Debate Isn’t a Dirty Word

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When a tragedy such as the Orlando mass shooting occurs, an inevitable rise in debate follows. The debating can get nasty, and just add to the negativity of an already overwhelmingly awful event. I wish this wasn’t so.

I love a friendly debate. Probably to a fault, I’ll carry on a debate long past the time when most people become uncomfortable. Recently I’ve found myself in some lengthy facebook-commenting debates, and while I definitely don’t think Facebook is the ideal forum for such discussions, I’ve appreciated the exchanges. What I’ve noticed however, is that it makes other people uncomfortable. In these situations and many others throughout my life, I’ve been encouraged by friends and loved ones to “just let it go”, or “just drop it”. I’ve even carried on debates to the point that the other person involved gets upset, leaving me feeling confused and ashamed because I never intended to offend anyone.

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The truth is, I have a really hard time walking away from a debate, and I admit it probably has something to do with ego, but there’s definitely more to it than that for me. I find it interesting how uncomfortable debate makes people, and I think it’s a shame. I think it contributes to lack of progress on a lot of issues.

We feel uncomfortable when our thoughts and beliefs are challenged. It feels threatening, as if people are insulting who we are as a person. It’s natural, but it shouldn’t be this way. We are not defined by our ideas so long as we’re willing to be flexible in them. Therefore, a challenge to your beliefs shouldn’t be felt as a personal attack, and yet we get so defensive. When we get defensive, we get emotional, and we stop using reason to uphold our beliefs and start using more drastic measures like abusive language or even behavior to tear down the other person.

Another possibility is that we “just drop it”. We “just drop it” because we want to avoid the discomfort of disagreeing, or being challenged, or maybe because we’re accepting/assuming that the other person will never change their mind. But maybe you’ll change your mind. Would that be so terrible? If we “just drop it” then we lose the opportunity of following any conflict through to a resolution.

The reason why I seldom “drop” a debate is because I embrace the discomfort of having my beliefs challenged. If there’s a valid reason why I should think differently, I want to hear it! If I “just drop it” I might never get to hear that reason, and then how can I be confident in my beliefs? Discomfort is a signal to me that I’m emotionally tied to my beliefs, and I should look carefully to see if my emotions are clouding my judgement. Few of us are experts on all of the relevant issues that come up for debate. I’ll be the first to admit I have opinions about issues that I haven’t researched exhaustively . So I try to be open to influence.

I never want to make someone that I’m disagreeing with feel offended, and I never mean to attack you as a person. If I’m critiquing your ideas, it’s not to make you look bad, it’s only because I’m trying your ideas on for size and seeing how they fit within my reason. I’m challenging your opinions, because I’m curious. I don’t understand or agree with your perspective, but if it stands up to challenge, maybe I will. If we want to find our common ground, we might need to explore an issue completely.

So that’s my little explanation/disclaimer to why I rarely back down from a debate, even though it probably makes me look like an a-hole. I think a debate ideally ends when one person is convinced, or both sides have exhausted their arguments and agree to disagree (or when the food is delivered to the table, cause ya know, priorities). I think it would do a world of good if we all learned to tolerate our discomfort with conflict, detach our identities from our beliefs and our emotions from our reasoning.

As I discuss in other posts about healthy communication being key to a healthy romantic relationship, so too is healthy communication key to a healthy nation. As I encourage couples;

  • Let’s address issues, while avoiding blame and criticism.
  • Let’s share about our differences and try to understand each other without vilifying the opposition.
  • If the emotional intensity of a debate gets too high, let’s take a break until cooler minds can prevail and we can get back to the issue at hand. L
  • et’s entertain the possibility that we could be wrong and be open to influence.
  • Most importantly, let’s remember to focus on where we can find common ground and work from there.

If we can shift our perspective about differences of opinions to opportunities instead of attacks, then I think we might actually get somewhere.

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How to Build Trust in a Relationship

Building or rebuilding trust in a relationship can seem like such a difficult task, especially when one or both people in the relationship have been hurt, by each other, or by others in the past. Part of why building trust seems so hard is because it’s a somewhat abstract term. What is trust? What does it mean to trust someone? Does it mean I believe you no matter what? Does it mean I’m confident you’ll never hurt me? Do you build trust by being completely transparent with your partner? Or does trusting your partner mean giving them the benefit of the doubt?
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While it seems abstract, research has been able to clarify how trust is built, and offers us a clear path to a stronger relationship. Dr. John Gottman and his team have spent decades studying couples, and tracking their relationships over many years. By comparing the relationships that have lasted to those that haven’t, he’s discovered valuable insights into many important aspects of relationships – including trust. The truth is that trust is not built or earned by grand gestures, but little by little over a span of time. Trust is built by the way that you respond to your partner in small every day moments.

