Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The Limitation of Words in Relationship

To engage empathically – “putting ourselves in the shoes of another” – can be seriously limited by reliance on words alone.  E.g. “I feel hopeless”:  ‘Hopeless’ - at a surface level - is a ‘concept’ word, a word created by others and suggesting an assumed meaning.  As a concept word it offers little depth or insight into the individual. This is because a word like ‘hopeless’ can mean different things to different people, and the experience of hopelessness can feel and impact different people in different ways.

To assume understanding from words is far from real connection and understanding

Two key areas can help us connect at deeper and more meaningful levels…  1) evocative and descriptive language of experience; and 2) attunement to non-verbal communication (yours and the other’s). Just like a good movie, it’s descriptive and evocative language, and the depth of feeling and meaning  that impact us.

Evocative and Descriptive Language
To be in another’s shoes requires both visualisation and being able to feel what the other feels. Metaphors, analogies, story-telling can all help a great deal. E.g. “I think I’m starting to feel depressed” vs “well …it’s like standing in an open field, watching this slow ominous storm moving towards me. Very low, dark clouds, no rain or lightening, all is still and escape seems impossible.”  This can be just the beginning – such metaphors can be explored and expanded in many directions, e.g. “what else do you see? what’s behind you? What happens in your body as you describe this? Any other feelings are present? Is this familiar in any way?  Who’s with you? Who would you like to be with you? Do you see any value/purpose to storms?”
All questions to help visualise and feel, to explore and learn about the person at a feeling and meaning level. Not questions to get their intellectual point of view, or logical ‘surface level’ rationalisations, and not questions aimed at simply ‘solving the problem’. We can solve a relationship problem yet never connect in the process. E..: “you don’t respect me!” “Ok, what do I need to do to show respect?” “you need to listen better, do your share around the house, and remember my birthday without being reminded.” Ok, I can do all that, will make sure I do.” The ‘problem’ is solved through (usually forced) behavioural change. Yet nowhere is the depth of feeling or meaning explored. The term ‘respect’ is another concept word - nowhere in this exchange is the depth of the other understood, felt or appreciated.

Attunement to Non-Verbals
Just as important as evocative language, is the radiation of the depth of feeling and emotion from the other through non-verbal communication. Many clients have said something along the lines of “if I just stopped (justifying/apologising/explaining/problems-solving) and looked at them …things may have gone differently”. Our human capacity for receptivity (and appropriate responsiveness) to this powerful communication tends to get lost in the modern world reliance on ‘rational’, logical language. Yet, we know this is precisely why we are moved, troubled or inspired by movies, music, art etc. I’ve heard actors and artists being described as “emotional avatars” – it’s all about emotional communication, projecting the ‘depth’ of themselves, and connecting with us.

As you can imagine however, this ‘receptivity’ and responsiveness requires connection with our emotions, plus familiarity and appreciation of our depth.  Hence the importance of self-awareness/self-work.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

A Thought Experiment in Self Appreciation


If you woke up one day to suddenly find you were wholly at peace with yourself. You: felt complete as a person; had a strong sense of self-appreciation; and knew without a doubt you are worthy – worthy of love and belonging …just as you are!

That nothing you did would make you love yourself more, and nothing you did could make you love yourself less.

You knew and loved yourself completely divorced from behaviour ...good or bad!

So you felt little need for makeup or dressing a certain way, you felt no pressure to be interesting, smart, entertaining, attractive, professional, hard-working, perfect, productive, positive, upbeat, ‘functional’ ….anything to meet another’s, society’s or even your expectations around self-worth.

You felt no pressure to be or do anything that ever made you feel good about yourself.

Nothing to help you ‘fit in’, be accepted, be enough …be loved. Where you felt no need to hide any ‘weird’, different or unacceptable aspects of yourself.

If you woke up in that space, what would you do? Maybe even more importantly, how would you be as you did whatever you did that day? How would it affect your intentions for that day?

