How to Build Behavior and Emotional Awareness in Relationships

Posted April 17th, 2017 in Couples Counseling, Featured, Marriage Counseling, Relationship Issues by

My last article introduced the effort to notice patterns and clues that a conversation has turned crucial, and especially to notice when the conversation is no longer safe for useful dialogue. In this article, I continue from body awareness to emotional awareness.

Sign #2 – Emotional Awareness

Some people notice their emotions easily and are quick to realize they’re feeling scared, angry, or hurt (among other emotions). Others, on the other hand, may have a more vague experience and simply notice that they are generally “feeling.” In either case, a person will find it helpful to check into themselves to identify and specifically name an emotion; one can become emotionally flooded quickly if feelings are left unattended. Once strong emotions are activated, they have a tendency to take over one’s ability to remain reasonable.

Pause and Ask Questions

A helpful tool for managing strong emotion is pausing when it’s noticed – ask yourself what part of you the emotion is coming from. Ask yourself, “How old is this emotion?” You may just get an image or impression of yourself in a time of childhood when you felt that emotion strongly.

While you’re doing this work to have effective conversations, have one with this younger version of yourself. For the sake of learning more about your emotions and reactions, ask the younger you simple questions, like “What are you feeling?” or “Are you afraid of something?” This will not only give more information about your current emotion, but may address hurt areas of your heart and result in self-soothing. If you find that this exercise uncovers extreme emotions or traumatic memories, prioritize your wellness and take a break from the current conversation, find a place to sit calmly and breathe, and find professional help when you engage that memory again.

Retrace Your Story

Another helpful tool for managing emotion is learning to retrace your story. I’ll explain what the Crucial Conversations literature calls The Path to Action in a future article, but put simply – emotions come from the stories we tell ourselves about events that happen to us. Every human is wired to interpret circumstances and objective facts, and these interpretations are the stories we tell ourselves about what happened. These stories inform the emotions we feel about what happened to us.

When you notice strong emotions present, it is highly effective to ask yourself what story that emotion is coming from. Just like going back to see how old an emotion feels, now you can ask yourself what meaning you made of the events surrounding the emotion – this is the story you told. These can have profound morals that guide your whole life.

I’ll give an example of how quickly a story develops, and how to retrace that emotion toward a healthy dialogue. Let’s say I’m having a conversation with a coworker, and they lean in and their voice becomes louder (facts). I interpret this as their being angry with me (story). Believing that they are angry with me makes me start to feel defensive and scared (emotion). Now perhaps my interpretation was correct and they were angry, or perhaps leaning in and getting louder actually meant that they felt passionate about the topic we were discussing. If this were the case, I wouldn’t want to react as if they were angry!

The point is that our stories may or may not be true, and the meaning we give them is powerful, so we should be careful to have high self-awareness. Bringing the other person into our process can help create very healthy conversation.

To bring the other person into the dialogue, here are four helpful steps:

1) name your emotions
2) name your story
3) name the facts
4) invite them to tell you their interpretations of the facts

Just one successful use of these four suggested steps will likely provide you with a powerful and new kind of interaction. Here’s how it would look in the above scenario:

“I notice I’m feeling angry and defensive.” (Emotion)
“I think it’s because when I saw you lean in and raise your voice,” (Facts) “I interpreted that as you being angry either about me or the situation.” (Story)
“Can you tell me what was going on for you when your voice got louder and you leaned in?” (Invitation)

This is naming your path to action. Notice how strong yet inviting it is to name a specific behavior and ask about it. The process of naming your path to action and inviting their own allows you to more vulnerably connect with others about both processes. This can also be used to clear up misunderstanding, and is ultimately an invitation into deeper connection.

Sign #3 – Behavior Awareness

Physical behavior is probably the most straightforward sign to look for, and is deeply connected to both body awareness as well as emotion. Behavior is the easiest to notice since it is the least introspective and can be noticed by either partner. Behavior might manifest in you or your partner raising your voice, pointing a finger, or becoming quiet. Or perhaps you started the conversation sitting together, and find yourself changing positions on the couch (turning away or toward the person) or getting up – these are physical signs that there may have been an important shift in the conversation from dialogue to conflict.

Notice when your head hangs down (shame), your eyes wander (thinking or remembering), your face forms a grimace or closes up, your eyes widen, or other behaviors like leaning in, raising your voice, or cutting someone off mid-sentence.

Awareness of abnormal behavior or changed body language and positioning is often a cue that there is a deeper emotional connection being made at the story level. This can be for you or your conversation partner, and it likely indicates that it is time to pause and ask yourself some questions, develop awareness, and reconnect to the other without reactivity. Don’t just move on, don’t press into the conversation yet – your body, emotions, and behavior all just told you to stop and do relationship work before moving ahead.

Awareness is the first step. G.I. Joe says that “knowing is half the battle,” and I agree. Learning to notice signs of a conversation turning crucial through these three key awareness areas of body, emotion, and behavior can transform your ability to pause a conversation before it becomes counterproductive. If you would like to pursue growing in your communication and awareness skills – either as an individual or a couple – from a Christian strengths-based perspective, I would love to meet with you at my offices in Bothell or Downtown Seattle.

Photo
“Time to Think,” courtesy of Enrico, Flickr Creative Commons

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Andrew Engstrom

Andrew Engstrom, MS, LMFTA

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy Associate

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