Bids for Emotional Connection

According to Gottman, relationships are comprised of hundreds of daily bids for emotional connection between partners. A bid for emotional connection is anything we do to seek acknowledgement from our partner. Sometimes it might be conscious, like when you reach to hold your partner’s hand. Other times we might not even realizing we’re signaling for our partner’s attention, like when we let out an exasperated breath for them to hear. Every time we smile at our partner. Every time we respond to them with a sadness in our voice. Every text message. Every invitation to a work function. Every game of footsy under the covers. Every thing we do that our partner could respond to is a bid for connection. In each of these micro moments, the questions are asked “will you respond to me?”, “are you there for me?”, “do you care?”. For each bid, the partner on the receiving end has a chance to respond in a positive or negative way. It’s these seemingly insignificant moments, that across time build trust in a relationship. Each response to a bid representing but a small drop in the pot of trust or mistrust, that over the years determine the balance of the relationship.
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Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Janince Driver have identified nine different types of bids
● Bids for emotional support (“I feel so upset about my mother…”)
● Bids for interest (“I read this interesting article today…”)
● Bids for enthusiastic engagement (“What do you think about trying that new restaurant?”)
● Bids for extended conversation (“Did I tell you about that conversation I had with Mary?”)
● Bids for attention (“Look what I found at the store!”)
● Bids for play (tickling, teasing, a game of backgammon)
● Bids for humor (“How funny is this video?”)
● Bids for affection (hugging, cuddling)
● Bids for self-disclosure (“How was work today?”)

Turning Towards vs. Turning Away

Every time an emotional bid is offered, the partner on the receiving end has a choice to make “do I turn towards my partner, and respond in a loving affectionate way?”,”do I turn away, and ignore my partner’s bid?” or even”do I turn against them and respond negatively?” Of course we all know we should be there for our partner, and it’s common sense that a successful relationship involves responding to your partner in a positive, loving way. However, small and subtle bids for affection can be easy to miss or ignore, especially when we ourselves are feeling in need, and even more so when our needs are in conflict with our partners. On a dramatic scale this could look like your partner asking you to spend the weekend with them, when you’re really feeling the need for some alone time with friends. On a more subtle scale this could be recognizing that your partner is tired, and offering to cook dinner even though you’ve had a long day yourself.

None of us will respond perfectly to 100% of our partner’s needs, and letting a bid for connection slip through the cracks here or there is not going to make or break a relationship. However according to Gottman’s research, the frequency with which partners respond to a bid for connection by turning towards each other is significantly related to whether the relationship will last or not. He found that 6 years after marriage, couples who were still together turned towards each other 86% of the time, while couples that divorced turned towards each other about 33% of the time.

So How Do I Build Trust?

  • Be on the look out for bids for connection, and as much as possible turn towards your partner
  • If you’re not sure what your partner is looking for – ask them! (“What can I do for you sweetie? Do you want to talk? Or would you just like a hug?”)
  • Help your partner meet your needs, by being direct with your bids (instead of an aggravated roll of the eyes, say “honey I’m so stressed, I’d love if you could just listen while I vent”)
  • When your partner seems to be on the offensive or defensive, rather than responding to the content of what they’re saying, ask your self what their deeper need might be. (Her words might say “I’m fine”, but her tone might say “I need to know you really care right now”)
  • Be patient. As mentioned, each bid for connection gives you the opportunity to add a drop to your relationship’s trust. The more you respond positively to your partner’s bids, the more you’ve invested in your relationship’s trust, and the more reserves you have. It takes time to build up strong reserves. When trust and mistrust are equal, or there’s more mistrust than trust – every transgression feels intolerable. When your relationship is heavily weighted towards trust, mistakes are more easily forgiven.

    Learn More!

  • Gottman.com: Turn Towards Instead of Away
  • Thefishybowl: The best Offense is No Defense

Communication: The Best Defense is No Defense

I’m extremely interested in what makes communication effective vs. ineffective. As I’m working towards becoming a psychotherapist, I think it’s crucial that I have a deep understanding of communication so that I can 1) reach my clients through my own communication, 2) recognize problem areas in my clients’ communication, and 3) help coach them to better express themselves. For personal and professional reasons, I am particularly interested in communication within intimate relationships. It’s no novel idea that good communication can be a couple’s secret to a lifetime of happiness and harmony, while poor communication can make relationships toxic and tear them apart. So what are the keys to good communication in relationships, and what are the traps of bad communication?

