Communication Skills

Communication skills are essential to healthy relationships!

That may seem like an obvious statement however, the number of relationships where this actually exists is rather limiting; follow along this week so you can decide whether your relationships have a healthy style or some unique variation upon this key skill set. For many of us we communicate based upon the stylings of our parental role models (some of you just began to worry a little, I know). Very few people will actually take a course in their lifetime related to healthy communication patterns and so we are left to the functionality or lack thereof from those early exposed models. If you came from a healthy communicative environment this is less of an issue as long as your friends and partner additionally had access to this type of style as it takes two to perform this intricate dance.

I remember hearing in a class back in my under-grad years on communication that “you cannot not communicate” (and not because it is a double negative). That statement stayed with me–we are always communicating! Our very existence is a form of communication; however, I will avoid the existential discussion surrounding this concept. I will instead focus upon the concrete examples of how this unfolds. When we enter a room with others present, we begin communication with our very body language–are we smiling, frowning, walking fast, looking up/down, etc. Our body language is essential to the communication process; what we do not verbally say will matter more to others than what we do say (I will illustrate this more later). When we open our mouths to talk, our speech is influenced by tone, pitch, intonation, and of course, the words that we choose to utilize in the discussion.

A portion of good communication centers upon these two areas (non-verbal and verbal) complimenting each other. Good communicators will intentionally make efforts to ensure that their verbal communication lines up with their non-verbal messaging. If you are angry yet you say to someone “I am not angry” whilst pounding your fist on a table which message do you think they will believe. This is but one example of where body language over-rules verbal messaging. Communication is a complex process of interpreting and re-interpreting the features contributing to the process. On a day-to-day basis, we generally perform this dance without a thought and without a glitch quite easily. This is because we typically allow others a large area of interpretation. Where it often becomes problematic is when the issue being discussed is important to both parties and where two people are operating from differing communication platforms. Later in the week, I will explore healthy communication platforms. For today, pay attention to the complexities of verbal and non-verbal messages in others and in yourself, you may find the “dance” more interesting.


Communiciation Skills: Talking

Research studies in the area of separation/divorce used to report that the major causes for divorce were money, sex, and issues with respect to children. What has become clearer is that those issues are simply “life” happening and the bigger issue is the way people deal with those concerns, often from a communicative stance. Our last blog left off on the requirement that it takes two to come to this “dance” we call communication. I would go further to state that it also takes two with the same rules or “playing field” for this process to be healthy. I have witnessed some very impressive communicators over the course of my career and one of the things I have discovered is that two people well trained in communication will experience similar issues to those with no training if they are operating from differing stances. It is important that couples communicate from the same framework to avoid escalation of conflict simply because of process issues.

Here is a framework for healthy communication–all messages need to contain the following pieces of information; Sensing Information(the facts of the event or issue), Meaning Information (our interpretation of those facts), Feeling Information (how we feel about the facts and our meaning), Consequential Information (what has been the consequence to us as a result of the issue), andBehavioral Information (what are we willing to do different or what are we requesting our partner do different because of this issue).

Example–I have asked you to talk to me about the kids before changing our rules (sensing). Since this did not occur, I question whether you are still interested in doing it (meaning), and I am frustrated (feeling) having to ask for this to occur again. The kids rarely take me seriously as a result (consequence), so I would like to see this pattern change as we move forward (behavioral consequence).

In the above example, there is limited room for the other person to misunderstand what the concern is and what is being requested as a result. This is one part to better communication–reducing miscommunication.

Here are some additional methods to improve your communication patterns;
• Think before you speak
• Check your non-verbal behavior
• Use “I” statements
• Seek to preserve the other person’s dignity
• Face the person you are speaking to squarely
• Maintain frequent but not fixed eye contact
• Nod your head to indicate you are listening to the other person
• Keep an open body stance or position
• Lean slightly forward
• Listen and watch for their non-verbal cues
• Become aware of your own biases with respect to statements, phrases, words, etc.
• Increase your vocabulary
• Above all, ask for clarification throughout the communication exchange

The next blog will explore the other key feature to communication—Listening!!


Being ‘Other Centred’

Our last discussion was on “spending time together”; this is a key ingredient to developing intimacy with one another. In the vast majority of assessments that I conduct with couples a common theme is related to men wanting more sex and women wanting to be loved. This confuses most males as they believe and associate sex as being synonymous with love and cannot understand why if their partners want more love yet they turn down sex! I will come back to this point.

