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Oct 20 2010

Creating the Wise Conversation: Rules for the Searching and Fearless Conversation (SFC): The Heart of Relationship Hygiene

Published by at 6:26 pm under Advice,Articles,Knowing Relationships BLOG

By Philip Belove, Ed.D.

In a New Yorker cartoon by Leo Cullum, the elephant is on the psychoanalyst’s couch and saying with a pained expression, “I’m right there in the room, and no one even acknowledges me.”

The core of Relationship Hygiene is the Searching and Fearless Conversation.

Sometimes you have to talk about tough stuff.  Ask the dentist which teeth you have to floss and the dentist will say, “Only floss the ones you want to keep.” Relationship hygiene is like flossing.  Only do it in the relationships you want to keep.

Of course, this principle only applies to intimate relationships between equals.  The mark of equality between partners is that both care equally about the concerns of the other.

Rule One:  The Searching and Fearless Conversation is as intimate as sex; set aside a time and place for it.

Turn off the phone.  Don’t hurry. Appreciate every minute.  Give it your full attention.

(Hint: Once you get good at it, once you have a sense of how it works between you, you’ll find that you can have a “quicky” now and then and it’s pretty good, too.

Rule Two: Acknowledge and appreciate your partner’s willingness to do this on a regular basis

At the beginning and end of each session say something like this:  “I know this is hard. I believe we do it in order to the relationship good for both of us. I appreciate your effort and your caring.”  Say it and mean it.

Rule Three: After each statement, the other partner says back, in his, or her, own words what’s just been said. Until the speaker says, “Yes, you’ve understood me,” then the other person can’t respond.

This is not easy to do. It slows the conversation way down.  It makes incredible cognitive demands on you. Here is why:  It’s very difficult to appreciate and follow a line of thought when it runs so opposed to your own line of thinking.

I’m a pretty good listener and when someone is saying something I disagree with, and it’s about something that’s important to me, almost every cell in my body is screaming, “No. That’s not it. That’s not it at all.”  The urge to explain my side constantly threatens to drown out what they are saying.  I don’t particularly want to hear their side. I want to explain and justify my side.  I want to persuade. I do not want to be persuaded. All of this must be resisted.  Your own position has to be set aside. You have to commit to listening.

How do you know if you are a good listener?

People talk more. People who only imagine they are good listeners, but really aren’t, don’t know this. They complain and say that they’d like to communicate but their partner won’t talk. Often it’s because their partner does not expect to be listened to.

Rule Three-and-a-Half: Spoon Feed.

You have to deliver your position in small doses.  You can’t harangue.  You can’t rant. You have to say what you have to say without overwhelming or steam rolling your partner.  If you are telling someone something they don’t want to hear or agree with, and they are committed to staying open anyway, make it easy on them.

Rule Four:  No PABAS

PABAS is an acronym. (Thanks to the late Jack Tannenbaum for this.)  It stands for

Put downs, Attacks, Blaming, Accusations, Sarcasm

Here’s the deal. You’re doing this instead of having a fight.  But the temptation you are resisting is to have a fight. Therefore what ever your favorite weapons are – and usually one partner will have one set and the other will have a different set – you will itch to use them.  It’s so easy to blame (well, if you hadn’t…) or counter with sarcasm (Well, thank God you would never….) or … well, you know how it goes.

All the other rules tell what to do. Rule Four is more challenging. It tells you what to not do.  Simple to say: Don’t do it. But in the moment…very difficult to follow.

Rule Four-and-a-half: Don’t forget the difference between Intention and Impact.

You may intend one thing but the impact on your partner may be entirely different.  What you want to care about is how it was experienced by your partner.

Rule Five:  Remember why you are doing this. It is to develop a feeling for the relationship (FFR).

This is, for most people a very unusual concept. It is the key to effectiveness in a relationship.  A feeling for the relationship is a sense of how the relationship works. It means you take your sense of your partner and how she (or he) tends to handle things and you combine it with your sense of yourself (and you have to be honest here) and how you tend to handle things, and then you see how they fit together.

You end up with rules of thumb for the relationship:  “If I tend to (whatever), then there’s a good chance that my partner with (whatever) in return. If my partner starts to (whatever) then almost always I’ll (whatever) in return. This is our dance.”

For example, Bill has come to understand that if he makes a decision for Ginette without talking to her, her first response will be to go along and then a day later she’ll get really angry and back out of the plan, and then she’ll be stubborn about almost everything for several days.  In a Searching and Fearless Conversation he learned that is  wasn’t that she didn’t want to have dinner with his friends, it was that she didn’t want him to make commitments for her.  Neither one of them knew this until they’d cycled through this dance many times and finally had an SFC about it.

