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Donal MacCoon
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Location: Madison, WI
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There are two critical necessities for a good relationship: (1) Getting along, and (2) Talking skillfully when you can’t. Much of our culture focuses on the first. Thus, we are not good at the second.

Mostly what our culture teaches is that when things get unpleasant, we should (1) pretend they aren't (e.g., Disneyland, "be positive"), or (2) avoid the unpleasantness. Unfortunately, neither option allows us to incorporate all the data for a given situation (selecting only the data that make us feel pleasant) and the latter option, avoidance, leads to silence (e.g., leaving a relationship or community) or violence (ranging from emotional violence, such as criticism, to physical violence). Avoidance strategies, like distraction, do have their place: who hasn't decided a night out for beer and frites is called for to put a rest to an awful day? But avoidance strategies are best-used as short-term breaks.

There are another set of strategies -- intimacy strategies -- that we can learn to use with ourselves and others when the going gets rough that are better for the long-run. These are particularly useful when unpleasant emotion exists as a result of disagreement or things not matching our expectations. Intimacy strategies involve seeing reality (the pleasant and unpleasant) and facing it directly -- that often involves communication and, more specifically, skillful disagreement.

Intimacy strategies are hard enough to learn and use with others who are also willing and able to engage in intimacy strategies. Unfortunately, because our mainstream culture is so invested in avoidance and subsequently fearful and inept at dealing with unpleasant emotion, most people we encounter will be fluent in avoidance and very remedial with intimacy strategies. And, if one is trying to use intimacy strategies with someone totally invested in avoidance, that can lead to some really problematic interactions, many of which get highlighted here at permies.com. Many of these are the reason behind the fragility of intentional community in my opinion.

Unfortunately, the realm of Disneyland (pretending everything is "positive") and Avoidance (pretending nothing is unpleasant or rejecting those "responsible" for the unpleasant) have relatively easy rules to follow: be positive, be nice, don't talk about anything controversial, avoid those who disagree with you, etc. But intimacy strategies are not as easy to encapsulate -- it's less like playing checkers and more like raising a child or surfing a wave. Intimacy strategies require dynamic changes as the moment-by-moment interaction changes, a fact that makes mindfulness -- paying attention moment-by-moment -- a pretty foundational skill here.

The core skills for intimacy strategies are the ability so speak your truth skillfully and listen to others' truths skillfully. When I teach this to people in my practice, I introduce this as a set of formalized steps that I call the Empathy Dialog (yes, I said there aren't any simple rules, but this is just the intro). I know it may sound cheesy. Does it help that I normally use a fake announcer voice when I introduce it? Anway, the Empathy Dialog is deceptively simple. Here are the rules:

(1) A speaker and a listener take turns
(2) The speaker begins, following one rule (KISS - keep it short and simple) and this script: "I feel x (because of y), and I request that you do z". x has to be a genuine emotion word (e.g., "I feel pissed off..." rather than "I feel you're an idiot"). z has to be something really concrete (e.g., "I request that you pick up your socks" rather than "I request that you be more thoughtful")
(3) The listener has 3 steps: (a) Summarize what the speaker has said (word-for-word if you can), (b) validate (e.g., "That makes sense"), (c) empathize ("I imagine you might be feeling really pissed off at me")
(4) The roles are then switched
(5) Always be sincere. If you can't be sincere, then get more information until you can be.
(6) Avoid the 4 horseman of a relationship apocalypse (something John Gottman has researched with impressive data): criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stone walling. Each of these has a "halo" or helpful thing you can do instead. The halo for both criticism & contempt ("you are a lazy slob") is complaining ("I really hate it when you leave your socks on the floor."). The halo for defensiveness is actually self-compassion since the only criticisms that really hook us are ones we think have some truth to them. Finally, the halo for stonewalling is taking agreed upon breaks and then returning to the conversation after you have calmed down.

Though this may sound simple, most people cannot do any of the above very well. Speakers can't keep it short and simple. They go on and on until the listener drops dead in frustrated confusion and/or boredom, they don't use any real emotion word, and their request is vague (e.g., "I just want you to love me"). The listener often forgets all three of their steps, instead launching into a defense of their sock-leaving proclivities -- they don't hear, much less summarize, the speaker. If they do try the summary, the speaker often has to repeat what they said several times before the listener can actually hear what was said. And that's not the hard part. The hard part is validating (sincerely) and then empathizing.

