One of the main obstacles to communicating that I encounter in myself, and in clients I work with, is a lack of awareness of one’s inner experience in that moment.
It’s as simple as that. We get into these fights, these conflicts, and we quickly lose all connection with our personal inner experience. I might become focused on what my partner just said. I become so focused on how that comment was unfair, mean, unhelpful, or whatever that I don’t notice my own experience. Or I might become so focused on how this issue is insurmountable, that there’s no solution, and woe is me. My full attention may be on the perceived outcome if I “lose”, that I can’t see anything else. Or I might become so flooded with emotion that my brain just shuts down completely; I can’t think or notice anything, everything’s just gone blank and empty.
Where is your attention focused when you’re in a conflict?
Being aware of your inner experience is crucial to healthy, compassionate, and honest communication. It also can be the most difficult thing to do during a fight. What does it even mean to “be aware of your inner experience”? It is the skill of being both aware of what’s going on inside of you and not being controlled by what’s happening in you. Let me tell you a story to demonstrate this.
I was working with a couple; let’s just say their names were Jack and Jill. I was working with them at the Relationship Skills Center where I sometimes work. They started having a conversation about money issues. Jack went off and said “you know Jill, the problem is how much you’re spending. If you could just control your spending we wouldn’t be in this mess!”
This is a classic example of one’s attention being focused on the other person, on the external world, rather than the internal world. Jack is focusing on what Jill is doing or not doing, how Jill could change, and what bad outcomes may come if she doesn’t change.
Jill also lacked much awareness of her inner experience. You wouldn’t be able to see that on the surface however because on the surface all that she did was keep her mouth shut, looked straight down at the ground, crossed her arms, and slumped in her chair. She was shut down. Jill was really allowing the overwhelm of emotions within her run the show. She couldn’t speak and couldn’t connect.
So I got them both to pause the conversation. And I started working with Jill on processing her emotions. I first asked her to just write for a few moments what feelings she was experiencing. Then after some quite time of personal reflection, she told me and her partner about what feelings were going on for her. When Jill was able to identify, name, and express her emotions she was no longer overwhelmed by them. And in fact doing this inner reflection on what her experience was in that moment put her back in the driver’s seat rather than her emotions being in the driver’s seat.
Then I turned to Jack. I asked him “It sounds like you’re angry about how Jill has spent money in the past?” Jack agreed and continued “yeah, I mean I’ve been so angry that I’ve tried to tell Jill about the money issue, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference to her.” I continued empathizing, “it sounds like you also feel helpless about the situation, like you don’t know what to do to make any difference?” “Exactly! I’m really confused and overwhelmed about this problem. And I just wish Jill would help more in trying to address it.” “Oh, I see, so you’re really kinda lost, confused, and overwhelmed, and you’d really just appreciate Jill’s help and support.” “Yes.”
You can see how Jack shifts from focusing on Jill (“you’re spending too much”), to focusing on his own inner experience (“I’m overwhelmed and confused, and I would just like some help”).
So both Jack and Jill need to work on building up their awareness of their inner experience during conflicts. Jack needed to shift from focusing on Jill to focusing on his own feelings and desires. Jill needed to get on top of her emotional flooding by having time to reflect upon, identify, name, and express her emotions.
Where is your attention focused during a conflict? And how could you bring your attention back to your inner experience?
KindCommunication.org is a project by a close friend of Wiki World Order, Alex Leach. WWO fully supports the study, practice, and teaching of non-violent communication as one of the core solutions which already exists.