The premise of this method is that people want to be in relationship. Therefore we communicate with the intention to continue to be together. The cool thing about this method is that you can use it with someone who doesn’t also know it.
If you’re upset, don’t dive into communication until you’re clear on what you will say in steps 1, 2, and 3. If you start taking without that clarity, you’ll likely just make the mess worse.
1. Identify the Feeling
In this system the upset person (“Speaker”) must choose one of these three feelings:
None of the following are considered to be feelings. These are relationship-breakers which we use when the feelings are overwhelming.
- threats/ultimatums (“I can’t go on unless you ___”)
- being right (or the other person is wrong)
- judgments/condemnations/sweeping summaries (“You are selfish.”… “You are inconsiderate.”… “You always ___”…“You never ___”)
Even when true, none of these help in communication. These statements attempt to control the other person. This is not going to work. You can inspire the other person to relate to you in a better way by sharing your feelings. But shaming, blaming, insulting, or threatening are not going to do this.
Any statements of this kind must be gently disregarded. The Listener must just put these statements aside, don’t suffer from or react to them. The Listener can say “That’s a threat. So, what are you feeling? Are you scared?” Some clues:
- obsessing about future or past = fear
- confusion = anger
- bad thoughts about yourself = sadness
When you are Speaking, express your feeling as purely as possible. It’s your feeling. When you speak about your own feelings insted of saying something about the other person, it’s easier for them to hear it. It’s ok to have the feeling. Don’t apologize for it or minimize it.
2: Acts and Context
Explain the act and context that gave rise to the feeling. Don’t use any judgements.
- I’m sad because I cooked dinner and you seemed more interested in complaining that I got water on the floor.
- I’m scared if you take this job you won’t have time for me.
Limit statements to facts, without interpretation. The purpose of these statements is to link acts and contexts to feelings, so the listener can understand what is going on inside the speaker and feel compassion (the desire to respond in a loving way) without triggering any defensiveness inside the listener.
The Listener’s goal is to understand what the event meant to the Speaker. You do not have to agree with the Speaker’s interpretation of your action and you don’t need to react or explain yourself at all.
3. What do you Want/Need?
If the Speaker doesn’t know what one thing will make you feel good for the future, you are not yet ready to Speak about this conflict. If you’re fuming about something but you don’t know what will fix it then be quiet and think until you have decided what you want/need that could fix it. If you are not ready to ask for something the result will inevitably be either abusive or stir up new problems or an endless, draining conversation or all of the above.
It’s very hard for people to respond to requests like “be considerate” or “be more available”. Those concepts are imprecise, and also they mean very different things to different people. Figure out what kinds of acts indicate “consideration” to you. Then ask for those specific things.
Specifics are easier to say “yes” or “no” to. it’s hard for people to commit to vague things, particularly when they already feel they’ve been trying to do a good job. Help the Listener by providing specific things they can do that will make you happy.
“When I’m telling you about my day, can you not read your email or do other things?”
- “When I’m sharing a feeling with you, can you focus on comforting me instead of advising me?”
4. The Listener may say “No”
Saying “No” is being honest about unwillingness or disinterest. “No” always turns out to be a gift, because the Listener now releases the Speaker to go try to take care of what they want or need. Maybe the “No” has been lurking. Once the “No” is on the table, you need to get real about this limitation in your relationship, without further avoidance or manipulation.
“No” can also be the beginning of a negotiation. “I can do some of what you’ve asked, but not all of it.”
It’s a good idea to take a break at this point. A lot of new information has been shared. It may take a couple of days to get a resolution.
Maybe the Listener develops a counter-proposal. “Could it work in this way?” or “I think I could change my schedule so that it works the way you want on Thursday.”
If the Listener’s “No” is really “No. Not at all. Ever.” then it’s the Speaker’s job to figure out what to do in order to continue participating in the relationship without further suffering.
- “If you are not willing to commit to being ready on time, then I’ll give you your tickets in advance and we’ll meet there.”
- “If you don’t want to join me in managing house repair responsibilities as a partner, I need you to pay rent.”
These are “boundaries”. They are precise, non-sweeping SELF-care policies designed to support the relationship. Boundaries are NOT: abandonment, threats, ultimatums, punishment, judgments, or forecasts of the future.