Frankly, I think it is a rare duo that can master the art of skillful disagreement where the steps above become fluid and quick, where someone can take several listener turns in a row if needed before they actually take a turn at speaking. But, I have personally seen this benefit many people even when they haven't got it perfect. There's a lot more to say about all of this and if you want more detail you can go here. But, you could also just try it out.

Any suggestions, comments, questions, skepticism, etc. welcome.
 
Jennifer Richardson
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Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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I think this is really important and useful info. I have a couple of questions, if you don't mind. I don't want to turn this into a personal therapy session, so I'll try to generalize a couple of challenging dynamics I encounter often:

What do you suggest if one person's "truth" is just, like, really awful or sort of inherently violent towards the other person in the relationship? I live in a rural area of Texas, and if I get in a disagreement about, say, politics or some sort of social issue with someone, it's very likely that they believe that (for instance) gay people are inherently immoral, or that black people are inherently inferior. I'm not talking about matters of policy or how they vote or something, but of core beliefs about people. Do you think this kind of skillful communication can work in that sort of situation, or would this be an instance where long-term avoidance might be a good idea? What if you are "trapped" in a relationship with that sort of person, by blood or marriage or proximity or some other factor (such as being in community together)?

Also, do you often observe dynamics where one person tends to far more often (and/or more genuinely) be the "listener" and the other the "speaker" in these sorts of situations, so that even if they are observing the letter of the communication strategy, the spirit of it is sort of skewed?

I have experienced situations where I will try to empathize with the other person and compromise and really get where they are coming from, and I do it over and over, and then when it's their turn, they just...don't really get it. Like, they'll pretend to understand/accept what I am saying (pretend is not quite the right word--they're not trying to be insincere--but they just genuinely don't get it but want to be accommodating and not be a jerk, so they just go through the motions). It's not really a matter of ill will, I think, but more lack of perceptiveness and a really entrenched belief that their way of doing...everything...is right, so me compromising makes sense, but them compromising is something they will indulge me with for a while, but then they will go back to doing/insisting that I do things the "right" way, and it is like our conversations have been erased from their mind, and they actually seem surprised that I object, and then the cycle repeats...or I will try to explicitly explain to them how I feel and why, and why my feelings and ways of doing things are legitimate, and exactly how I do things and why to accomplish whatever is supposed to be accomplished, and I will solicit agreement at every step (which they give mostly because I leave them nothing they can refute) and then at the end, they will just revert directly back to assuming that somehow I should still just do what they want the way they want it done, despite the fact that we just spent an hour talking about why that's not true, and they didn't/couldn't actually find anything to disagree with. And then they will get pissed and exhausted by the conversation (which I understand) and just refuse to discuss it...because it is the same conversation over and over...but we wouldn't have to have the conversation over and over if they ever seemed to actually internalize anything I said or act on it--so they will stonewall me and I will drop it, and then they assume that because I dropped it, I have finally seen the error of my ways and will fall into line, and--it's like being trapped in some kind of conversational version of Groundhog Day.

To distill the issue, I guess I would ask: what do you do with people for whom all your attempts to empathize and communicate skillfully always seem to end with you ceding ground/giving them more ammunition and them never reciprocating, to the point that one fears trying to employ the strategies you are recommending here? I realize that "ceding ground" and "giving them ammunition" are probably unhealthily militaristic metaphors for a relationship dynamic, but I feel like they're honest descriptors...
 
Donal MacCoon
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What do you suggest if one person's "truth" is just, like, really awful or sort of inherently violent towards the other person in the relationship? I live in a rural area of Texas, and if I get in a disagreement about, say, politics or some sort of social issue with someone, it's very likely that they believe that (for instance) gay people are inherently immoral, or that black people are inherently inferior. I'm not talking about matters of policy or how they vote or something, but of core beliefs about people. Do you think this kind of skillful communication can work in that sort of situation, or would this be an instance where long-term avoidance might be a good idea? What if you are "trapped" in a relationship with that sort of person, by blood or marriage or proximity or some other factor (such as being in community together)?