For some, a state like would mean personal attacks, criticisms, judgements, ‘advice’ and put-downs would have zero effect on their sense of worth, because they have absolute belief in their core-self (if others criticised a behaviour they would address it appropriately – but they would not take it personally). Or it might mean a state where previously anxiety inducing situations no longer hold any fear or apprehension, where no time is required to prepare or rehearse in their minds how they need to be. They just ‘turn up’ with complete trust in themselves to be whatever they need to be moment-by-moment – with no fear of how they will be viewed. For others it’s less about external criticism or validation but more about change of their ‘inner critic’ – which would simply no longer judge self by thoughts, words or behaviours.

One point of this thought experiment is highlight how much time, energy and judgement we put into ‘correct’ behaviours, words and even thoughts …vs time spent - non-judgementally - going inwards. Inwards to simply recognise and nurture our innate capacities, character strengths and virtues – to connect with what has always been there! To build that belief and trust in self, so that we go into the world knowing we can tap into this innately ‘good-core’ anytime, in any situation. Ideally, the home environment was meant to nurture (not 'teach') the capacities themselves, along with the belief in them. But reality suggests, as adults, we may need a lifelong practice of recognising, nurturing and trusting our innate 'human essence' if were are to experience wholeness and peace with self. 
Cheers, Alex

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Words & Behaviour

In relationships, focusing primarily on words & behaviour presents a problem. 
A story I heard in my training to illustrate...


A young pregnant lady walked into a newsagent to buy a newspaper and cigarettes. On the way out she was blocked and confronted by a very angry and upset older lady… “How can you be so irresponsible!? Don’t you know the gift you have inside you!? What kind of Mother are you!?…” and so on. The younger lady could have defended herself (she was actually buying for her partner) or simply told her where to go. What she did however was look closely at the other lady, noted something in her face and other emotions, and gently asked "when did you lose your baby?" (which was true and radically shifted the exchange)

In psychology there is a saying...

 "behaviour is driven by complex psychology and meaning" 

...the story represents a more dramatic illustration of this, but it appears true for much of human relating and flourishing. But what does it mean? Firstly, it's important to note it's about personal psychology and meaning. So it's about familial, social, cultural, religious, educational, media, and peer influences, and personal experiences - all being interpreted, and meaning created, through the unique and developing individual mind. An example might be two children in the one family being scolded the same way "don't do that, it's selfish and hurts others". One will hear and interpret that as "what I did was wrong" and may feel guilt, the other may think "I am wrong, I am selfish and I hurt others" and will feel shame - with every following correction or discipline interpreted and felt the same way. So one child keeps a sense of self separate from 'bad' behaviours, while the other attaches their behaviour to their identity (this is the classic example of the difference between guilt and shame).

When we make judgements or assumptions based on what we see and hear, we often fail to realise we are doing so through the filters of our personal complex psychology and meaning - through our equally unique and developing minds. 

So what might be a more helpful approach? In both the secular and spiritual world, the answer seems to be the same. Shift from correcting and fixing another’s behaviour (or the person themselves) to exploring and connecting with the person in the problem (non-judgemental and empathic exploration of their 'complex psychology and meaning'), to connection and 'faith' in the person. While we can never really understand or ‘work out’ the other - nor their perception of experience or their rationale (conscious or unconscious) for behaviour - we can still ‘connect’. Through attentive listening and non-evaluative perspective taking (invoking the ‘mentalising’ and ‘mirror neuron’ systems of the brain) we may understand the emotions, deeper hurts or struggles of their lives or current state.

Through that learning (and making connections to our pains, joys, struggles etc) we can offer understanding, compassion and support. This represents a shift from focus on the observable and ‘rational’, to ‘joining’ and the mystery of 'connection' - without the usual self-comparisons or evaluation. This in turn nurtures the others core capacities for self-awareness, self-efficacy, self-acceptance and growth - from which behavioural change will flow (and will be more organic and 'real', rather than mimicked or forced).

Cheers, Alex

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Acorn

In terms of connecting to, relating with and viewing others, imagine you were to remove the following from your communication repertoire: assessing, comparing, judging, assuming, interpreting, problem solving (relationship issues), and fixing (the other). Along with the resultant: opinions, views, complaints, suggestions, advice, and proclamations.

If you did that, what would you have left?