There is a simplistic way that both sides can win in this issue. I will start with males; let me be very clear…if you do not spend time with your partner yet expect her to have sex with you, it is NOT going to happen. Women, if your spouse is meeting your needs (which I will speak to on how) and actively engaged in the relationship, sex is not a punishment tool…if you have an issue with your spouses behavior use good communication and conflict resolution skills to resolve these versus withholding sex.

Once you have re-engaged spending time together, the next hurdle is meeting each other’s needs in meaningful ways. Relationships’ cannot have true intimacy without the needs being met within the relationship–intimacy be it sexual, physical, emotional, spiritual, or intellectual is driven by people who understand and meet the needs of their partner. One way to accomplish the task is to simply ask! So many couples somehow believe that their partner should just be able to know what their needs are and will go years’ not telling them…this somehow does not make sense.

There are two ways to meet the needs of your partner and both are important. The first is becoming “other centered”. The best way to explain this concept goes back to the start of your relationship; if you reflect upon this time period, both of you spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about, talking about, and actively doing “nice” things for each other. You likely drove your friends and family nuts with all your talk about this new person–they likely didn’t want to hear their name again in any context or sentence because of how driven you were to focus upon this individual. If you think about where you are now in your relationship, when was the last time you spoke kindly about your partner? Interesting isn’t it?

To become “other centered” you need to answer and act upon one simply question everyday of your life–“what could I do today that would make my partners life better”? Then do it! You need to re-engage that behavior that says he or she is important to me and I am going to show it. This does not have to be “big” things; in fact, it should be the everyday small things that are attended to here. Our society has gone overboard on the concept of co-dependent relationships to the degree that if someone is “other centered” they are labeled as co-dependent–there is a huge difference between these two relational positions. Another part to being “other centered” is to make important decisions with your partner and imagine they can see everything you can do–would you still be doing it; if the answer is no, then stop it!

Somewhere in your relationship you likely went from asking, “What can I do for this person” to “What am I getting out of being here”—the day those questions switched is the day you began to grow apart and not together anymore. A healthy relationship is inter-dependentand a piece to this is treating your partner in ways that show they are important to you. More to come….


Separation – Consider the Factors

Separation is something that needs to be cautiously explored and entered into only after clear consideration of the impacts and consequences. Clients’ that I have seen over the years that are comfortable with this decision have done a few things before separating–

  • They pursued EVERY avenue for relationship resolution
  • They were not leaving to pursue another relationship or alter the status of an affair
  • They were keenly aware that they contributed to the termination of the marriage and they were prepared to do the work needed before they entered another relationship
  • Where there were children involved, they took every step to reduce the impacts—this was not pursued impulsively
  • Their decision was not made out of anger or hatred

Here are a few of the key areas with respect to separation/ divorce…


NEVER, I repeat—NEVER, threaten separation or divorce in a marriage. If you are beginning to have thoughts of terminating your marriage seek the counsel of good friends (ones that have healthy marriages preferably), talk to your priest or pastor if you have one, seek professional assistance, and/or rationally discuss this with your partner. The threat of separation is not a pleasant or fair “fighting” tool in an argument or a conflict. The only time separation should be brought up in a marriage is when this is clearly a thought out, fully considered, current pursuable option. To use this as a threat causes instability and often fear of intimacy—who wants to risk getting close to someone that keeps stating that they are leaving? The threat of separation is often counter-productive; the person making the threat is often seeking altered behaviors in their partner in a positive direction…what is creates is distance, fear, anger, and sadness.

Trial Separations:

Trial separations are just that—a trial run at becoming single again! Very few marriages sustain trail separations and often create cyclical patterns of being together and being apart until the relationship eventually dissolves. It is often the “cowards” way out. Instead of facing the true reality of their intentions and the current degree of dysfunction in the relationship, they ask for a trial separation. They often believe that this will “soften the blow” when the real separation papers are served—it does not. Individuals that enter trial separations often send numerous mixed and conflicting messages about their commitment to the relationship. Additionally, once a separation occurs (either trial or otherwise) it alters the marriage in a very significant and meaningful manner—there is now an alternate option to resolving issues, that option…one of us will just leave. As such, I would recommend people stay together, continue working on their issues, and separate only when you know there is no alternative to this choice.

This week we will continue to explore the other factors to consider with separation/ divorce—Children, Amicability, Mediation, and Finances.


Separation – Focus on the Children

If you are considering separation and you have children, please ensure that they become the focus of your attention and actions. There are thousands of studies related to the impact of separation on children; many of these are complimentary and many are incompatible with each other. To summarize these studies it is safe to say that separation affects children—plain and simple. Even if separation is clearly the only option left to your world and you proceed down this path, know that there are impacts to your children…many of which can be offset or addressed if the parents can conduct themselves appropriately and remain focused upon the needs of their children throughout the process.

