Blog 2: Emotional Signaling, Responding And Repairing Ruptures: Key Interactions in Building Greater Connection
In this 2nd blog in my 3 part series on Emotional Communication, I will be describing 3 of 6 steps that you might want to consider to ensure that your emotions and needs are being clearly communicated and that you are prepared to respond to the other’s expressions. Emotions signal that you need something. Learning how to signal in an efficient and effective manner increases the likelihood that your partner can understand your distress and what you are needing from him/her. Learning how to attend, and attune to your partner’s emotional experience ensures you are accessible to him/her and prepared to be available to respond to whatever need emerges. This allows for co-regulation of your distress to occur— a reduction of distress as a result of the attention and responsiveness to the other.
STEP 1: Expressing Partner—Expression of a Feeling/Emotion: Stay in a reflective place (e.g.., thinking about your feelings and emotions as opposed to reactively, intensely, and loudly expressing whatever thought and feeling you are having); otherwise, your partner will not be able to pay attention to you as loud and intense emotions can be disorganizing for the listener. When expressing your feelings and emotions, speak from the “I” position, and refrain from language that is judgemental, and blaming. Starting with “You” may incite defensiveness. Reflect on the emotions you are aware of, label the emotion and link it to the incident or context (e.g., “I feel angry/sad/scared/hurt/shame/guilt/excited/
joyful/proud about ….the situation in which…”). Remember to only talk about one feeling/emotion at a time, and start your sentences with words like “From my perspective, or my experience”. Here’s some examples: “I feel angry about our discussion we had last night and would like to talk about my feelings”, or “I am sad about your working too much and I would like to talk to you about this”.
Also, try not to speak in concrete ways about your partner or the circumstances and make sure you communicate that your emotions are coming from your experience and perspective. Using words like “it seemed to me” allows your partner to understand how you have experienced him/her (e.g., “you seemed/seem to be ignoring me” as opposed to “you were/are ignoring me”) and allows you to remain open and curious to the possibility that your partner had different intentions, beliefs, thoughts or feelings than you had originally considered. Also, stating openly that you are sharing from “your perspective” or “from your own experience of the situation” allows for open dialogue and mutual understanding of each partner’s feelings and emotions about situations (e.g., “from my perspective, it seemed like you were ignoring me”).
STEP 2: Responding Partner—-Acknowledgment and Interest in Understanding What the Feelings/Emotions May be About: When responding, it’s important to acknowledge what your partner is feeling and demonstrate an interest in his/her experience. Listen carefully, and fully to what your partner is expressing and make sure not to interrupt until they are finished. Stay curious, calm, present and open to understanding what the emotional distress is about. Monitor your body language (i.e., do not lean away, but toward). Make eye contact, if possible. Try to empathize with your partner’s feelings (i.e., imagine what they are going through and how this is distressing for him/her). Your partner’s emotional distress is a signal that they are in need of something—try to listen for what they might be needing from you to help them along with this distress.
Responding lowers your partner’s emotional arousal and intensity. It reduces their emotional isolation as you join them in his/her experience. Acknowledgement and interest in your partner’s feelings and emotions can allow your partner to feel more at ease. Being seen, and understood is very soothing and connecting. Before acknowledging your partner’s emotions or asking questions, ask whether he/she have completed sharing with you (i.e., “Is there anything more you want to share? Or “Is now the time that I might say something?”). You can acknowledge feelings/emotions by simply reflecting back something like “I can see that you are (e.g., sad/angry/scared/)….I sense that you are (sad/angry/scared/upset etc…)”. You can demonstrate your interest by asking “What’s making you sad/angry/scared/nervous…help me understand what’s going on for you now…or tell me more so I understand how you are (sad/angry/hurt/frightened/stressed) right now”. Reflecting back the feeling and what is it about provides your partner with a sense of presence that further reduces distress.
Step 3: Repair Ruptures in Emotional Communication—-Checking in with each other about whether your efforts to express your feeling and emotions and your responses to the other are being understood: Trying to express and respond to someone’s emotions with your words can create misunderstandings. Human communication can be filled with assumptions, and misinterpretations. We might use inappropriate language in expressing ourselves or use words unintentionally that are not capturing what we are trying to express. We may also in listening not have heard something or misinterpreted what our partners was trying to communicate.
Repair requires lower emotional arousal and intensity. Do not react strongly to these miscommunications, and instead, you and your partner have to initiate a repair process. If you become too emotionally reactive due to miscommunications, your capacity to reflect and think about your experience and empathize with the other will be greatly diminished. Take a breath, relax, and try once again to work clarify what you were trying to convey to the other. An expressing partner may say to a responding partner, “You got part of it, the part about A, but I don’t feel as though you’ve gotten this part about B. I’ll try again to express me to you and find words that might help you better understand me if I can.” This step requires patience to ensure clarifications and corrections are made so understanding is achieved. If you are struggling to express yourself or understand, you might both want to express your intentions and willingness to try to understand (e.g., “Maybe I’m saying too much here and it’s hard“, “I really want to make sure I see you here”, or “I’m willing to keep at this until you get the sense I’m getting you here”).
In my next blog, Figuring Out Needs and Responsiveness to Needs: What Ultimately Brings Our Distress to An End, I’ll be looking at the importance of identifying the needs that are at the root of your distress. I’ll be providing the last 3 steps of 6 steps in emotional communication. Learning how to zero in on what you’re feeling and what you’re needing, and being able to clearly figure out what you need and then communicating this to the other person.
Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality-related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.