ERP 109: How Being Gentle With Your Partner Can Make a Big Difference [Transcript]
ERP 109: How Being Gentle With Your Partner Can Make a Big Difference
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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.
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Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is 109 – How Being Gentle With Your Partner Can Make a Big Difference.
Before we get started, I wanna set the tone for today’s intention and for the intention of this larger conversation, which is to support and guide you in cultivating and developing happy, lasting, connected love and relationship. In doing so, the conversation that happens on this podcast is about how to cultivate intimacy, how to expand our ability to increase the intimacy, as well as how to feel more prepared, more equipped to handle some of the challenges, some of the places that we might feel stuck or feel difficulty in, and how to do that more skillfully and effectively.
Many of you — I just wanna say I keep getting e-mails coming in and I’m really grateful for those of you that have responded to my e-mail that went out to those of you that are on my list, asking the question “What is your biggest complaint in relationship?” My asking this question has a lot to do with just calibrating what I’m offering you with the podcast topics and any curriculum that I’m gonna be developing, that it really is designed for you… Just wanting you to be in my mind as I calibrate my next steps.
Thank you for those that have taken the time – they just keep coming in and I really appreciate that… Giving me some description around what you’re going through, what questions you have and really where you’re wanting support.
For today’s podcast, again – How Being Gentle With Your Partner Can Make a Big Difference. Before that, I just wanna say — if you still would like to e-mail me, you can do that by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you wanna get on my list, I have several options to get freebies from me; you can just go to my website and you can find those there.
Okay, so this podcast about gentleness today has a lot to do with last week’s podcast episode. In last week’s episode I talked about what most couples do that creates problems… Now, I get it, not everybody does this particular style, but so many of us do that I wanted to really emphasize the problematic dynamic, which is – just to underscore – trying to solve our issue by means of our partner. I’m not gonna go into a summary of this, so if you miss that episode, you can check that out on my website, which is DrJessicaHiggins.com and see episode 108 – What Most Couples Do That Creates Problems. You can also find that on any podcast player that you might be using, like iTunes or Stitcher.
Okay, so trying to solve our problem or our concern by means through our partner – what does that look like? That often looks like “You made me feel hurt, you made me feel upset! I need you to be different, I need you to do this differently, because this doesn’t work for me. I need you to be different.” Or it looks like blaming or depending on our partner for them to get it all right for us to be okay.
Now, there’s a nuance here… Wanting your partner to help you – of course… And how to go about that is really important. Check that episode out if you’re interested.
Well, this last week when I e-mailed my list to let people know about the podcast I just published and what I’m talking about (episode 108), I also included a link by Dr. John Gottman – he’s a renowned relationship expert and researcher. It’s a short one-minute video of him talking about this very dynamic.
In John Gottman’s research – he has a Love Labs up in Seattle and he does a lot with couples, and he has all this research data. He basically has broken up couples into two major groups. One is masters, and those are the couples that are still happily together after six years; all the data from those people… He qualifies them as masters. The others that are in conflict or get a divorce or break up, he calls them disasters. Again, in research, we get very categorical, just to see things more clearly… We need to categorize to actually see how this all bears out. So he calls them masters and disasters.
Back to this one-minute video – he’s basically saying “Masters (the ones that are happily together) approach each other with gentleness, whereas disasters tend to have an attitude of diagnosing their partners’ personality defects.” Then he went on to say “…and wanna be appreciated for it”, which I thought was really funny, because it’s so true. We wanna feel credited, or given some accolades or merit to our observation or our critique… Like, we gave somebody some great insight about themselves and we wanna be acknowledged for that, yet most people aren’t necessarily that receptive to critique and criticism and really pointing out the defects without any kind of gentleness around it. It feels like an attack, usually.