You've brought up two important issues here. First, we're not always going to want to be in relationship with some people given their truth. Second, we can't always choose who we are in relationship with -- we are trapped. The "trapped" factor is a big one. I've said elsewhere that to the extent we are irrevocably tied to someone, we are in dire need of skillful disagreement. If skillful disagreement is not possible, that's a pretty miserable situation. For those situations, my best thought is to try to keep things "light and easy", a reference to the Disneyland alluded to in the original post. In fact, one could say that many of our culture's etiquette rules are designed to facilitate just this. Keeping it "light and easy" means keeping things surface: "How are you?" "Great! And you?!" If it sounds like avoidance, that's because it is avoidance.

do you often observe dynamics where one person tends to far more often (and/or more genuinely) be the "listener" and the other the "speaker" in these sorts of situations


Yes, good point! It takes two to tango as they say. A dialog means two people engaging in it. If one person is using intimacy strategies and another is not, that's what I have called "the two planet problem" -- you are on different planets. I do believe it's up to the intimacy folks to get bilingual, but all too often that means not using intimacy strategies. That's a real shame, but I have yet to find any other options. In fact, something I call the "unholy trinity" is a description of people who are probably not capable of skillful disagreement. The Unholy Trinity consists of someone who is (1) sensitive (this can be a good thing: they pick up on real and subtle stuff), (2) defensive, and (3) unaware. I'd add a variant: (1) insensitive, (2) defensive, and (3) unaware. I mostly see the former version in women and the latter in men. As mentioned above, I tend to avoid intimacy with these folks by keeping things light and easy, something I find kind of boring and unsatisfying but necessary. During my day job as a therapist, it can take years of work to help people become aware and safe enough with their emotions that they can use intimacy strategies to engage in skillful disagreement. I have seen great change in people, but a prerequisite is that they want to change. In this article, I talk more about the Unholy Trinity and the "trapped" factor.

I have experienced situations where I will try to empathize with the other person and compromise and really get where they are coming from, and I do it over and over, and then when it's their turn, they just...don't really get it. Like, they'll pretend to understand/accept what I am saying (pretend is not quite the right word--they're not trying to be insincere--but they just genuinely don't get it but want to be accommodating and not be a jerk, so they just go through the motions)


This specific situation you talk about is heart-breaking. Sounds like someone who gets your words but not your music. And, as you are saying, that simply isn't good enough. It's not connecting and not really hearing. A summary is only the step in the door to a conversation, the other 2 steps are the most important, with true, sincere, "getting it" empathy, being the hardest and most important. With patients and people I coach, I use the analogy of an actor crying over the death of their dog, Old Yeller. Imagine an actor saying the right words without any emotion. "Cut!", yells the director. "That ain't gonna work! I need to feel your grief!" That's called good acting. And the way good actors achieve convincing tears on stage is similar to what we need to do for real empathy. Say the actor has never had a dog, much less one named "Old Yeller". How is that actor going to generate real empathy (in this case grief) for the role? By conjuring in their mind the closest similar experience, perhaps the death of their Bunny FruFru. Then, when thinking about their beautiful friend, the tears come. The Director will be happy with the emotional connection that results and so would we as the speaker in a dialog. But, if someone is not able to feel emotions that are similar or they "can't go there" or they haven't had any similar experience, empathy is not going to work very well.

If someone has repeatedly tried to be a good listener and a good speaker and they are not getting the reciprocation they need, that's when I start to think about leaving that relationship. But again, that assumes one can. Suppose you have children together, for example? These are really hard decisions that people work through sometimes agonizingly for months, typically with help from their support network. Often, however, a change in the dynamic is required. For this, it is useful to know about the pursuer-withdrawal pattern. In this pattern, someone withdraws. The other person pursues because they are not getting the connection they want, but the withdrawing person feels suffocated or impinged on and thus withdraws some more. The other person pursues even more strongly because now they're really not getting what they needed. Welcome to the pursuer-withdrawal pattern. So, one experiment to try is to withdraw rather than pursue and see what happens. This often goes along with setting a limit, "I'm not getting what I need from this conversation, so I'm going to stop having it for now" and then following up with a physical withdrawal (e.g., take a walk outside, garden). Finally, you might notice that intimacy strategies do not always invoke pleasant responses from others -- they want us to agree with them! They want us to do what they want us to do! Who can blame them? I want the same thing. However, skillful disagreement means just that -- we disagree. No one is saying the other person will like that. Indeed, disagreeing with someone is a great way of making them feel unpleasant emotion and the subsequent silence and violence of avoidance strategies. So part of skillful disagreement is being able to let people down and handling our own unpleasant emotion resulting from that: guilt anyone? That means handling that emotion without acquiescing.

