Even if you have the right mindset and the best of intentions, it will count for very little if you’re unable to effectively communicate your message. Communication is a skill. Though it may come naturally to some, the truth is that for most of us, it’s an ability that we have to consciously develop.
In this chapter, we’ll be using the Imago framework to discuss healthier, more satisfying conversations—and look at exactly what to say, when to say it, and most importantly, how to say it. This model was developed by Dr. Helen Hunt and her husband Dr. Harville Hendrix and has become a respected staple in marriage and family counseling the world over.
Understanding—and Removing—Emotional Barriers
We’ve considered at length the obstacles to our being empathetic, understanding and able to listen. Assuming the worst in others, being combative, and being poorly differentiated get in the way, as does a lack of empathy, curiosity, patience, humility, and boundaries.
All these obstacles to connection share an emotional root, however. The barriers to effective communication can be behavioral, cognitive, societal or even spiritual, but they all start out as emotional barriers put up to keep us safe. If we want to connect with people, we’ll have to bring down those walls. Bringing down emotional barriers to connection is a main goal of communication.
One fundamental assumption of the Imago model is that we are not the only people in the world, our “reality” isn’t the only one, and it’s no more valid than anyone else’s. While you may be able to cognitively agree this is the case, it’s another thing entirely to really feel it and practice it in the moment, when emotions are running high. If we find any obstacle to the complete acceptance of another person’s equally valid reality, then we need to find a path back to that accepting mindset. Only once both parties are in complete acceptance can understanding, empathy, and cooperation happen.
Communication always entails a Sender, a Receiver, and the message itself. In Imago, there are three things that a Receiver has to do as the Sender is sending their message:
These are not dissimilar from the stages of empathy described earlier. In the mirroring stage, you merely copy or mimic what the other person is presenting to show comprehension and listening. If they pause, you pause. You match and reflect their tone, and you say things like, “Okay, so it sounds to me like you’re saying you’re not angry it’s broken, but angry that they didn’t apologize?” or “Can you tell me more about why you feel so confused right now?” We stay neutral and non-judgmental.
We move to validation once we’ve completely heard the other person speak. Validation is simple: we tell the other person that what they’ve said makes sense, they have a right to feel that way, and that their experience is valid. This doesn’t mean you agree, however. It just means you can see, from their perspective, what they see. Validate content and their emotional interpretation (for example, “I can totally see how me not getting you a gift hurt your feelings and made you question our friendship. I wouldn’t mind if someone didn’t get me a gift, but I can see things from your point of view, and it makes sense that you feel that way”).
If you don’t understand, return to step 1 and clarify by asking more questions.
“Oh, I think I’ve misunderstood. You said you wanted an apology, but you also said earlier that you wouldn’t accept one if it was given. Can you help me understand?”
The empathy step is where you try to put yourself in their shoes and feel what they’re feeling. You might decide to add in an extra interpretation (“Do you think you’re feeling lonely right now?”), but it’s often best to simply reflect their feelings. Use feeling words but don’t get too hung up on any particular label (“I can imagine you’re feeling scared right now”).
Here, you might like to pay attention to differentiating between feelings and thoughts and between fact and feeling. Just remember not to analyze or diagnose people—you’re not trying to discover what you think about their point of view but what their point of view really is.
It’s okay to try and help people pinpoint how they feel or guess at their emotions, but this can veer into invalidating territory. It’s a good idea to listen closely to the words, terms, and metaphors they’re using and reflect them back. If the person keeps describing a feeling as “worry,” there’s no use in you introducing the term “anxiety”—even if you think this might be a better term. Remember, you’re never trying to find out who or what is “right”—you’re seeking to understand, connect, and bring down emotional barriers.
This process takes as long as it takes—it finishes when the Sender has adequately conveyed their message, and the Receiver has taken it all in. As a Receiver, your job is to give complete attention. Listen without interruption, interpretation, and judgment. There will be time to speak your piece later, but first just seek to hear and understand. The Sender is in complete charge of where the conversation is going and what they’re saying, not you. Keep your own agenda separate and only ask questions to clarify. In other words, when you are a Receiver, do just that—don’t go into Sending mode yourself. Speak only when there is a long pause or the Sender signals they’re done and want you to speak. You might like to end with something like, “Did I get that right?” or, “Is there anything more you need me to know?” to double-check that the Sender is finished.
Once that’s done, you switch places and it’s the Receivers turn to become the Sender. The Sender has an equally important role in the dialogue. Their job is to stay calm and clear and avoid getting carried away in reactivity. One tip: don’t just launch into a dialogue without warning. Make an “appointment,” i.e., ask if it’s a good time to talk and schedule the conversation for when you both can give it your undivided attention. Ask rather than request. State your intention clearly and upfront and let them know what your message is and how you intend to send it. For example, “I want to have a discussion about your performance at work and the incident on Friday. I want this to be a respectful, win-win dialogue. When do you think would be a good time to chat?”
Now, wait. Pause to give the other person time to receive, process, and respond. You too can practice mirroring and match your tone and body language to theirs to demonstrate your commitment to harmony and cooperation. It’s important to stay focused. If you’re talking about work performance, then talk about that only and don’t bring up unrelated grievances, side topics, or bygones that are irrelevant. One subject per conversation!
What’s most important, however, is to use the all-powerful “I” statements. Remembering the difference between evaluation and observation, and bear in mind the need to stay self-differentiated and own your portion of the issue. Stick to describing your thoughts, feelings, and desires. Don’t blame or tell other people what they feel or what they mean.
If you want to talk about them, frame it carefully: “When you treat clients badly, I feel like I’m put in a difficult spot when I have to explain your behavior.” This is not the same as saying, “You put me in a difficult spot.” Don’t inadvertently feed people a story about what should be or present your feelings as facts (e.g., “You don’t care about this job and you don’t respect me. That’s your problem!”). “I feel unloved” is a world away from “you don’t love me!” Simply stick to your experience and perceptions and remain non-accusatory and nonjudgmental.
If feelings are running high, it can be difficult to do this without triggering defensiveness. That’s why you need to plan ahead, go slow, and choose your words wisely. When you’ve said what you need to say, it’s a good idea to thank the Receiver for listening, to reinforce cooperative behaviors, and summarize your position before handing things over to them. Don’t be afraid to politely but firmly assert yourself if they’re trying to send instead of receive. “I’m sorry, I’m not done speaking yet.”
As you can see for the respective “rules” for Sender and Receiver, this process works best when both people are on the same page and both are operating from the same set of baselines assumptions. It may sometimes be worth outlining this explicitly first and laying some ground rules for effective dialogue, especially if matters have deteriorated badly already. However, communication “takes two to tango.” If either party is unable or unwilling to truly listen, to take turns sending and receiving, and to remain focused on the goal of connection, then communication is unlikely to work. In this case, it’s okay to pause and schedule a conversation for another time. Remember—you cannot control other people.
Be on guard for your own tendency to jump in and interrupt with your own corrections, justifications, explanations, interpretations, or disputes. Consciously set them aside—and don’t spend your Receiving time stewing over a rebuttal instead of listening to what they’re saying! If you are sending a message and the Receiver is interrupting, stay calm and assert a boundary. Be compassionate and forgiving but stay focused. “It’s my turn to speak now.”