So this is the dynamic, but it also got me really interested in this concept of gentleness, and you’ll hear me if you’ve listened to my podcast for a while or have worked with me, I talk frequently — I mean… The whole subtext or the tagline of this podcast is setting your relationship up for success, and one of the best way to do that — there’s so many things that go into cultivating a happy, connected, intimate, authentic, lasting relationship, but when were’ talking about tension points, places that you feel at odds or have a rift with your partner, those are in my mind more difficult conversations or dynamics.
Most of the time when we address that, it’s how we do it that’s more the game changer; it’s not the fact that there’s something up for you guys, it’s how you deal with it that’s the more important factor of whether or not you’re gonna experience success or not. One of the things you’ll often hear me talk about is setting up difficult conversations from a calm, more caring place. This allows for better communication. It sets it up where your partner is much more apt to listen to you and hear you. It feels safe, they feel invited, they feel welcome, they feel cared about and they lean in, even if it’s a more vulnerable conversation.
This tends to provide a little more opportunity for being curious with each other, looking at it together, like “This isn’t working for us. It doesn’t seem to feel good to you, it doesn’t feel good to me… Can we explore what we’re both feeling and what’s going on and what’s happening? How we’re seeing this, maybe ways that we’re approaching it and the lens, or meaning-making…?” This is part of what I do with couples – helping them unpack this. This is hard to slow down; things are usually moving so quickly, and it’s so easy to misinterpret and assume, and all of these things that usually get us down the wrong road.
I wanna just put our focus on just the beginning orientation of gentleness, that concept. Today we’re gonna talk about what gentleness is, what it is not, what makes being gentle difficult – I hear people often feeling resistant to this concept of being kind and gentle – and how perhaps incorporating gentleness in your approach will bring benefit.
Okay, what gentleness is… When I googled “gentleness”, the definition that I got is “The quality of being kind, tender and mild-mannered.” I can tell you, anytime someone has offered me constructive feedback or invited me into growth in some way – many of you have heard me talk about I am a huge lover of beach volleyball, and I’m continually trying to get better, and I take classes; we’re so fortunate — I live in Santa Barbara and there are a couple women that run an East Beach Volleyball Academy, and they just started it last year. They both have played professionally, one still does play in the AVP open tours – they just had one in New York City, they’re up in Seattle, Washington right now as we speak… So they run clinics, or they run classes, and I feel so grateful to have an opportunity to have access to them. Truly, volleyball is not a pursuit of mine to achieve any real result, it’s just for recreation.
So I’m getting feedback… I’ll do drills – that’s just practicing certain things over and over again; you’re not in a game, you’re just practicing certain aspects of your game, whether or not it’s your hitting or your shots or whatever it is that you’re wanting to work on; your serve… And so it’s a little sensitive at times to be seen, to be vulnerable to getting feedback, trying something that I might not feel comfortable doing and to get feedback. Ultimately, that’s what I want, but if it’s gonna be done in a harsh, critical tone or in a non-verbal voice that’s like shaming or blaming, I can guarantee you I would have no interest, I’d probably feel hurt, I’d probably feel bad and I would wanna just avoid it. I wouldn’t wanna have anything to do with it. It wouldn’t feel like an opportunity to grow. It would feel like an opportunity to feel pretty crappy.
So gentleness is this concept of being kind, tender and well-mannered. I also saw the definition – this is in the same Google just providing the definition… “Softness of action or effect, like lightness.” Again, when we think about approaching our partner when we’re upset – how we do that.
Do we come in with the strength of “We’ve let it build to a certain place where we can’t handle it anymore”? We’re like, “Enough already!” and on a scale from one to ten we’re like a nine… So our partner might not even know at all that you’ve been notching it up, that you’ve been getting more agitated and feeling more irritable and annoyed at whatever is going on, and then they’re hearing at the volume of nine… That could feel like a strong emotion.
We’re gonna talk a little bit more about this, but I wanna backup and just say “What are some of the things that prevent us from being gentle?” I’m gonna just give you a list and then I’m gonna give you an example here.