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It seems to me that defensiveness is a vital issue in communication between partners. When unmanaged, defensiveness can start a spiral of communication that escalates from a loaded comment to a full blown argument. In fact, while an argument might seem like two people attacking each other, I would suggest that arguments almost always consist of two people defending themselves. Unfortunately we often feel like the best defense is a good offense. However, if you can resist getting defensive when your partner is upset, you are much more likely to be able to resolve the issue and become even closer to your partner.

So why is it so hard to keep down our defenses if we know it would probably make life a lot easier? Well, at the risk of stating the obvious – Keeping down our defenses makes us feel really fucking vulnerable.  Vulnerability is a very scary and uncomfortable feeling that we want to avoid, and so we try to deflect away from our flaws and mistakes. Instead of taking a moment to try to understand what our partner needs, we push back, turn the light on their flaws and mistakes, and invalidate their experience. Staying calm and opening ourselves up when we feel like we’re being attacked goes against our very nature, but it is the key to stopping an argument before it begins.

Our natural reaction to a threatening situation is fight or flight, and in the context of a relationship this often manifests as arguing or shutting down. Though this is a protective mechanism, in relationships it only serves to  hurt us more. We end up hurting the person we love and damaging the relationship, when our relationship is one of our best means of fulfillment. When your partner is hurt, it never helps the situation to go on the defense, even if you have a reasonable defense. When you get defensive, you are focusing on what you need instead of what your partner needs. Your partner needs to feel heard, understood, and loved… it’s very unlikely that any defense you throw up is going to make the other person feel better or give them what they need. When they don’t feel they are getting what they need, they will likely either come back with a stronger attack (since their first attempt wasn’t successful at making you understand how hurt they were) or they will shut down. In either case they end up not feeling like they can trust you to nurture them. The whole situation could have been circumvented if you had the strength to take a breath before reacting and think about what your partner is really trying to communicate, and what they really need.

This isn’t easy. Our brains a literally wired to mirror the energy of those around us, so when you’re facing a furious spouse, your brain says that you should also be furious. It also goes against our natural fight or flight reaction. It takes a real conscious effort to be able to move towards the very thing that you feel is attacking you. However, if you can achieve this, what would have been a relationship damaging argument can become an opportunity to build trust and intimacy with your partner. This is actually the more self defensive thing to do as well, because the faster you let your defenses down, the faster your partner can return to loving position towards you.

So how do you stop yourself from getting defensive? Well I think it takes a lot of self-awareness, because the first step is recognizing when you are starting to feel defensive. This is a challenge, because in these situations our brain is usually too focused on reacting to the threat to allow for self-reflection. With practice however, you can start to recognize the process of  becoming defensive. For me, my heart speeds up, I stop listening to what the person is saying and instead start planning my attack. My muscles tense and my eyes narrow.

Once you recognize the sensation of becoming defensive, it helps to notice external elements that might be contributing to your reaction. For example, is you brain just mirroring the energy of the person you’re with? In which case, can you bring their energy down by managing your own? Is there a lot of other stimulation in the area (lights, loud sounds, etc.) that might be overwhelming your senses and putting you in a heightened state of alertness? Are there other unrelated issues that already had you agitated and left you quick tempered?

Now that you realize you’re getting defensive, how do you return to a loving position toward your partner? You must make yourself empathize with them. Remember that even though you feel like you’re being attacked by your partner in some way, they’re coming to you because they need something from you. The way they’re communicating it might be shitty, but they are actually trying to reach out to you. Try to listen past the complaints, yelling, jabs, etc. and hear what they’re actually trying to convey. Maybe it’s “I’m scared”, “I need help”, or “I miss you”. It’s very hard to get defensive when we’re really making an effort to understand another person’s perspective, especially someone we love.

Here’re some tips:

  • Study self-awareness. This is a life tip because building your self awareness will help you in every area of life (there’ll probably be more on self awareness to follow in another post at some point). Try meditation, breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, etc.
  • I know it’s cliche and easier said than done – but take a deep breathe and count to five. This forces your heart to slow down and stops you from slipping into the spiral of defensiveness. This can also be an anchor for you to enter into a more self aware state.
  • Remember that the more angry or upset a person comes across, the more vulnerable they feel. Try to think about what would be making them feel vulnerable.
  • Notice your body language. If your arms/legs are crossed, uncross them. If your making fists, relax your hands.
  • If you’re confident you can do so in a loving way, make some physical contact with your partner. A hand on their knee, or their hand, or even a hug can do wonders for calming another person down and returning them to a loving position towards you.

I know these strategies seem simple and probably common sense, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. Keep practicing and keep trying though, and I promise this is a skill that will make a huge difference in your life!