There's lots of other stuff that is helpful to understand here, like the existence of extinction bursts, for example. But, at this point, I'm getting into stuff that is better described by referring to 4 quadrants and, for that, I refer you here.

 
Jennifer Richardson
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Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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Thank you for such an informative and thoughtful reply, Donal!

It's good to have someone confirm "light an easy" as a valid option for dealing with people whose truths are too much in conflict with our own...I often feel a bit cowardly doing so, but the alternative is so draining and uncomfortable and seemingly ineffective.

What you shared about the two planet problem and the Unholy Trinity is really interesting! I would say I am sensitive, defensive(ish), and aware. The person I was describing in my earlier post is actually my father, who is partially paralyzed and whom I live with and take care of (after more than a decade where I lived alone in sweet, sweet freedom and solitude, heh), and he is insensitive(ish), defensive, and unaware. His defensiveness seems to heighten my own, too, which as you can imagine does not work out well. I swear there are days when if a meteor hit the house, we'd each be competing to blame the other before it could be pinned on us.

We are actually very close and love each other very much, but we are such incredibly different people that there are some fundamental divides, and he often totally fails to "get me" or understand where I am coming from, whereas I get him almost perfectly (although he does not get himself very well, either). That probably sounds totally arrogant on my part, but it's true. Since severing the relationship isn't an option, I've been trying to work on our communication, but I do often feel that what I view as attempt at empathy or compromise on my part tends to be received by him as an admission that he is right and I am wrong (a prospect, I must admit, which riles me to no end--I wish I were more mature than that, but there you go.) There is also just a big dollop of "I am your father and I remember when you couldn't tie your shoes or spell 'cat,' so naturally I am right about everything and you know nothing, thus you should do what I say and agree with me about everything." So a lot of our arguments about...everything...devolve into a situation where I am trying to force him to acknowledge that I am a real adult person who is competent and whose opinions and goals matter, and he just wants to...watch the news. So I think the pursuer-withdrawal pattern is definitely a thing for us! I will try what you said about withdrawing rather than pursuing, and setting certain limits.

I also have been giving a lot of thought to what you said about skillful disagreement still being, y'know, disagreement. I have a tendency to not feel like a disagreement has been "solved" until some sort of compromise or consensus is reached. So I will try to be more comfortable with just flat-out disagreeing about things and being okay with that. My typical response, when my attempts to compromise and collaborate on solving the issue fail, is either to give in (often with the unspoken expectation that when it is something important to me, they will take one for the team in turn...which I have noticed tends not to happen...which then leaves me resenting them for violating a "bargain" that was actually all in my head) or to try to browbeat the other person into realizing that I am right and they should do what I want, which usually ends in anger or them shutting down (for obvious reasons). I will try not to treat intimacy strategies and skillful disagreement as tools for emotional bargaining or something I can use to manipulate people into doing what I want through more sophisticated communication, since that would be...kind of horrible.

I was trying to keep this community-focused and not turn into into a huge personal thing, which obviously I failed to do, but maybe I can extract something more general from it that will be useful to other people.

So, I think it would be interesting to explore how multi-generational communities can be healthily sustained, and how communities can produce autonomous adults (especially autonomous adults who get along with and can spend time with their extended families without losing their minds) without recourse to what I view as basically a really common and institutionalized (but unsustainable and pretty unhealthy) avoidance strategy of middle America, where we move out/away upon reaching legal age, spend most of our lives in single-family homes with our partners and/or children until our own children move out, and then pay other people to care for our parents in old age while we enjoy our "empty nest" in retirement until it's time for our children (or our savings/long-term care insurance) to pay for someone to take care of us until we die, all while driving each other nuts at holiday get-togethers or keeping it "light and easy" until we can retreat back to our own private domains. Obviously this is a stereotypical exaggeration, but I think it has a grain of truth to it, and I think that's something we have to fix if we want out communities and cultures to be truly sustainable and even regenerative.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Donal MacCoon wrote:(1) A speaker and a listener take turns


I imagine that happening in my fantasy world. Don't know how to achieve it in real life...
 
