Have you ever gotten the sense that someone is mad at you and they haven’t said a word? Or perhaps you’ve experienced a time where you felt terrified and thought you were playing it off well but everyone seems to notice? Have you gotten into an argument with your partner and you don’t even know how it started, other than them asking “what’s wrong?”, and you simply replied with “Nothing.” We are constantly communicating with nonverbal cues and our body and facial language.
Research has shown that over 70% of our communication is nonverbal. Both Dr. Sue Johnson and Dr. John Gotten, leaders in the field of couples therapy, have found that the brain reads, receives, processes and prepares for a response in 3/100th of a second to these micro-expressions. Our brain and body prepare and send a response to those cues in less than 1/100th of a second. This happens as part of our natural fight-flight-faint response.This very thing that helps to protect us in many situations can severely damage encounters and relationships. So when you think you feel like you don’t know how you ended up in an argument, this process is partly to blame.
It is difficult to over-ride a system that has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years. So, rather than trying to undo it, we can learn to work with it. We can do this by using our thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) and our words to create a safer atmosphere for communicating. Our emotional brain reacts much quicker than our thinking brain, so it needs time to help us communicate in a way that is non-threatening. These are a few ways to do that:
Slowing down our body and its natural responses can allow the slower part of our brain, the thinking brain, time to process all of the information we’re receiving and prepare to send a response or communicate in a way we intend and know will be helpful, not hurtful.
Start with “I” statements.
I am feeling scared right now. I am feeling overwhelmed right now. I am not sure what I’m feeling or thinking right now. Rather than attacking or accusing with a “what’s wrong with you” or “why are you so mad”, start with talking about what you are feeling and experiencing. This will give your partner time to figure out what they are feeling and what their body is saying to you. It’s easy to become accusatory or defensive without even knowing what’s happening inside of us so take the time to slow down and share how you are feeling.
Be aware of the signals you are giving.
Given the above, we’re already sending out nonverbal danger signals to our partners without knowing it. So when we’ve seen someone who looks mad, we prepare to fight or flight with our facial and body expressions. It’s happened already; you’ve already sent back a message, that likely exacerbates rather than soothes the other.
Reflect – SOFTLY.
Put to words what it is you are seeing and share that. For example, if you see your partner as angry, know that anger is usually masking someone who is feeling sad or scared, and say, “It seems that you may be sad or scared, is there something I can do to better support you or to help you talk to me?” If they dig in and say they are just mad or just mad at you, reassure them that you will be there when they are ready to talk.
Take a time out.
Let your partner know if you are feeling overwhelmed, defensive, angry, etc. It’s always okay to ask for a break to calm down or collect your thoughts. Just make sure to let your partner know when you plan to re-address the issue. Don’t just leave them hanging!
Skills to avoid defensiveness are learned skills and don’t come easily or overnight. It takes lots of practice.