Relationship hygiene is not the fun part of a relationship, but it can be erotic.

There is something fascinating about it and couples who regularly practice it almost always talk about the incredible sexually excitement that comes up between them after a good, but difficult conversation.  Some people call it “make-up sex” and say it’s the best. That’s because the relationship hygiene conversation, the searching and fearless conversation, is incredibly intimate. In fact, it pushes the limits of intimacy.

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8 responses so far

8 Responses to “Creating the Wise Conversation: Rules for the Searching and Fearless Conversation (SFC): The Heart of Relationship Hygiene”

  1. CaribAmMDon 22 Oct 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Thanks for the Fearless conversation tips. Sorry you lost your phone.
    Sent you a note by email.
    Should I communicate here preferentially?

  2. drbeloveon 22 Oct 2010 at 6:20 pm

    What you say here is public.

  3. CaribAmMDon 22 Oct 2010 at 5:02 pm

    …That our thoughts cause our moods, and that many of these thoughts we are having are erroneous. They are illogical. They are factually wrong.

    By changing our thoughts, we can change how we feel. That isn’t the same thing as saying we create reality. There are some people who claim that by thinking things we make them happen. I’m not sure that can be demonstrated. But it can be demonstrated that our thoughts affect how we feel. We don’t create reality. We do create how we feel about reality. Cary Tennis

    On page 389 of “Feeling Good — The New Mood Therapy,” by Dr. David Burns, is a chapter called “The Illogic of Suicide.”
    “Nearly all suicidal patients have in common an illogical sense of hopelessness and the conviction they are facing an insoluble dilemma,” Burns writes. “Once you expose the distortions in your thinking, you will experience considerable emotional relief. This can give you a basis for hope and help you avert a dangerous suicide attempt.”

    You helped me find emotional relief from my fixed midset. NW

  4. drbeloveon 22 Oct 2010 at 6:19 pm

    I suppose that the thoughts which are erroneous which these teachers refer to are the thoughts we have about relationships. Relationships are vitally important to us. We are mammals. Relationships to us are like water to fish. By changing our inner images we can certainly change the relationships we are in and also our feelings. This is nothing new. Theater art is the practice of creating feelings by manipulating images. Maybe, music also.

    Feelings are also information. Maybe also there are always distortions (not a word I like) in the thinking about relationships. After all, an intimate relationship contains all you are, what you with hold, and also all the othe rperson is. It’s a more complex mind than your own. Of course you’ll never get it undistorted. the best thinking about a relationship is still like a very good drawing of a landscape.

  5. Normaon 23 Oct 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Thank you for these (where’s Part One?!)

    Rules 3, 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 particularly resonate with me and it’s so helpful to know how to deal with wanting to respond whilst the other person is speaking (and to know that others experience this, too). Sometimes I have even put my hand in front of my mouth just to stop me butting in with my wisdom.

    And I’ve often felt like Gina: I suppose that Gina / I also have to learn to speak up in a timely fashion – and to speak up in bite sized pieces.

    As you know, I’m screwing up my courage and calming myself down for a conversation. I feel like one of those cartoon characters about to run off a cliff into empty space…

  6. drbeloveon 23 Oct 2010 at 6:25 pm

    Part One is here:

    Right. In American slang we talk about how I hat to “bite my tongue” to keep from speaking.
    And that’s why we have to repeat what we’ve heard. So often our ability to hear is drowned out by the action of preparing our answer.

    there really is no such thing as multi-tasking. At best you alternate between the two tasks and don’t do either all that well.

    More coming, thanks for the feedback.


  7. Normaon 24 Oct 2010 at 3:47 am

    We bite our tongues here in the UK too (not often enough, perhaps).

    Otherwise we tell the other person. if they are going on too long, to “put a sock in it”. No idea where that comes from and I’m not sure the younger ones still say that.

  8. CaribAmMDon 16 Nov 2010 at 4:16 pm

    Hi Philip:
    I guess my last question got lost. I wanted to know if woman in a relationship based on material support and sexual attraction is called a bimbo, golddigger, what is the term for a relationship based on material support and emotional support without sexual attraction? A wife? An Emo-buddy? Friend without benefits?
    What do I say when the day comes, when I am asked, “don’t you find me attractive?”
    Do I look fat in this dress? Am I more sexy than your ex? Do I have to wear that lingere?
    Ans: I love you just the way you are, of course not. Nothing can improve on how you look right now.
    Ques:”Daddy, am I the prettyest girl in school?”
    Ans: I dunno but you’re beautiful to me. You are perfect.
    Lie and lie, like Richard Nixon, over and over sincerely, until I convince myself its true. What is truth anyway, right? Beauty is in the eye of the beast, I mean beholder.
    Shallow Hal