Unfortunately, most people do not conduct themselves in anything close to appropriate fashions and thus inflict many atrocities upon their kids. Before looking at these atrocities, let us first explore the many positive steps parents can take when going through a separation…

Firstly, talk to your children about the separation together as parents ONLY when this decision has been made and you are moving forward upon it; do not discuss “possible separations”. You will still need to maintain a parenting role with your children and this message needs to be clear. By talking to them together in a calm and rehearsed manner, you are able to remain on the same parenting page and show that neither side will be pitted against the other for advantage or influence. Albeit that you are separating your relationship, do not separate your parenting—you need to present as a single entity. If this has never happened in your relationship, seek appropriate counsel to discover ways for this to occur.

Secondly, make sure that new partners are not introduced into the children’s lives until they have healed from the separation/ divorce themselves. They need time to re-set their lives too and the least number of “other” life changes, the lesser the impact. Beyond other partners, attempt to ensure as many of the other life areas remain the same or as close to it—living situation, schools, access to friends, and especially important, access to both parents.

Finally, watch for major alterations to their behaviors that may be indicators that they are experiencing problems processing and dealing with the separation. These changes include but are clearly not limited to changes in sleep or appetite patterns, alterations to school or extra-curricular activities, differences with friends, and/or the use of substances (smoking, drinking, and drug use). Many people watch for negative changes; it is equally important to explore for positive changes that may be potential indicators of over-compensation. Changes and alterations for children are a normal part of the process; allow them to process this event up to any changes that would harm them. Do not unnecessarily involve them in counseling unless it is required to offset potential damages. Children placed in counseling due to normal responses to a major life change may internalize this as something being wrong with them, which can create problems that are even more significant.

Here are just a few of the things to avoid with children when going through a separation

  • Making them your emotional resource or surrogate partner
  • Talking about the other parent in negative or derogatory terms
  • Involving them in the details of the separation
  • Withholding them from the other parent as a bargaining tool
  • Unnecessarily uprooting many aspects to their lives because you need a change
  • Introducing new partners too early in the separation and suggesting they call them “mom” or “dad”
  • Allowing new partners an immediate say in parenting and discipline of the children


Forgiveness – Self-focused

This week we will explore a very complex action–forgiveness. This one action, forgiveness, holds a vast expanse of power to either heal or destroy. I am by no means the expert on this action however having worked within the human condition for over 25 years I have been witness to both the healing powers and the devastation that comes from forgiveness and un-forgiveness. By definition, forgiveness is the process of concluding resentment or anger because of a perceived offense, difference, or mistake, and/or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution.

In observing patients over the years, I have found that self-forgiveness is an extremely difficult process. There are millions of people walking around today holding themselves hostage for an act either moments or years earlier in their lives. Many of these accounts have already been externally forgiven and/or forgotten yet these same events continue to show in depressions, stress symptomologies, and anxieties. These individuals are tormented to the degree that their mental, physical, and spiritual well-being has been seriously compromised. Many were also taught to believe that God is vindictive and would never release them from the bondage of their transgressions. For these I often seek materials of a spiritual/religious nature to combat thought and belief processes that are clearly grounded in irrationality, as most spiritual documents speak clearly of God’s forgiving nature.

Moreover, if God is able to forgive who are we to keep this wound open?

As a means to illustrate the devastation of un-forgiveness, a past patient of mine comes to mind when I think about inabilities to self-forgive. This individual was haunted, tormented, and immobilized from the degree of suffering that he laid upon himself everyday. He alone held the ability to move from this positional life stance that he took on just three years prior to meeting me. You see, Jim was living with one of the most horrific forms of grief–the loss of a daughter to suicide. If that were the end of the grief position it would have been difficult enough to find resolution however, this situation extended to the knowledge that John had regarding his daughter. His daughter felt undefended from numerous verbal and psychologically abusive attacks initiated from John’s partner. He knew of the situation and had always held out hope that they would reconcile their relationship and it never came to fruition. There was a suicide note that freed John from any culpability but this clearly was not enough to forgive himself. By the time he came to see me he was functionally impaired… he was gaunt from limited appetite patterns, he was not sleeping properly, was clearly depressed, was unable to concentrate, and at times bordered on his own thoughts of suicidality. The one opening that existed was that he continued his relationship with God; this was an up/down relationship at best as it was fraught with confusion, anger, hurt, pain, and at times, love. Because he exclusively blamed himself for the suicide, he remained able to continue to seek solace from the one source he knew—God.

