Relationships • Conflicts
Why We Must Soften What We Say to Our Partners
Much of our trouble in relationships comes down to the force with which we try to assert certain of our ideas to other people; ideas about who they are, what they’ve been up to and what they are likely to need in order to be happy. An idea of ours may be entirely correct, but the directness with which we attempt to insert it into another’s mind can lead them to recoil and reject it almost as a matter of course, with violence and outrage. The truth, if ever it is to reach others’ consciousness, has to travel in the softest, most hesitant layers of doubt.
This explains why we’ll so often notice psychotherapists talking to their clients in a way that deftly avoids all powerful assertions or declarations. We won’t (or should never) catch them saying: You’re immature. Or: There’s no point complaining. They are unlikely to utter: It’s your mother’s fault or Leave that no-nothing wastrel!
They will, instead, typically go in for elaborate circumlocutions to ensure that their ideas feel like being stroked by weightless feathers. They will pepper what they say with markers of graceful and mild intent; they will repeatedly use terms like perhaps and maybe, somewhat and slightly, a bit and a touch. There will be a bit of regret and a touch of sadness; somewhat difficult and maybe a reason to fight back.
These therapists will at the same time be powerfully alive to the benefits of saying ‘I feel’ ahead of any analysis of their client’s behaviour or attitudes. They know how easily we can be panicked by universal judgements and how much we prefer it when ideas are framed as though they were only ever the thought of one person as opposed to a verdict of the whole community or the fruit of the mind of God himself. They hence opt for digestible suggestions over thunderous generalisations: ‘I feel you’re withdrawing somewhat…’ over ‘You’re in denial’; ‘I feel you might be a touch angry…’ over ‘You’re in a rage.’ They know that there are magnitudes of difference between: ‘You’re wasting your time.’ And: ‘I feel you might no longer be getting the results you need…’; between ‘Don’t always blame other people’ and ‘I feel you might be tempted to hold your friend responsible…’
It is common to have vibrant insights into other people’s characters that we would deeply like to share with them. It may strike us, suddenly, as if the whole nature of their problem comes down to their mother. Or as if all they need to do is break free from the baleful influence of their younger sister. The issue is not that such insights are necessarily flawed but that they are too potent — in a way that threatens to engage, in a ruinous way, the other’s defence mechanisms. Most of what we don’t listen to is far from worthless, it just asks too much of us, and therefore has to be expelled from the mind to preserve the emotional status quo. There are truths too true to be heard.
A central way to disarm the danger of suffocating others with reality is therefore to resist the urge to tell them what we suspect is wrong, or up, with them. Whatever the provocation and however late the hour, we must never sink to giving out overly direct diagnoses or grand summaries of their condition. There is strictly no point in saying: ‘It all comes down to your father…’ or ‘You’re afraid of intimacy…’ The novice student of psychology may well be tempted to throw around such fascinating and theoretically highly valid ideas, but if their goal is ever to be listened to, they would be advised to reconsider the way they are opting to share their learnings.
Rather than verdicts, we must — in the name of winning over our audience — give off every sign that we are advancing only musings, tentative, wholly speculative ruminations that have nothing firm, decisive or tenacious about them. We really have no clue; we’re just throwing something out and we are — almost certainly — wholly wrong.
It is here that we should have recourse to one of the most emotionally compelling formulations in the psychotherapist’s vocabulary: I wonder… We must take any brute statement: ‘You’re trying to seduce someone who doesn’t want you…’ and carefully recast it with an introductory: ‘I wonder if you’re attempting to seduce someone who…’ We might start with: ‘Stop being so rigid about bedtimes’ but end up, far more usefully, with ‘I wonder if you’re not putting a bit too much emphasis on routines…’
Such moves may be apparently small, but their impact can be enormous. That it should be so tells us something very poignant about us. We don’t want anyone to be too certain about our situation. Especially about those things that might be decisively true, but very hard to take on board. We want the gentlest words to help us come to terms with the most arduous insights.
It is a bathetic but unavoidable reality of human nature that what can separate our absorption of a truth from its angry and incensed rejection may be nothing more nor less than a very small soft gossamery yet entirely critical ‘maybe.’