Many of the couples I work with say their number one problem is communication. Usually the real problem is learning to stay calm when conversing with each other, especially if the topic is a “touchy” one.
Sadly, it doesn’t take much to turn a loving person into one who doesn’t act loving at all. We can go from asking a simple question to name-calling to shaming in only seconds. And once one person says something awful, the other feels justified saying something hurtful back. Does this couple have a problem communicating? Maybe. What they do have is a need to find new ways to manage themselves.
Here’s one simple skill that can change your life and your relationship–I call it Green Light Practice. Imagine a traffic light over the center core of your body. The green light centers around the abdomen area, the yellow light in the chest and the red light around the neck area. This symbol or image helps you stay connected with your internal experience and helps you navigate the conversation more effectively.
The goal when communicating with someone you love is to stay green. What this means is you are open to hear whatever is said and calm enough to speak clearly in response. In green you are able to speak without offending and listen without defending. The lines of communication remain open in green. The breath expands and releases from the abdomen and the body is at ease.
In green you have the:
Going yellow means the breath has moved up into the chest and you are beginning to feel anxious, angry or attacked. The chest tightens, the breath shortens and anxiety rises. If you’ve gone yellow you may not be able to hear what your partner is trying to say, much less be able to understand them. Your ability to stand firm, respond with kindness and communicate clearly is now compromised. Yellow means you’re in the dangerous waters of saying or doing something that you’ll later regret.
When you go yellow…pause, self soothe, take a deep breath, re-center in your own way. Make an effort to move back down to green. Sometimes you may need to let the person you’re talking to know that you are feeling yellow. An added bonus is you are the one who most accurately reports your internal signals so there’s no arguing about your experience. On the other hand, only you can keep yourself in check. Ask for a moment to take a breath and reset back to center.
When you’ve gone red the emotional thermometer has hit the top of the scale. You are angry, irrational, and may resort to old and ineffective patterns of relating. You’ve lost control and are about to have a head-on collision with a person you claim to love. If you are red and you’re still talking you are definitely going to say things that will hurt the other person and make you feel awful in the end. (Unless making your spouse feel worse makes you feel better…but that’s another post.)
When you have gone red it’s time to take a timeout…come to a FULL STOP. Ideally, you can calm yourself down without having to completely disengage from the conversation. What we know from neurology is that when we’ve gone red we are no longer using the higher level parts of our brain. We are relying on the instinctual protective elements of our mid to lower brains, the same areas that we have in common with mammals and reptiles. If you are red, STOP, let your partner know you’ve gone red and take a break.
So how do we keep ourselves from acting like skunks or snakes?
Learning to stay green is a skill like any other skill you might try to master…it requires practice. It means being in touch with what’s happening in your body, being aware of your emotional state and monitoring your behaviors. Like most aspects of life, effort matters more than perfection. So when you go red, may you have the humility to apologize, the courage to try again and the wisdom to do better next time.
Stay tuned for part two of this post: Tips for Staying Green…