After years of therapy, spiritual seeking and hope, he was finally able to let go and allow himself to be forgiven. As difficult as it was, he finally came to accept that the decision to commit suicide existed with his daughter and not at his hand. He was able to additionally see that she was the one that decided to take an action of finality to problems that were of a temporary nature. Due to her own illness, she would have believed that this action would be an acceptable solution to the problems at hand.


Forgiveness – Other Centred

The last blog focused upon self-forgiveness; today we look at external forgiveness.

The principles are obviously similar with some slight variations. The consequences for an unforgiving heart are similar, in that people can become depressed, overly stressed, and anxious. Some of these individuals are often tormented to the degree that their mental, physical, and/or spiritual well-being has been seriously compromised in some fashion.

Often times there are trust issues where external resentments remain unresolved which additionally can lead to either relational difficulties or at the extreme end, relational distancing to the point of self-protection by not taking the risks associated with healthy relationship development. When individuals choose not to forgive another they often end up holding themselves hostage in some form or another. This act can become the initiator for being victimized repeatedly or for taking a victim stance within the world; neither aids a happy existence.

Individuals that allow past transgressions to go unforgiven place themselves in that potential space whereby they might replay the event repeatedly to the point of re-offence. What this does is continues to place an individual in an emotionally compromised position long after an event has occurred and where there is no direct means to gain healthy resolution. It becomes a self-driven re-victimization and for some this extends to the point of feeling as if they are held hostage at this point in time and space.

There is another group of individuals that retain past transgressions as fuel to their life-stance of being a “victim”. This position is not so much an emotional re-victimization as it is an excuse for not having to take risks for relationships or trust related activities.

Either of these two scenarios (re-victimization or a victim stance) is problematic and requires resolution so that a person can move forward in their life unfettered and content.

Next time we will explore various ways that a person can come to a place of forgiveness.


Finding Forgiveness

FRIDAY, MAY 14, 2010
Getting to a place of forgiveness is a difficult experience for many. Some are better at self-forgiveness versus other forgiveness and vice versa. Some find either event a difficult process. Often those who experience problems with forgiveness have issues related to over-accountability, judgment stances, and/or potentially skewed perceptions of seeing the whole picture. Some believe that forgiveness is equated to forgetting and moving forward—these are vastly different experiences and may not be appropriate for the transgression; people are not asked to place themselves in positions of continued risk or exposure to risk as a component of forgiveness. Forgiveness and rebuilding are not synonymous… rebuilding is a choice sometimes made after forgiveness and it is not a part of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the act of no longer holding another or self accountable for their transgression and releasing the emotional consequence to the event. Rebuilding is the act of reconstructing the relationship where harm has occurred; this is not always the appropriate step post-forgiveness.

So how do we get to a place of forgiveness when we have been meaningfully hurt or appalled at another’s behavioral actions? One way is to realize the consequence to you personally should you decide to hold onto this event—un-forgiveness is highly damaging to you (see last blogs) and thus forgiveness of another will free you too. As such, forgiving another may be more about freeing yourself then freeing them.

Secondly, no human being is qualified to be in a place of judgment over another as we all fall and we all need permission to correct these actions. A simple question to ask is this…”Would I want to be heldperpetually accountable for every transgression I have committed (known or unknown) over the course of my lifetime”? One of the key words to that sentence is “perpetually”—we are all accountable to our behavior, but if we correct that behavior should we still be held accountable to the transgression? If the answer to this were a resounding NO, then why would you hold others to a standard that you do not find acceptable?

Again, let me reiterate—forgiving another does not necessarily mean that you want to associate with that person, it simply means that you are no longer going to be the one who holds them accountable for the damage that they caused you. It allows you to live your life free from the confines of anger, resentment, and hostility. It also means that when you recollect this event—because for many of us there is not a forgive and forget process—we have memory banks that hold onto significant events as a means of protecting us from placing ourselves in similar circumstances. What it does mean is that the memory will be recollected free of the emotional damages associated with it in the first place.

If you are in a place of un-forgiveness, do yourself a huge favor and forgive the other so that you too can be free. Afford them the gift that you so meaningfully seek when you are in the wrong.



Co-dependency versus Caring

Co-dependency versus Caring—what is the difference?