What I hear a lot, and I’m sure there’s many reasons… This is not an intended to be, all-encompassing, but here’s some of the things that I often hear in response to my suggestion of being gentle, of starting a conversation from a more calm, kind, light way. People will say that they feel like it’s somehow their giving it to their partner, like it’s for their partner’s benefit, like they have to handle their partner with kid gloves – I’ve heard that statement before.
I’ll just use myself – it’s just easier to sometimes use this in language, instead of “Partner A” and “Partner B”. Let’s just imagine I’m talking about myself, and I’m resisting to being kind or gentle; this is what I’ve heard other people say… That if my partner has done something that I feel hurt by, then why would I be trying to take care of him if he totally stepped on my toes or violated my trust in some way?
Now, I’m not talking about big violations, like of affairs or some type of abuse – I’m not talking about the big violations; I’m talking about the day-to-day interactions where we might be running late or we didn’t pick up the house well enough, or we didn’t make dinner when we said we were going to, or we forgot something at the grocery store, or perhaps we interrupted one another… There’s many examples to use here, but that’s kind of the thing I’m talking about – just day-to-day working with one another.
The thing that I hear people say is “Why would I give them a gift of me being gentle when they’re the ones that are being rude? They’re the ones that are being a jerk. Why would I be nice?” That’s that kind of “Treat somebody how they’ve been treating you.” If they’re being a jerk, why would I be gentle with them? That’s one thing I hear.
Another thing that I hear from people often is — again, I’m just gonna use myself, but really this is what I’ve heard from other people… When I feel angry – again, in a similar situation where I feel like my partner has hurt my feelings in some way, my anger response is “They don’t deserve kindness” and even sometimes I’ll wanna retaliate, I’ll wanna punish. This is just taking my previous point a little further. We’ll wanna punish, we’ll wanna kind of “eye for an eye.”
Another thing I hear from couples is that being gentle doesn’t indicate that something’s wrong. If I’m upset, my old habit could be “I’m protesting.” I’m getting a tone of voice with you or giving you the cold shoulder, or I’m giving you that look because I’m protesting something that you’re doing, and I want you to know that I’m not okay. I want you to see my issue and hear my plea almost, and come to the rescue. I want you to see that I’m unhappy and I want you to come to me, and I’m protesting “This doesn’t work for me”, but I’m doing it by not being kind. I’m doing that by not being gentle. I’m almost withholding my gentleness; I love you and I care about you, I’m upset with you at the moment, but I’m withholding that lightness and that kindness because I’m mad at you, I feel angry with you, I feel slighted by you. I wanna punish you; I don’t think you deserve my kindness, my gentleness, and I want you to get that I’m unhappy.
Another reason that couples resist or don’t want to practice gentleness – at least from what I hear them say – is they feel offended, slighted, and they think that their partner doesn’t care, or that they’re being hurt purposefully.
If I am putting myself in these shoes of this person, it’s like if my husband ignored me when I was talking to him and I know that he heard me, I’m feeling offended that he’s not responding to me; I feel slighted and I feel like he’s kind of showing me he doesn’t care, or that he is doing it purposely. Again, people feel this feeling of like “Why would I be gentle with someone who’s not giving me any respect?”
The other thing that I often hear – and this is the last one – is that… I’ve heard clients say this: “Why would I be gentle? Because that’s not gonna convey the severity of my pain. If I am gentle, they’re not gonna hear my concern.” This is very, very counterintuitive, where in fact the opposite is true.
On a side note, I understand that if you’re talking to your dog and you’re like “Oh no, don’t chew up that shoe… No, doggy, don’t chew that shoe…” – the dog would not get the message you wanna be direct and you wanna be clear about “NO!” You might even do it more forcefully. But when we’re trying to communicate and we’re trying to have equal respect, and we approach a sensitive conversation knowing that both people are gonna feel somewhat of a reaction — we both love each other, we both care about each other and we’re both liable to get reactive… This is just a biological, automatic function – when we feel threatened, we’re gonna feel tight, defensive, maybe that instinct to wanna protect and fight back…
If we are gonna come on strong, most often our partner is gonna be too busy managing their stress of feeling attacked. I’m gonna say that again – if we’re coming on strong, most often our partner doesn’t hear the content of what we’re saying; they are way too preoccupied with managing their stress level of feeling some level of attack towards them.
