Conversations Using “I Am I” and “You Are You”
Deepening our capacities for theory of mind – the awareness that I am I, and you are you, and that I may be having an emotional experience (or a thought, belief, or plan) that you are not experiencing. We are two different people with two different experiences, and that’s okay – is so essential to everything we hope to experience in healthy relationships with others – communicating without shaming or blaming, setting healthy limits and boundaries, negotiating changes, resolving conflicts, repairing ruptures. (See June newsletter)
The practice below in responsible speaking-empathic listening trains both the speaker and the listener in relating to themselves from their own inner secure base (I am who I am and I love and accept who I am) and relating to the other firmly anchored in theory of mind. (You are you, different from me, and that’s okay. I accept who you are.) This exercise requires the speaker to take response-ability for their own feelings, especially in reaction to another person’s behavior, and requires the listener to listen, openly and receptively to this other person’s reactions – anchored in an inner secure base, fine as you are – without reacting defensively or trying to fix the situation.
Theory of Mind Applied – Responsible Speaking – Empathic Listening
1. Recruit a partner to practice this exercise with – a friend, colleague, or life partner. Decide who will speak first; then you may switch roles if you wish to. Allow at least fifteen minutes for each person to speak.
2. The speaker identifies a difficulty they are having with another person (but not yet the listener). Focus on the relational difficulty, not on casting the other person as “difficult.”
3. The speaker explores the difficulty in the form of “I” statements: “I notice I’m reacting to. . . .” It’s okay to describe the problematic behavior: “When I perceive Jack doing . . . ,” but the speaker should then refocus on their own response: “I’m reacting,” Or “I feel,” or “I worry.” Using the word perceive means that you’re taking responsibility for the perception: you’re exploring your response to your perception, not shaming, blaming, or criticizing the other person for causing the perception. Keeping the statements brief makes it easier for the listener to remember and repeat them.
4. The listener listens and simply repeats what the speaker has said, word for word. “I heard you say. . . . ” It can be hard to simply listen, without reacting, advising, debating, or criticizing. Only listening and repeating. After repeating each statement from the speaker, the listener asks, in a warm, neutral way, “Is there more?’
5. The speaker continues exploring their relational difficulty with the other person for as long as necessary. Interestingly, when the focus is on the speaker’s own inner experience, this can take far less time than you might think – far less than complaining about the other person, which could go on forever.
6. The listener sums up everything they have heard. The speaker can agree or offer modifications to the listener’s summary.
7. Both listener and speaker pause and reflect on what their role in the conversation was like for them. They do not offer evaluation of how the other partner did!
There are two variations to this exercise that you might try.
The speaker identifies and explores a difficulty they are having with some aspect of their own behavior, perhaps in relation to another person, perhaps more general. The other person listens and repeats as before. The speaker and the listener debrief as before.
The speaker identifies a difficulty they are having with a behavior of the listener. As the speaker, you focus on yourself. As the listener, anchored in your secure base and theory of mind, you listen and repeat as before. The speaker and the listener debrief as before.
The effectiveness of this exercise depends on the absence of shaming or blaming and the practice of listening without fixing or defending, which create a sense of safety. This safe social engagement of the nervous systems of both people can reduce reactivity in the brain. The speaker gets to explore their own experience without having to worry about the reactions of the listener. The listener can listen without taking anything personally. The relational and communication skills developed here form the basis for conversations on negotiating changes in behavior, which we will explore in an upcoming post.
(You will find this practice and similar exercises in Resilience, forthcoming in September 2018.)