For me, the answer is not just a different communication skill. It lays in intention, non-verbal’s, and a fundamental view about humans and how they flourish. This is where the ‘Acorn’ analogy comes in. It goes like this 

“You don’t have to teach an acorn how to be in oak tree.  You just provide the right conditions. With nutrient rich soil, water and sunshine an acorn will flourish to become a deep rooted, healthy and fully formed tree. Doing all the things that trees do - providing shade, oxygen, food and nutrients …life and shelter for the flourishing of other life forms.Human beings are the same, all they need are the right conditions to flourish, and just like a tree, healthy flourishing can only be good."

So what’s left if we subtract the analytical from our relating repertoire? For me, it sits around:

  • ·         a view the other has all they need to flourish (like an Acorn) that at their core they are essentially good (we seem to have little trouble believing this about babies and small children)
  • ·         a fundamental belief that the purpose of love and relationships is growth (for the other to become their true and unique self)
  • ·         being non-reactive to uncomfortable topics, and parking any need to be right, correct, or fix
  • ·         an intention only to connect
  • ·         an aim to simply understand/perspective-take the other’s important lived experiences, feelings, emotions and inner thoughts
  • ·         listening for understanding, rather than listening to reply
  • ·         empathic curiosity rather than morbid, problem-solving, or comparative curiosity
  • ·         exploring meaning - so instead of assuming what ‘love’, ‘intimacy’, ‘care’, ‘happiness’, ‘respect’ and so on mean, we start to ask “what does love mean to you? ”, “when have you felt most loved?”, “how did it change you?”, “do you see a purpose to love?” and so on. In the answers to such exploratory conversations other keywords will arise, and can go on for hours. But only if the other feels its genuine, non-judgemental and empathic attention.
  • ·         actions and non-verbal’s that demonstrate a viewing of the other as essentially capable and good, such as: acceptance, appreciation, affection and inclusion
The analytical and problem-solving skills are needed for the modern world of industrialisation, science and medicine, but it seems to me these skills, for the most part, can hinder connection and stifle growth.  Few people change by being told what’s wrong with them and what they need to do. If they do it’s usually forced, felt obligatory and has little to do with organic transformation.  Transformation seems to equate to evolution and growth, both of which simply require the right conditions.

Best, Alex

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

A Potential Communication Framework

Communication is a regular and obvious topic for relationships. However, it seems it's more than development of 'skills' that's required for greater connection and intimacy. Through conversations with clients, research and readings, and my own struggles, I've started to toy with the following framework.

You – Why – How

Start with You - with a greater understanding of self what and how you communicate changes. Work to understand your internal struggles, desires, needs, hurts, personal values and beliefs; and work to understand your triggers, conditioning and history behind your reactions, moods and emotions (but remember it’s ok to be confused and ‘unknowing’ – the sharing of these also fosters connection).

Why build communication ‘skills’, what’s the deeper intention? Is it just for improved diplomacy or ‘conflict management’, or greater reciprocity in relationships; or for greater awareness of the other and self, for greater connection, intimacy and love (bearing in mind ‘love’ equates to personal/spiritual growth – fostering the best, the innate potentials of self and others).

How – communication is more than words. Silence (one of the biggest ‘communicators’), voice tone and volume, timing, location, facial expressions, body language, sighs, emotions, actions and inactions - will all ‘communicate’ something - positive or negative, knowingly or unknowingly. This is why an awareness of self, in particular our deeper longings and needs, helps us understand what it is we may be communicating, and how we’re doing it.

The aim of such a framework is to communicate (verbally and non-verbally) with greater transparency, vulnerability and clarity; while avoiding defensiveness, blaming or shaming. Such an approach can express our real needs and may evoke the same form of response from the other.

One tip that seems to help people reshape their intentions is to focus on ‘how’ questions rather than ‘why’ questions. Why questions require justification of self/behaviour, how questions can be used to emphatically explore, to simply try to understand and take perspective of the other – without judgement. E.g. if someone has a bad experience, because of a supposedly poor choice, we tend to ask “Why did you do that?” consider asking “How was that experience for you?” or “What was it like to go through that?” 

