. It does one thing extremely well. It pushes people away. But it doesn’t describe the other feelings that can bring us closer to the people we love.

Anger is blunt instrument. It does one thing extremely well. It pushes people away when we feel unsafe. But it doesn’t fully describe the complexity of the other feelings we’re having. It’s unusual to feel just anger, without also feeling hurt, embarrassed, lonely, dismissed, resentful, or controlled. And it’s the constructive expression of those feelings that can bring us closer to the people we love.

Filling out an E-Card makes you feel better because it helps you recognize, identify, and express the “all” of what you’re feeling: the hurt and the sadness, the disappointment and the loneliness, the heartache and the fear.

Many of my clients use the cards without ever sending them. They fill out the checklists as a way to clarify their thoughts and feelings before having a face-to-face conversation.

This naming process, and the soothing effect it has on us has been the greatest discovery for me in using the cards with my clients.  It turns out that learning to self-regulate by accessing the higher functions of the brain (where language is processed) is critical to self-mastery, and leads to more effective self-expression.

Why she keeps bringing up the past after you’ve apologized 100 times

 Because your apologies suck.

“You’re kidding, right?”

Nope. And you’re in good company. In over 30 years as a marriage counselor, I’ve only heard a handful of effective apologies. If apologizing 100 times hasn’t worked, you’re definitely missing something. Continue reading “Why she keeps bringing up the past after you’ve apologized 100 times”