This isn’t always the case – some people who feel really secure, it takes a lot for them to feel activated. They might be able to manage feeling attacked, and this is part of what I teach people in my couples course, it’s how to (there’s this phrase) “step off the line”… How to step off the line of attack and not absorb it, and there’s a lot that goes into this. But just without any skills, most of us will feel that attack and just automatically feel threatened. This happens in a nanosecond.
If somebody is feeling attacked, they’re often feeling worried, scared… Worried that things aren’t okay, worried about their partner being mad at them, maybe even being scared, feeling a little insecure, like “What’s happening here?” They might feel overwhelmed, like “This is intense. I don’t really know how to make this better” or “I screwed up. I’m not good enough…” All kinds of stuff can get activated very quickly – like I said, in a nanosecond.
Chances are they’re gonna be more focused on protecting themselves, rather than listening to the content. This hijacks communication. Communication is actually out the window. Couples are not feeling safe, they’re not feeling secure or at ease to really look at the issue. They’re more reacting to each other.
This was incredibly apparent – I’m gonna give you an example here… I was working with a couple last week and they have a lot of beautiful qualities about their relationship. One of the differences however is that they express emotion very differently. The wife in this partnership (it’s a heterosexual marriage) – she’s very comfortable talking about how she feels, expressing how she feels and it’s very fluid for her… Where for him, it’s not that easily — I mean, he’s much more contained. He grew up in a family where this wasn’t his experience, he didn’t really see emotions getting expressed… He just doesn’t have a lot of templates for what it looks like to express emotion to someone else in relationship.
He usually is managing his own emotional world internally, and often doesn’t even give much credit for his emotions. I wanna just say, with my individual work a lot of what I do with men and women is bringing awareness to what people are feeling, and also credence to it.
There’s actually value for feeling your emotions and they actually have good information to offer. I just think largely we don’t have a sense culturally of how our emotions are useful. We often think of them as irrational, they’re not stable, they’re provocative and it’s just not worth that much.
When we’re talking about relationship, emotional intelligence is key. It’s very, very important. That’s part of what I’m also doing when I’m working with individuals or even working with couples – helping be able to identify and unpack some of this, what’s underneath it.
Going back to this couple, this particular guy, the husband in this relationship has pretty much proclaimed “I don’t have emotions.” He’s like, “I don’t.” I think what he’s really saying is “I don’t give emotions a lot of airtime. I don’t prioritize them, I don’t give them much attention, and I focus on other things. I just choose not to live my life very emotionally.”
I think for certain people that are more thought-oriented, there’s a lot of reasons why we might orient the world in that way, and that’s actually really great. And if we’re on the spectrum of pushing our emotions aside where we don’t even acknowledge that we have them at all, then we can be a little oblivious sometimes to what’s going on. I’m not putting this on the gentleman in this marriage, I’m just saying this is kind of their starting place of how they deal with emotions.
Last week we were actually processing — he’s got a pretty prominent position and they have events that they’ll go to. He doesn’t always invite his wife, and I think historically they’ve been together for many, many years. I think he’s had a fear that if he’s not by her side, she will be upset with him or feel some judgment to him. “You left me… You totally left my side. You left me to fend for myself” or just that she felt bad.
For him, he is like “If it’s a work event, I actually have to shake hands with quite a lot of people. It’s not like I’m just enjoying the evening… It’s personal time. I’m actually there to build a relationship and I actually want to be present to networking.” So he has avoided inviting his wife to some of these events.
Well, this has been going on for quite a while, and she brought this up; she was expressing some worry and some hurt that “You don’t invite me to things; I feel left out, and I also feel scared that you don’t really want me there.” We did a lot of unpacking what his experience was and what was going on for him, and it was all really useful and helped them work together around how they’re gonna move forward and some of the things that were getting them stuck.
