Resilience is the ability to cope well with difficulties and to bounce back from setbacks.
While some people are naturally more resilient than others, resiliency can also be intentionally developed.
Road Runner and Communicating in the Present
Remember the Road Runner cartoons where Road Runner would suddenly change direction from what Wile E. Coyote expected, and Wile E. Coyote would go plunging off into some danger? And just in case you are unfamiliar with this American cultural icon, remember a time when you were meeting up with someone and then slipped as you turned your head - realizing they had gone off in an unexpected direction? A similar phenomenon in communication can be unpleasant and even dangerous.
When we have known someone for a long time, certain patterns in our communication become predictable. And often it is the unfulfilling communication patterns that feel particularly predictable. For example, you and a friend go out on a regular basis. On the one hand, you truly enjoy seeing the friend. On the other hand, deciding where to go can end up truly un-enjoyable.
Adi: "Where do you want to go?" Tal:"You decide, I decided last time."
Adi: "No, it's your turn to decide." Tal: No, it's your turn, either way it doesn't really matter to me."
Adi: "But you know, it actually does matter to you, you say it doesn't matter but then make a big stink if you don't like the place."
Tal: "No I don't, I may comment on the place."
Adi: "Comment, right!" Tal: "Ok, then I'll choose.
Adi: "And so once again we end up going where you choose."
And the familiar cycle goes on and on.
Now, what happens when one of the two involved decides to work on more resilient communication, and decides to try to shift the conversation. Adi feels the conversation going the usual way, hears Tal "...I may comment on the place.", and chooses to speak differently. Perhaps: "You know, right now your company is most important to me, whichever you want works for me tonight." Or perhaps: "Maybe I haven't really told you how much this bothers me, what you call commenting." Or, some other, different, communication. What is most likely to happen? Just like Wile E. Coyote, most of us will keep on having the conversation we are anticipating, if not in words than at least in tone. For example, Tal might respond: "Whatever I want works for you, and then you can make a stink later if you don't like it?!" or "Bothers you, huh. And yet you don't understand when something bothers me and I want to comment on it!" Sound familiar?
What's happening is that we are so busy with our expectations of the conversation that we forget to be truly present. We think we know the other person so well, or we are so annoyed by this same darn pattern surfacing again, that we go on automatic pilot. As I've said before, automatic pilot is sometimes helpful. The potential problem here is that the other side may make a switch one day without our noticing it, may even make the exact switch we have been hoping for without our even noticing. And our not noticing their great effort can make them increasingly frustrated. So an attempt to improve a relationship ends up feeling negative once again, which can be dangerous when people begin to lose hope in ever being able to change a relationship that has become unsatisfying for them.
What to do? For resilient communications, try to stay completely present to what the other is saying, now, not to what they have always said in this situation in the past. And an added tip, when someone is repeating the same thing over and over, it is usually an indication of not yet feeling heard. So another way to try to shift the conversation is to ask: "What is it that you feel I have not yet heard?" And then don't be surprised if they run right by the first time you say this, and try again.
Carolyn S. Tal, PhD
Psychologist and Consultant
Working with individuals and partners in
developing resilience and related issues.