I work with many couples and individuals in relationships. I get asked some of the same questions, often about relationships and how to improve them. Similar patterns of relating in relationships emerge, especially in how people communicate. Here are some of my observations about how relationships work, with a focus on communication.
I have been working with people professionally for almost 25 years now. First, for almost 10 years in sales and sales management. At its best is all about connection through communication that builds a relationship that leads to sales. Second, in ministry for 15 years, which is at its best is all about relationships with God, others and ourselves. Additionally it is the communication necessary to deepen, widen and nourish those relationships. Lastly, as a counselor for many years in ministry and now vocationally. At its best is about creating safe space that leads to honest communication between a client(s) and their counselor. This forms relationship in the room and outside of it that leads to healing, hope and health.
I am also married to my amazing wife (for 15 years), and father of 3 incredible kids for much of that. Family, at its best, is all about learning to navigate the ever-evolving relationships of multiple humans in a small space over time, toward the ever evolving selves we each are becoming.
I have failed often in every one of these spheres at how relationships work, especially in communication, and I have attempted to take notes along the way. I have also tried to listen, learn and adapt in all of my relationships, often times requiring communication ad nauseam. That’s a lot of relationships and communication!
There has been much to learn along the way, often times from people way smarter than myself. Sometimes from the limps, scabs and scars I have acquired, and at other times from the pain endured from not learning at all. Here is one thing I know for sure: great relationships require really good communication about really important, deep and vulnerable things. So, like I said, I sit with a lot of people asking about relationships and communication, and this is what we work on together – really good communication about really important, deep and vulnerable things.
When two people are in a relationship, WHAT they communicate about (while important) is not as important as HOW they communicate. How many times have I heard one of my kids (maybe even my wife or me) say something to someone else in our family and quickly I interjected, “Try again”?
See, WHAT they were trying to say got hi-jacked by HOW they were saying it. The other person must reply, not to the content, but to the delivery system. In this case, a snarky tone or sarcastic comment.
So often who ends up in my office are people who have communicated like this for a period of time and lose the capacity to HEAR or be HEARD by the other person. They both have a defensive, reactive posture to start or jump too quickly. Now let me clarify, these ‘RED’ postures as we will call them, are sometimes obvious and external. They can exist quietly, subtly and in withdrawal too. Both ways they accomplish the same thing: PROTECTION!
From what? I was just trying to tell them that I needed the dry cleaning picked up. Why are they so sensitive and reply/react like that? Or, why did they just walk away from me? Regardless of intent by the deliverer, something happened and they perceived a threat; a threat of being hurt or being missed. The sometimes unknown goal shifts from connection to protection.
RED posturing is a stance a person develops internally to the environment of relationships and communication they live in. Think of it like the water a fish swims in changes the way the fish behaves. Three words tend to identify this stance whether it’s external/overtly or internal/subtly: Condemnation, Accusation and Demand. These words summarize content like, “I can’t believe you…” “You always…” or “You never…” or “You better…” even “You’re such a…” to name a few. These internal ‘waters’ change the way a person behaves toward the other. Sometimes without them even knowing it. This rings true in romantic relationships but also in other kinds as well: parental, work, friendships, family, etc.
Here’s the thing about ‘RED’ posturing- it works! If we feel threatened in the slightest, defensiveness and protection our brain’s natural mode is to move toward. Regardless of how it looks on the outside, inside this evolved system is working and it will try to ‘win’ at protecting us. Here’s the problem, winning in ‘Red’ leads to isolation, the safest place we perceive, not connection. We actually lose at the more important thing we were longing for, even made for, relationship!
It’s like that great scene in “You’ve Got Mail” when Tom Hanks’s character is talking with Meg Ryan’s character through AOL chat (dates the movie I know – Watch it HERE). She wants to deliver the perfect ‘zinger’ to someone who hurt her, but she always freezes and misses the chance. Tom’s character tells her that he is really good at this but warns her that often times right after delivering the perfect ‘zinger’ there is a feeling of loss, loneliness, and sadness. As Tom’s character states,”remorse inevitably follows.” Why? Because it worked, and it didn’t. It protected and pushed away the threat, maybe even striking a blow. But it didn’t work too, because connection is always the underlying goal of the heart.
When I was in graduate school for my Masters in Counseling there were two core tenets we worked from: “TRUST is the commodity of ALL relationships” and ”It is in relationships we are WOUNDED, thus it is in relationships we will be HEALED”. Here’s the thing about these two statements: they are true for us beginning in the womb and throughout our story.
If we have learned anything from the last 100 years of psychology, attachment theory, trauma informed care/PTSD, brain scanning, and more it is this: everything that happens to a human being impacts them to some degree. None of us walk into our present relationships without the stories we have already lived. Wounding has occurred to some degree to all of us, as has hopefully healing.
The relationships people are in when they sit down on my couch include the remnants of all the relationships they have ever been in. Plus, they have experienced some level of wounding in this present relationship or they wouldn’t be on my couch. If trust is the commodity of every relationship, how tall and strong is their ‘Jenga’ tower of trust? If it has been eroded over time, are they aware of how, why, when, where and in what ways? This erosion is the pollution in the water that has led to their internal selves behaving differently, like the fish in the water example. As trust bricks have been removed from the tower, each person has moved more and more ‘RED’, possibly without even knowing it. Protection is the gear ready to be shifted into at a moment’s notice. Trust must begin to be rebuilt through new forms of communication, verbal and non verbal, and through action. Each person must risk moving out of their internal ‘Red’ posture towards a ‘Green’ posture of openness and connection, across the bridge of trust they are rebuilding.
As terrible as this is to do, I am going to have to ask you to come back and find out. This blog post is already long. I want to give you the reader some time to think about what you have already heard.
When you think about your present relationships, do you notice any ‘Red’ posturing internally? Maybe in the racing thoughts you have quietly, in the words you speak aloud, or the stances you take physically?
How high and strong is your ‘Jenga’ tower of trust? Are you aware of how it has eroded over time? Can you imagine being able to rebuild it?
Come back to read about ‘Green’ posturing in relationships and communication and the hope people on my couch are finding in themselves and one another as they learn to trust and move towards each other once again, both in words and in deeds.
Read more about Jeremy and the other counselors by visiting the Counselors page, complete w bios and welcome videos HERE .