I felt like it was really great, but there was one piece that I thought was interesting to share, the concept of gentleness. He was saying — I think it was like maybe 15 years ago, he had remembered his wife being upset with him about leaving him, so to speak, and she came in hot. Their language — it’s really appropriate. She’ll come in strong. Where she’s upset, she’ll feel hurt, and she’s kind of like “Why did you X?” And for her, that didn’t seem like a big expression, because she’s super comfortable with expressing emotion, where for him, that felt overwhelming, and that was somewhat threatening, and he would turn away and he would avoid…
That dynamic – she’s upset, she’s turning to him, like “What’s going on with that?” and coming in strong, and he’s like, “Whoow…” and feeling a little like “I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to do…” – more overwhelmed with the emotion than actually the content.
When we talked about it – I did a lot to create safety and just to give him a chance to inquire about what goes on for him – there was a lot shared that he wanted her there, and it was just around how to negotiate the logistics, and there were a lot of pieces to it that made it a little complicated, but nothing that couldn’t get resolved. But it was this initial her coming in strong that created some overwhelm for him where in his mind he’s like “I don’t ever wanna experience this again. This does not feel good.”
What’s interesting is he was saying it only took once. Because she was like, “I don’t ever remember getting mad at you”, and then they remembered a long time ago she did get upset with him, and he was saying “Look, it only takes once”, and more and more I’m recognizing with this guy that he’s more sensitive and I think he would maybe admit or even realize about himself. It’s possible that if there was some more gentleness to these conversations, perhaps he could really meet her and she could hear “No, I really do want you there. Sometimes I feel divided around how to take care of you and how to do my job.”
She got to respond to that. She was like, “I want you to think that I’m okay and I wanna meet people myself”, and they got to work that a little bit, but it had nothing to do with him not wanting her there. So the gentleness allows for a little space to feel safe, to explore this and not hijack the system by going into reaction and feeling threatened.
The previous approach of her coming in hot – the result of that was it felt bad for both of them. He felt shamed and blamed and like “Oh, I can’t do this again”, and then she felt left and felt like he didn’t care, and it was unresolved. This was like for 15+ years.
I’m not saying that this is a result of not being gentle, but I’m just giving you an example of how gentleness could be helpful, and how often times we think our partner is stronger, more emotionally secure and resilient, and most of the time we’re way more sensitive with our loved one than we think we are or than we think our partner is.
That gentleness actually came to go a long way, and I’m gonna talk about that in a moment… But I just wanna back up here and give you some context of what’s actually at play, because it doesn’t take that much. You might be listening to me and maybe you’re coming up with your own examples around — it could be you’re driving in the car and you’re listening to music and your partner wants to change the station… It’s how you guys negotiate some of these things. It’s like a tripwire; it’s like “How do we go from having a great time to feeling so slighted and hurt and at odds and feeling really disconnected and feeling angry with each other?”
Sometimes what’s happening is these non-verbal or this expression of emotion, of dissatisfaction or unhappiness – it throws the system off. When I say “it throws the system off”, what I’m talking about here is people start reacting and it gets more about protecting themselves than it does about really connecting and hearing each other. When I was thinking about this, I’m like “Wow… Right, I do know that nonverbal communication is so important” – this is the physical gestures, the posture, the facial expressions, that convey feeling. So it’s not even so much what your partner says; it might be the sigh, “Ugh…!” Just that right there could be enough to be like “What…?!” and then you guys start reacting to one another.
A study out of UCLA talks about the majority of communication is actually non-verbal, and there’s different statistics out here, but from this particular study, they’re saying only 7% is verbal or relayed through words. 38% is vocal – tone of voice, volume of voice, inflection, and 55% is through posture, gesture, those types of things.
There are a lot of reasons why we react to one another. I found an article that I thought was really fascinating in regards to non-verbals, around how we might perceive our partners’ upset feelings towards us through non-verbals and the reaction that we might have.