Cheers, Alex

Monday, 2 March 2015

Closeness & Space

A common theme in all healthy relationships (whether adult-adult or adult-child) is the balance between closeness and space. That is, closeness where relational attunement, love, acceptance, recognition and understanding is experienced; versus space, where the real or ‘true-self’ flourishes, space that allows creativity and individualism to be nurtured, where unique and innovative ways of play, work, problem-solving, relating and expressing emotions can occur. Problems in relationships usually occur because of own unexplored 'stuff' (fears, needs, longings etc) pushing for too much or not enough 'space and closeness' - or because of a lack of understanding of what constructive 'space and closeness' looks like. It takes considerable self-awareness and learning to balance and apply the two. 

However, it’s not a simple either/or thing, we cannot separate the two; closeness and space are interconnected and circular in nature.  The more you are able to grow into your own person, the better you become at connecting to others; and the greater the quality of connection and closeness you experience with others, the more you grow as an individual. 

And with our human essence being an innate desire for ‘good’ or spiritual growth (for self-love - see previous post); the more you grow the more loving you become. For many philosophers and thinkers, this is the central process and purpose of Love (hence the big ‘L’). As a relational process (of mutual closeness and space) it allows us to experience the power of Love, while simultaneously growing in Love – for self, others and the world. ‘For self’ here means you will do all you need to grow as a person – it’s not narcissism, but it does include acceptance, care and compassion directed towards yourself.

If this process works, it in turn grows the very concept and practice of Love (because of the human elements of uniqueness, creativity and innovation). This then makes it continually attractive to those experiencing it. ‘Outsiders’ can also see or experience this and get drawn into the process… and on, and on it goes. Some call this the ‘spiralling addiction’ to Love that keeps all humanity moving forward. This of course is big debatable statement, depending on how you view the world. However, as a relational process is seems sound and it runs as a theme across many notions of the higher forms of Love. For many people its resonated with their experiences of Love, and has provided greater clarity and purpose to their relationships and the pursuit of personal growth. I hope you find it helpful as well.

Cheers, Alex 

Friday, 16 January 2015

Love’s Purpose

I once read Nelson Mandela describing the purpose of freedom as something that “enables us to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others” – for him the purpose of freedom was to free others. Prior to reading this I’d never thought to question the purpose of freedom, it was just something I took for granted, a state I simply deserved as a human. I had a similar outlook to love, never questioning its purpose, just assuming it was something that ‘happened’, something I tried to ‘do’ and something I received. However, I'm finding that exploring this question can dramatically shift the way we view and go about our important relationships.

Examining Love’s purpose makes sense in light of a failure to define love – despite hundreds of years of researchers, thinkers, philosophers and spiritual leaders trying to do so. In order to gain a practical understanding of it, they often resort to what it does, its transformational power, its impact on people and groups. From these they shape a purpose. While there is still many debates, a common understanding of its purpose sits around growth. One definition I like is “Love is the will to extend oneself for the spiritual growth of oneself or another” (from Scott Peck’s book ‘The Road Less Travelled’).  Many others allude to the same concept of love being connected to the growth and development of people, groups and the world in general.

If we look at this more broadly and connect love to the biology of life – as many thinkers do – we begin to see a pattern that connects everything, and speaks to the very meaning of life. Consider the basic drive of all forms of life – to grow. Look at plants striving to grow on the sides of walls or through cracks in concrete. Or potatoes thrown in the darkest cupboard, they still send out roots to the faintest crack of light. All of life strives to grow! But notice their aim is not to just be replications of their ancestors, to be exactly the same. The fundamental principle is more than this, it’s to flourish in unique, creative and adaptive ways – to be bigger, healthier or stronger than previous forms.  For humans, physical evolution/adaptation operates on the same similar principle, but for humans it’s also a principle of our psychological and emotional development. Here is where love comes in.

Everything I’m learning says love’s purpose is to drive all life forward in positive ways – for individuals, groups and the world. For us to experience the joys of love, so as to grow in love - and grow the very concept and practice of love (love itself, they argue, is slowly being released, nurtured and expanded – and it’s our role to be a part of the process). However because the very nature of love is creative (like the basic forms of life) we grow in love in creative and unique ways – which makes us attractive to others, which draws others into the process, and on it goes. As someone has said, love creates a ‘spiralling addiction’ that both drives and pulls us forward.

The question now is, how does this change our current view of love (particularly the ‘romantic’ view) and what will it mean for our relationships? A question you will need to address in your uniquely creative way :)

Cheers, Alex