Help for Families
Step 3: How to Cope: Communicate to Be Heard
Step 3 (or Powertool 3) in the Beyond Blame System is about listening and feeling heard. It's tough to communicate with people who have personality disorders because the disorder garbles both incoming and outgoing messages, causing massive chaos and confusion. As an analogy, think of them as having "aural dyslexia," in which they hear words and sentences backward, inside out, sideways, and devoid of context. You may frequently feel hounded about small trifles, and all-out fights can erupt over nothing—at least, nothing you can see. Research has shown that when friends and family members learn the right techniques for communicating with their disordered loved ones, the relationship runs much more smoothly.
However, if you are being yelled at or emotionally/verbally abused, do not fight with the person. Leave the area—go to a room or outside; a safe place you can call your own. Don't disappear; say something like, "Right now things are feeling too hostile and we aren't getting anywhere. Let's pick this up later when we've both calmed down."
Try deep breathing
When things start to get tense, always remember to breathe! When you get anxious, your body releases chemicals that turn it into a “fight or flight” machine. Your breaths get short and shallow. When neither fighting nor flighting is a viable option, this biological stress response wreaks havoc on your body and mind. It becomes even more difficult to think straight. Deep breathing will calm you down, help you concentrate, and give you a few extra seconds to think.
To better understand how this works, sit in a comfortable chair, close your eyes and put one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Then take a slow, deep breath so that your stomach rises, not your chest. Count to five and breathe in, then count to five as your breathe out.
As a test, think of yourself having an unpleasant conversation with your family member. Now try breathings and focusing in on something pleasant and peaceful: a cloud or a lake, perhaps. You will learn to incorporate some form of deeper breathing in conversations to keep yourself calm (it does take practice).
Acknowledge What You Hear
Acknowledging, or more properly “empathic acknowledging,” is similar to the term validation used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
There are two steps to empathic acknowledging:
Step 1. Actively listen to your family member with 100 percent of your attention without interrupting, asking questions, offering solutions, or thinking about what you’re going to say next.
Step 2. Separate your BP’s distorted thinking from the intense, overwhelming feelings, and then empathically acknowledge those emotions to your family member without necessarily agreeing with the thoughts that link the two.
There are three components of empathic acknowledgment: empathy, listening, and acknowledgment.
Empathy is different from sympathy. It is emotionally putting yourself in someone else’s place to the point when you can almost vicariously experience the other person’s thoughts and feelings.
Most of the time we listen on automatic. We hear “blah, blah, blah” and other thoughts float in and out of our head. We filter out what we disagree with or don’t want to hear and focus on whatever affirms our own beliefs. When we listen on automatic, we miss out on the subtleties of what is being said—or unsaid. Active listening is powerful because it says, “You and what you say is so important that I’m giving you my undivided time and attention.
Verbal acknowledgment responses should be kind, gentle, and respectful with the intent of understanding the other person. For example:
• Use verbal encouragers: “Oh,” “Hmm,” “Really,” “Wow,” “That’s interesting,” “Cool,” “I see.” These responses show you’re listening.
• Reflect their feelings: “That sounds (frustrating, sad, scary, wonderful, difficult, exciting)” “I bet that was (difficult, etc.)
• Show involvement: “I’m (happy, sad, glad) for you.” “I would feel (confused, lonely happy) too.”
• Punctuate intense emotions: “I can’t believe that!” “Oh no!” “How wonderful!” “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
When communicating with your family member in writing (especially emails) keep things Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. First I'll explain what BIFF is, and then give you an example. Before I do, let me give some friendly advice: don't argue via text. You will not get anywhere.
Focus on the accurate statements you want to make, not on the inaccuracies made by the other person. Avoid little digs and negative comments. Avoid sarcasm and threats. Personal attacks rarely lead to insight or positive change.
While you may be tempted to respond in anger, you are much more likely to reach your goal by being friendly but brief. A friendly (but not overly so) response will increase your chances of getting a friendly or neutral response in return.
Make it sound like you recognize their concerns. Show Empathy, Attention and Respect (E.A.R.). This will generally calm the other person down, even if only for a short time.
In a non-threatening way, clearly spell out your information or position on an issue. (For example: "That's all I'm going to say about this.") Sound confident and don't ask for more information if you want to end the back-and-forth. A confident-sounding person is less likely to be challenged with further emails.
If you get more emails anyway, you can ignore them if you've already addressed the inaccurate information. If you need to respond again, keep it even briefer and do not emotionally engage.
Here is a BIFF example between two divorced people. This is from the creator of BIFF, Bill Eddy, and reprinted from his book BIFF: BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns. Here, Jane has made a simple request to change parenting time. Joe responds.
Joe's email: "Jane, I can't believe you are so stupid as to think that I'm going to let you take the children to your boss' birthday party during my parenting time. Have you no memory of the last six conflicts we've had about my parenting time? Or are you having an affair with him? I always knew you would do anything to get ahead! In fact, I remember coming to your office party witnessing you making a total fool of yourself – including flirting with everyone from the CEO down to the mailroom kid! Are you high on something? [And on and on and on for two full pages in an email.]
Jane: "Thank you for responding to my request to take the children to my office party. Just to clarify, the party will be from 3-5 on Friday at the office and there will be approximately 30 people there--including several other parents bringing school-age children. There will be no alcohol, as it is a family-oriented firm and there will be family-oriented activities. I think it will be a good experience for them to see me at my workplace. Since you do not agree, then of course I will respect that and withdraw my request, as I recognize it is your parenting time." [And that's the end of her email.]