This comes from Live Strong website, and the title of the article is “How Does Non-Verbal Communication Affect Relationships?” What I found really notable is just in the beginning… I’m gonna read this excerpt to you:
“Most of us remember cringing as children when our mothers gave us that look, the look that meant we were in deep trouble. She didn’t have to say a word. And even if she did say a word, even if it was kind, you could probably still tell you were in trouble because the brain processes both verbal and nonverbal communication at the same time and notices when someone’s words don’t match their body language. A wealth of emotions can be conveyed with a look, a sigh, a smile or a tilt of the head. Nonverbal communication is not just something we do to show how we are feeling, but we also depend on our interpretations of it when we interact with each other.“
That’s actually pointing to another really tricky thing, that when we’re coming in hot or we’re having these tense conversations, not only are we triggered by this feeling threatening, like “Something’s up here, something off…” and kind of bracing, like “Are we okay? Is everything okay? Am I okay?”, but we’re also much more likely to misread or miscommunicate. This creates a lot of conflict. This is where we read into a non-verbal cue and we’re like “Why are you upset with me?” and the partner is like “I’m not upset with you! I never said I was upset with you” and then they start to get agitated and then it starts to unfold… We’re really recognizing the non-verbal, like “Something might be going on”, but we’re interpreting it and we’re assuming, and then that can spiral and create more upset, because we’re misinterpreting.
Okay, that’s gonna take us on a whole different road, but I wanna stay with gentleness here… So I’m giving you some context around why gentleness can be so important, and I would love for you to take a moment and just reflect… When you’re bothered with your partner, are you gentle with them? Are you gentle with them in your approach and how you address the conversation? If not, what hinders that, what gets in the way? Is it possibly some of the things that I mentioned before, like feeling like they don’t deserve it, feeling like you need to indicate to them and they’re not gonna listen unless you show them you’re upset?
When I reflected on this, here’s some of the things that I came up with… When I’m gentle, it usually is because I feel stressed; I’m pressed for time, I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m overwhelmed… Something of the like. I’m not as resourced, I don’t have as much to give, because it sometimes takes a little more effort to really bring the stability to the foundation of “I care about you. We love each other. I wanna give us the experience…” — because really, what the benefit is it’s actually, if you remember in the example of the couple that I was mentioning, if she would have been more gentle, she would have actually gotten what she wanted, which is to feel that he cared and that he did want her there.
When we’re thinking that “Oh, the gentleness is just for our partner”, that’s not actually true. It’s for many things: it’s for the health of the connection, it’s to allow your partner to help you – so it could be selfish… You could say, “I really want you to hear what I’m saying and I want you to feel considerate and help me, that I’m hurting here”, and knowing that if I’m gentle, my partner’s gonna be that much more receptive to wanting to help. But it also is a way to care for them as well.
Again, if you’re in relationship with them, I’m hoping you care about them and want them to feel your care; it’s gonna create a spirit of generosity, for sure.
Again, what hinders being gentle? When I’m being stressed, I don’t have as much to give and I feel tighter. I kind of almost skip several steps. I’m trying to jump too far ahead, and I’m not slowing down to really — I mean, I don’t know if you’ve seen this with your kids if you have children. I know that if I’m rushed for time — this has shown up when I’ve taken care of kids, or I nannied when I was in my masters’ program for several years and I worked with children in a lot of different capacities… If I lose relationship with them and we’re pressed for time and I’m wanting them to do what I want them to do, and I’m just kind of saying “Okay, do this, do this, do this…” and I’m not necessarily considering them and staying in relationship, they will resist and protest and make it so hard… It’s uncanny. I’m not doing any nannying now, but I just know this about just when I’m with my friends’ kids or anytime I’m around children – if I’m trying to force it without relationship, I get a lot of pushback. But if I’m really in connection and in relationship, there’s a guiding that allows for — the kids will follow the lead, right? But if I’m being too pressed and too curt about it, they’re like “I don’t wanna do that” and then they’ll throw a fit. I think it’s somewhat similar; the energy is similar. Without that kindness, without that consideration and that connection, people don’t wanna play. They’re like, “No, thanks.”
