I’ve had communication and relationships on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been wondering about failures in communication that allow people to retain utterly impossible expectations of their partners. I found the answer, not in my years of experience as a counselor, but in a bit of theater strategy given to me by a talented improv actress.
I was at the Houston Renaissance Festival, the biggest RenFest in the world. Its highly professional core company spends months preparing for each year’s offering. They excel at interacting with visitors.
The actress told me, “If you want to do improv, you must always respond to your partner with ‘Yes, And . . .’, never ‘No, But . . .’ You have to accept whatever your partner adds to the moment and take it from there. If you argue against your partner, it kills the skit.”
It occurs to me that the problem with many relationships is that partners too often use communication in an attempt, not to understand and accept each other’s reality, not to build on that reality, but to bludgeon their partner into adopting their own reality.
How often have you said or heard: “You don’t mean that,” “there’s something you need to understand,” or “I don’t believe it”?
These are all “No, But” responses. Not only do they refute another’s experience, they imply that your partner is at best ignorant. At worst, they say your partner is lying or stupid.
What these responses really mean is, “I don’t like what I’m hearing! (hands over ears) Ain’t gonna listen, la, la, la, la…”
My actress friend said, “If your partner says she’s secretly an alien from Uranus, coming to eat your brains, better pull out your laser gun.” (Okay, I made up that part. It was back in the 90’s and I don’t remember it with 100% accuracy. But it looks cooler in quotes. Besides, I’m sure some actress, somewhere said this. Maybe not during the actual Renaissance. They didn’t have aliens or lasers back then. Or actresses, for that matter.)
The point is to accept their experience as real. Take in whatever your partner gives you and treat it as golden, at least for them.
“But what if my partner’s reality is just wrong?”
And you know this, how? The inside of someone’s head is their own territory. It’s a mysterious place with an internal logic that would confound visitors, if it was possible to get past the blood brain barrier to drop in. If it changes, it changes according to that person’s timeline, not yours. If you get anywhere near this territory, it’s best to do as Romans do and obey the local laws.
You gotta respect their reality. I don’t mean “go along with it, for now, at least,” but respect it as if the Sun coming up in the East depends upon it. It may not be your truth, but it is truth. Ignore your partner’s truth and eventually, you’ll find your relationship crumbling.
“But, their reality is just wrong! Seriously!”
I have to ask, “What are you doing with someone whose vision of life is so contrary to your own?” Maybe the problem isn’t them. Maybe the problem is you, wanting them to be someone else. In which case, you need to adjust your glasses and figure out who your partner is, and if you really should be with them.
There are times when a little education might help your loved one. Fewer times than most people think, but it does happen.
Okay, supposing your friend, partner, whoever, has an idea you don’t agree with and you think they would benefit from understanding your point of view. It’s not a good idea to suggest someone is wrong. Just share your experience, from your point of view. As in, “I found the French to be very helpful when approached with courtesy and a little of their own language.” Let them do with it what they will. They are adults, presumably you would not be hanging with them if they were not moderately intelligent and able to add 2+2 and get 4. If you are right, they will get around to it when they are ready. Say it once, and shut up about it (unless they come back, begging and pleading for advice. Then, and only then, may you repeat yourself). It can be hard to do this, but it will preserve your relationship.
So what happens when your perfectly good worldview collides with your partner’s? You have to find a creative solution that incorporates both realities. It may be possible to agree to disagree with small things, like “Was Elvis REALLY the King?” or “Sushi is so gross, I can’t bear to watch you eat it.”
When it comes to such things as, “I want to move across country” versus “I love it here and I can’t leave”, you have to work harder to find a common solution. Ask questions, of yourself and your partner, to understand the foundation of each position. Not to find evidence that allows you to refute it, but to get at the basic need/truth that underlies the desire. Look for a creative way to deal with the core needs driving the current conflict.
Yes, And . . . is the key to a working relationship. The best parents understand this. When their child doesn’t want to go to sleep because there are monsters under the bed, what does that parent do? Refute the belief? Pooh pooh the child for being afraid? Jolly them out of their fears by saying, “And they are coming to get you, mwuah ha ha ha!” Nope. They look under the damn bed.
Are you willing to look under the bed?