Back in the early 80’s therapists, researchers, and the general population began looking at a set of behaviors that became defined as Co-dependent. As the 12-Step movements began to take flight with increases in numbers and popularity (it was almost “cool” to belong to certain 12-Step Groups back in the 80’s), individuals began looking more at dysfunctional family systems and individual members within those systems. Part of what came out of this was the term Co-dependent and groups that these people too could call home. There was a time here in Calgary where there were more CODA groups (there were Children of Alcoholics Anonymous and Children of Dysfunctional Families Anonymous), than AA groups—today you would be hard pressed to find one CODA group (the pendulum has swung a little too far in the opposite direction).

Part of CODA’s growth was the attention paid to Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) and the types of behavioral patterns that often became part of their respective life scripts. When it was clearly realized that there was not a large behavioral difference between Adult Children of Alcoholics and other dysfunctional family systems CODA took flight. Unfortunately, this area attracted every individual trying to cash in on a very vulnerable group that was looking for any answers to enlighten them on why they were the way they were, why their lives were such a mess, and a hope that there was an answer to this condition.

Unfortunately, things went sideways quickly in this area as “everyone” became an overnight expert at the treatment of ACOA and CODA issues. People were confronting their 80 yr old parents for atrocities inflicted upon them when they were children (some of these atrocities were of the “false memory syndrome” type) with hopes of gaining a Hollywood ending to their story too, only to find that often these individuals weren’t that receptive to the idea of being told they were crappy parents—go figure! Therefore, the whole beginning to what is a valid area of research, therapy, and self-help was a bit of a mess. This mess is also part of the rationale that most CODA groups went the way of the Dodo bird and many individuals mixed up the differences between true caring, commitment, and co-dependency. I can’t’ even fathom the sheer number of divorces and familial estrangements that likely occurred in this time period because of poor counseling practices and an over-investment in people wanting to “blame” everything on being co-dependent because of crappy childhoods.

I believe having the background is important to understanding the real issues here and thus the options for resolution. One working definition for Co-dependency is… is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. People with co-dependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive. Next time we will explore the behavioral indicators to co-dependency and then seek to discover potential resolution options.


Healing Co-dependency

Treatment for Co-dependency is multi-faceted—not eclectic, but multi-psychotherapeutic in its intervention approach, there is a significant difference between these two stances. Often those claiming to be eclectic, have no clear style or approach and so they state that they practice an eclectic form of therapy. If however, they are able to fully elaborate on each style they plan to utilize in the therapy setting then they are likely to be multi-psychotherapeutic.

The approaches most often applied with individuals that are co-dependent include…

Systemic (to address familial issues, roles, and inter-connections)
CBT (to address the many self- debasing thought processes)
Existential (to explore how you see yourself in the larger scope and seeking ways to align or re-align your life)

The beginning to this process is to determine the behavioral, cognitive, and familial dynamics that are occurring and thus disrupting your life. More often then not, this begins with an exploration of the origin; or what is often referred to as the “Family of Origin”. Most individuals that are co-dependent have carried these patterns generationally as forms of repetitive patterning, modeling of dysfunctional behaviors, and replicating poor decision making with relationships. I would suspect some of this is bio-genetic in nature too, as personality plays a key role in the directions our lives take. Having said all that, the decision is yours to alter the co-dependent behavior and put a stop to the generational transfer that has likely occurred for many years. The key to this exploration is that it is NOT about Blame. This is where so many people went sideways within this area back in the 80’s and early 90’s. The authors and researchers work was sorely misinterpreted and those less than qualified to be working with others in this area ended up turning it into a “blame game” that resulted in multiple hurts, further damaged relationships, and major familial and partner distancing.

The road to repairing co-dependent patterns is scattered with forgiveness, accountability, love, and healthy boundaries. It is on this road that people will find themselves and find true happiness. Many need to understand that the majority of those individuals that passed along dysfunctional patterns did not do this intentionally. Parents or significant guardians did not wake up everyday and ask themselves “what can I do today to screw up little Jimmy’s life?”…that is not how this unfolded. Most parents perform their job to the best of their ability and often will do whatever they can to parent better than they were parented; this statement might give you an inside look into their respective lives—our parents are human and thus are bound to human error and imperfection. Anyone reading this that is in a parenting role is not doing that job perfectly; that is the key—we all screw it up, we just need to try to limit the passed along dysfunction. There is also no such thing as a “truly functional family”; there are simply degrees of dysfunctional families. Now I also know that for some, the degree of dysfunction that was inflicted upon you came in the form of horrendous, heinous, and atrocious acts; know that you too can find healing in this process of co-dependence resolution. If you have been impacted by dysfunction and co-dependence, find a qualified psychologist and begin walking that path to health…stop the generational transfer, make your life better, and make your relationships better. The current negative talk inside your head can be changed and you too can find a place in this world where you are truly aligned.