Responding Instead Of Reacting

This One Small Change Can Transform Your Relationships

This year I have been saddened to see a number of married couples considering separating because they don’t believe they can resolve their communication issues.  Sometimes it seems as if they are speaking different languages!  One person might say something and their partner totally misinterprets their words, resulting in one not feeling heard or understood and the other feeling confused and frustrated.  When this continues for months or years, they quickly start to feel disconnected from one another.

Sometimes, when emotions are high, it is helpful to slow down and take a moment to really listen to the words that are being said by our partner.  Instead of reacting defensively or judgmentally (which is really easy to do in the heat of the moment!), try to look for the need that is hidden in their words.  Then respond by paraphrasing that need back to your partner.  This not only ensures that you are understanding them clearly, it also lets them know that they are heard and connection is instantly restored.

An excerpt from Nonviolent Communication illustrates this idea perfectly.

A couple who were struggling in their marriage was attending an NVC workshop with Marshall Rosenberg.  Marshall tells the story:

During the workshop, his wife said to him, “You never listen to me.”

“I do too,” he replied.

“No, you don’t,” she countered.

I addressed the husband:  “I’m afraid you just proved her point.  You didn’t respond in a way that lets her know that you were listening to her.”

He was puzzled by the point I was making, so I asked for permission to play his role - which he gladly gave since he wasn’t having too much success with it.  His wife and I then had the following exchange:

Wife: “You never listen to me.”

Marshall Rosenberg (in the role of husband): “It sounds like you’re terribly frustrated because you would like to feel more connection when we speak.”

The wife was moved to tears when she finally received this confirmation that she had been understood.  I turned to the husband and explained:

“I believe this is what she is telling you she needs - a reflection of her feelings and needs as a confirmation that she’s been heard.”

The husband seemed dumbfounded.

“Is that all she wanted?” he asked, incredulous that such a simple act could have had such a strong impact on his wife.

A short time later, he enjoyed the satisfaction firsthand when his wife reflected back to him a statement that he had made with great emotional intensity.  Savoring her paraphrase, he looked at me and declared: “It’s valid.”

It is a poignant experience to receive concrete evidence that someone is empathically connected to us.

Respond To Your Children

It’s not only in our marriages that we can practice responding instead of reacting.  When your child is throwing a tantrum (whether they are a toddler or a teenager!), resist the urge to react with anger or frustration.  Listen to their words, or look at their body language and try to uncover what unmet need is behind their behaviour.  Respond by asking if that is indeed their need at that moment and be open to hearing their response until you fully understand and they feel heard.

Here are some examples:
“You seem to be frustrated because you want to play more and I am asking you to tidy up.”

“You sound really stressed, are you feeling overwhelmed with all your school assignments?”

“I can see that you are very angry that I won’t let you go out tonight.  Are you afraid of missing out on what’s happening with your friends?”

I have seen this shift from reacting to responding transform many relationships, including my own!  I would love you to give it a try too!  




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