Laura Sweany
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What a great thread! I really appreciate your wise distillation, Donal - as well as your clarity of feeling, Jennifer! You are beautifully self-aware.

I've used what I call the "guild" approach to help people understand relationship dynamics. Each person has their strengths, or "function". Many old-school men tend to act rather like nitrogen-fixers: aggressive, persistent, will grow over and smother other plants, if given half a chance. But they're brittle, with little staying power: insecure. You sound more like a dynamic accumulator: strong, reaching deep, pulling up the good stuff, stubborn. Your dynamic sounds very much like mine with my dad. When I tried to renegotiate our relationship to a peer level, it didn't go well. The disrespect on his side is palpable. So I respond with compassion, for him and for me. Poor guy - so lonely, so damn competitive. Poor me - so desirous of his respect for being a functional person. This way, I keep my goodwill toward him, and that allows me to maintain my balance - and peace. I wish you all the best!

As an enthusiastic proponent of Intentional Community, I also remind folks that you don't have to LIKE everyone you're in community with, but you do need to GET ALONG with everyone. That's where the ability to withdraw becomes such a wonderful tool. One of my favorite sayings: Discretion is the better part of Valor. Thanks, Donal, for giving us such great tools for the times when we want to take the risk and dive into intimate communication. Because it is a risk: what you are risking is TRUST. In my experience, without trust, there is very little security or peace. It's hard to rest, emotionally, without trust. Even if you cannot reach agreement, at least it's possible to maintain trust if you've got the tools to re-emerge from intimate conversation with balance.
 
Jennifer Richardson
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Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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When I tried to renegotiate our relationship to a peer level, it didn't go well. The disrespect on his side is palpable. So I respond with compassion, for him and for me. Poor guy - so lonely, so damn competitive. Poor me - so desirous of his respect for being a functional person. This way, I keep my goodwill toward him, and that allows me to maintain my balance - and peace.


Laura, that is such a helpful way way of describing and responding to the dynamic. I can't even articulate it, but something really clicked when I read that...especially, "Poor me - so desirous of his respect for being a functional person." All sorts of insights that cascaded from that, so thank you so very much.

And you are absolutely right about my dad being brittle--I think especially since he was always a very physically strong and athletic person, now that he is dealing with the paralysis and with aging, he is really self-conscious and insecure about it, and sometimes I think that his disrespect for me is exaggerated because he so dislikes having to rely on me the way he does now.

I also really appreciate your point that liking someone is not necessary to be able to get along with them, and that it's a good idea to weigh the risks before attempting intimate communication.
 
Laura Sweany
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Thanks for the props, Hon. I'm so glad I could help.

I still love my dad madly, but I don't really talk to him any more. Unfortunately, you don't have that luxury. Your grace will prevail, I have no doubt. Keep up the beautiful work!
 
Donal MacCoon
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I'm really loving the depth of the conversation that you both bring! Love the analogies relating the conversation back to permaculture at the plant level. Deep bow of gratitude to both Laura and Jennifer for sharing who you are so eloquently and courageously.

I also have found it very valuable to make the distinction between liking vs. getting along. Very important in my view.

I've also found it helpful to think about "slogging", as in slogging through the muck, one step at a time. This is for times that truly suck and that seem like they'll go on forever. I think there's strength in slogging, even some nobility. That doesn't help much, but it does help some: to know that sometimes we just have to slog and that we're not doing anything wrong because we're slogging. And, of course when we're slogging we can forgive ourselves for all kinds of things we do that might not be ideal under non-slogging circumstances. My 3 year old Son went through 3 years of treatment for Leukemia. Was I at my best? Definitely not. There were days I just had to leave work and kind of walk around in a fog. I treated myself to frites and Belgian beer. I got a little heavier than I would like. But, I was slogging, so F it, you know? So, I guess I think that slogging is another set of skills that make us less brittle and more resilient for our community -- and most of our communities need more resilience. I wonder, too, about the ability to just slog even when there doesn't feel like a lot of hope, like for our planet.

 
Laura Sweany
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Yeah, slogging. Nice word. I've done that.

When I go through a rough patch, I try to remember it's like seasons - a kind of pattern. There will always be an up to the down, a yin to the yang. I just have to practice my patience (and compassion, as you mention), and KNOW the change will come. It always does.

I guess this is how age can create wisdom. It's one thing for someone to tell you about it, and quite another to live through the patterns.
 
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