Okay, so what else gets in the way? For me, I noticed that I am not as inclined to wanna feel gentle or to be gentle when I think my husband knows better, or I feel like he doesn’t care. The example of him ignoring me – I think he hears me; I’m almost certain he hears me, and I’m feeling like he’s just not caring. I will tend to feel hurt and get an attitude, lose my gentleness there.
Or if I feel scared or feel threatened. He is upset, or I don’t know — most of the time I’m able to conjure and really… Because I’ve worked this enough to get the value of being gentle, and that it pays great dividends, but I do know that if for some reason I’m scared or threatened it’s harder.
Okay, so just to ask yourself, what gets in the way for you? If you notice “I’m not always the best at prioritizing being gentle”, what gets in the way? What makes that hard for you?
Then the other question I wanna ask is when you are able to be gentle, I imagine there’s been several examples that you can point to… What helps you approach your partner with more gentleness? Whether or not you’re feeling just good about yourself, you’re feeling strong, or you feel really good, like you guys have been really connected… You’re feeling like the relationship has been really great and you just feel the importance of caring, being gentle, and being like “What’s going on here?” There’s not as much baggage.
Or thinking about, perhaps — like for me, I’m thinking maybe my partner doesn’t know. Like this is something we’ve not really ever fleshed out or talked about, or he might forget, or whatever the scenarios, but giving him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not in my shoes, he doesn’t actually know how that felt for me or what’s going on for me.
Again, if we’re thinking about parenting or coaching, we wanna help them grow and help them learn to see things they don’t see. So it helps to teach with gentleness, assuming they don’t know better; they’re doing the best they can, they don’t know.
How many parents say, “Oh, he’s just acting like a five-year-old./ She’s acting like a seven-year-old, or a three-year-old”, right? Age-appropriate.
Okay, I’m asking you these two questions so that you can get to know yourself a little bit, what gets in the way of you being gentle, and what helps you feel more able to be gentle. These things might give you some good information so that you can kind of start to prioritize or even experiment — maybe even not take my word for it, but just say “Okay, this prominent researcher and other people in the field that have a lot of experience training and expertise, they’re talking about the priority or the importance of being gentle… I haven’t necessarily tried this, let me give it a run.” I encourage you to check it out.
If you’re gonna do so, answering those two questions could get to help you know a little bit more around what makes it hard and what makes it easier. Again, you wanna do the things that help you feel more gentle and be mindful of the things that make it hard. If you’re tired, or if you’re stressed or pressed for time, maybe not address that conversation. As much as you might wanna get it off your chest in the moment, recognizing “Okay, I don’t have a lot of resources to be really that kind right now… Probably not the best time.”
Just a couple general tips that I have to offer you before we close today around how to cultivate more gentleness, how to maybe add more gentleness into your approach with your partner is 1) start off with that soft approach. The first step you take in whatever communication, feeling soft in yourself first; that lightness, that warmth, that kindness, that care, and building the association… That gentleness, that softness is for the benefit of you, for the benefit of your relationship and for your partner.
So setting up your communication, and whatever topic you wanna address that could require a little bit more depth, trying to really start with gentleness. That’s number one.
Number two is prioritizing gentleness throughout the conversation. This requires managing stress levels. In an article – and I’ll post these articles in the show notes; again, you can find those on my website, which is DrJessicaHiggins.com; click on Podcast and you can find all the episodes there. The most recent ones will be at the top, and then you can click on the episode to get the show notes. At the bottom it will have a section titled Mentioned and you can find any links that I might have referred to during this show.
Okay, so this comes from HelpGuide.org, and it’s basically an article titled “Non-Verbal Communication.” I just wanna read a couple paragraphs that they wrote about stress, around non-verbal communication.
