Sometimes “When” Is Just As Important As “What”
Part 1 of this two-part series, focused on a core finding in the Gottman research, that the strongest relationships are those where partners experience each other as being “present” in the relationship. When the felt experience is, “My partner is here for me”, then I can trust in this relationship and that we can grow together.
There are a lot of ways “being present” occurs: just listening, asking questions to better understand, eye contact, letting silence be okay, responding to a partner’s comments by acknowledging what you are hearing, then expressing your perspective, be willing to hear your partner’s emotions, but mostly, just listening, goes to the top.
Timing Provides a Context For the Message
It is important to pay attention to partner’s cues in conversations and sorting out what is being communicated. It isn’t always obvious.
One partner says, “I’m nervous today”. How should the listening partner respond?
(Probably will surprise you)
The correct answer is E (theoretically). I told you you might be surprised.
Explanation: At first glance it seems like C. is the classic, right answer, found in any book on communication skills. The listener is expressing interest and inviting the speaker into a conversation. However, what is the timing of the message, and what might the speaker be communicating? In some cases, this will be the right answer; but not in all cases.
Why A. might be appropriate: At first glance response A. seems like a criticism, and it could be. However, it’s also possible the speaker responds well to humor to lower anxiety, if it is established in the relationship. This takes really knowing your partner. We know each others vulnerabilities, and it’s okay to joke as long as both are smiling at the end of the joke. If not, there is an opportunity for repair.
Why B. Might be appropriate: Reassuring everything will be okay could be dismissive, or it could be reassuring. Perhaps all the speaker needs is a vote of confidence from their partner, and reassurance that they are capable and will be okay.
Why C. might not be the best choice: If all that the partner speaking really wants is reassurance, talking about this may raise anxiety instead of reducing it, which may trigger old feelings. A specific example would be a person who is aware of their pattern of “catastrophizing”, and is working on mindfully staying in the here and now, and letting go of fears in a psychological and/or spiritual context. “Let go and let God”; I’m not going to replay the old message, ‘You will never succeed’, so I’m choosing to not let these fears have a voice and grow.
Implementing the Timing Concept
Simple in concept but challenging in practice to remember!
Putting It Together
- Staying present to each other falls under the category of “Emotional Attunement”, which the Gottman research states as the fastest way to increase trust in a relationship. What is the top tip for emotional attunement? The answer is willingness to listen to your partner’s negative emotions, especially if it is about the partner. Hopefully the message avoids blame and references instead the speaker’s position, feelings, and needs.
- Timing,Timing,Timing, concept, translates to the listening partner working to understand the context of their partners statement(s) so they can respond appropriately based on partner’s needs in the moment
- Always acknowledge, verbally and/or non-verbally, that your partner just said something
- In the spirit of listening before speaking, practice being present, spontaneous, and attentive to partner daily, not limiting the turning toward for calendar holidays and special dates. Think of the message and power of a dozen roses given monthly verses being given once a year.
Every Relationship Can Benefit From These Tips
Recipe for Success
While Valentine’s Day is in the title in both these blog tips, these articles are really about what every relationship needs, and how to bring more meaning and connection in the relationship year-round. Remember, creativity is a good thing in relationships, you may even surprise yourself as well as your partner. The payoff comes in increased connection which tends to be self-reinforcing, supporting what is working, and creating a positive cycle.