“Stress compromises your ability to communicate. When you’re stressed out, you’re more likely to misread other people, send confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals, and lapse into unhealthy knee-jerk patterns of behavior. And remember, emotions are contagious. You being upset is very likely to make others upset, thus making a bad situation worse.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, it’s best to take a time out. Take a moment to calm down before you jump back into the conversation. Once you’ve regained your emotional equilibrium, you’re better equipped to deal with the situation in a positive way.”
Now, one thing I would just underscore here – I’m not a believer that we make people feel a certain way, but I do know that we are kind of like tuning forks… We will feel somebody’s emotion and it’s likely to wanna kind of play off of that and be affected by that. We are definitely impacted and affected by one another, and I would just add in that we’re ultimately responsible for how we choose to deal with ourselves and respond to the influence of someone else.
I keep referencing children today, but… Okay, if you have a teenager and they’re like “Everybody else is drinking, I had to drink” — we want our children to feel that they’re able to make decisions for themselves and that it’s not just “Someone made us do it”, or “They were feeling that way so I felt that way, too.”
The larger point here is just when we’re stressed, we are likely to misread — because again, if we’re feeling threatened, we’re gonna be having a negative bias, which means we’re looking for anything that’s gonna possibly be hurtful, off-putting, slighting in any way… We’re gonna misread and we’re gonna probably assume the worst, and we’re also gonna send off-putting non-verbal signs. Even if that’s not truly how we’re feeling, we could just be sending off-putting messages and we’re likely to get into old patterns of having these knee-jerk reactions of just spouting back or yelling back, and just retaliation.
These are things that we do when we’re stressed out, and if you’re interested in learning a little bit more about this, I have an article that I wrote I believe last year, but I still feel like it’s just a classic in the sense of ways that we act when we’re stressed and we’re kind of triggered. I’ll put that link in the show notes as well.
Okay, so number one is starting off soft, two is prioritizing gentleness throughout the conversation, three is really trusting that you’re both doing the best that you can, and trusting that your partner cares… Giving the benefit of the doubt.
That creates a little bit more of a climate of goodwill, being willing to extend and do your part… Because a lot of times couples are like, “No, you go first.” “No, I’ll go after you. You be kind first, then I’ll be kind. You be gentle, then I’ll be gentle”, and that’s just like a no-win situation; it can feel like a total standoff. So if you trust that they care, then you’re more likely to be willing to take a step in this direction.
Number four – this is more of what I have talked about in my last episode – talk more about you and what goes on for you than what they’re doing wrong. Again, this talks about even the one-minute video that John Gottman was saying instead of criticizing or critiquing or point out all their flaws and what they’re doing wrong, say “When X, Y and Z happens, when you raise your voice, or when you’re late…” – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with stating the event or the circumstance… But then say, “Here’s what goes on for me. Here’s my experience. Here’s where I get scared. Here’s my worry. Here’s my thoughts, here’s my emotion.” If you can do that in a vulnerable way, your partner is much more likely to hear you.
Wrapping up… Again, the practice step that I would encourage you to think about is when you’re able to be gentle, what helps you do that, and what hinders it, and then perhaps if you have a moment where you feel challenged and you wanna experiment with this, practice these four steps:
1) Start with gentleness. Start out soft.
2) Really prioritize gentleness throughout the conversation. If you feel stressed, either one of you, managing that so that gentleness is more importance than proceeding. So take a break if you need it.
3) Really give each other the benefit of the doubt.
4) Share and reveal you, rather than focusing on your partner’s flaws.
Okay, I would love to hear from you, hear what you think about this episode, or if you have any personal story or issue you’re struggling with and want me to create a podcast episode on or are interested in getting more support around, you can always reach me… You can find how to reach me on my website, DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Contact and you can find all the ways to reach me there.
Thank you so much… I enjoy spending this time with you. I honor you, I appreciate every step you’re taking to improve your capacity for intimacy, improving your relationship and your skillfulness. I’m on this path with you, I’m doing the work with you.
Until next time, I hope you take great care.
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