Friday, September 27, 2013

What is Lying? What is the Truth? And How To Listen in Your Relationships

One common paired theme that seems to come up on one dating blog after another is lying and truth telling. Obviously, these two not only apply to romantic relationships - they are found in all human relationships, and frequently are the pivot points between harmony and discord.

But when you get down to it, what is a lie and what is the truth? It's a simple question that isn't always easily answered. Furthermore, when it comes to working with others in your life in a caring, respectful manner, the issue is timing, as well as how something is said can be just as important (or moreso even) than whether it's truthful or not. In other words, I think people sometimes get too fixated on a black and white sense of truth telling and lying, forgetting that everything happens in a larger context.

As a general rule, I find it really helpful to make a discernment between basic facts of a given situation, and evaluations or judgments. This idea is loosely coming from a relationship practice called NVC, or Non-violent communication, which was developed by psychologist and social activist Marshall Rosenberg. What Rosenberg discovered working in situations where conflict was quite high and challenging was that when people spoke from a place of their feelings and perceived needs, instead of a place of judgment and evaluative criticism, not only was conflict reduced, but it became easier for everyone involved in a given situation to gain clarity about the truth. Having taken workshops on NVC in the past, I'd even go so far as to say that the truth isn't a set of statements - it's more about a way of being and acting. A process, in other words.

Some key components of this process are the following:

1. Deep listening and patience, even in the face of things you don't want to hear.

2. A willingness to speak from a place of how you feel and what you believe your needs are, instead of judgment.

3. Making an effort to separate factual observations from evaluations or opinions.

4. Being open to making requests of another, as well as receiving their requests.

Now, all of this takes practice. It's not something you can simply try once and be skilled at. In addition, I believe that within any given relationship, there are times and situations that call for some judgements or evaluations to be made. But even then, I believe that something like NVC can be helpful in delivering that information to another in a way that it might be heard.

Let's consider point number three above in more detail, since this is one that often trips people up, whether on a first date or after ten years of marriage.

Suppose your waiting for your date or partner and they are late. Here are two ways you could think about the situation:

Factual observation: "He/she is 20 minutes late."

Evaluation/Judgment: "He/she doesn't respect me. He/she isn't interested in me."

If your mind is like mine, you might have the tendency to flip towards the second kind of statement. Statements like that seem to offer an answer to what's going on, and also tap into the anxiety, anger, or other turbulent emotions that might be happening in response to uncertainty.

However, although it may feel good in the short term to internally blast your date or partner for being late, it's actually not helpful in terms of the relationship as a whole, nor does it do anything to get at the truth of the situation. You're just speculating about motives or reasons, and usually said speculation is all negative. Instead of thinking "I don't know why they are late. Maybe it's this or that." You leap to the worst case scenarios, or make some totalizing judgment about the person that does little more than burn off a little steam in the short term. How often have you called someone an asshole in your mind (or even to their face), only to find out that there was a very good reason behind what it was that they did or didn't do?

None of this, of course, means that you should put up with patterns of behavior that aren't healthy or respectful from a date or partner. Obviously, if someone is chronically late, you have every right to say something. But when you decide to speak up about someone's chronic lateness, you have to consider what your intention is. Do you want to mend the relationship? Do you desire to stay together with this person? Or are you so pissed off that you don't care anymore?"

If you want to aim towards maintaining the relationship, then even when speaking of the pattern, you can re-frame it in a way where you might better be heard.

For example, you might say something like "You have been late to the last several dates. When you are late, I feel anxious and sometimes angry because I don't know why you are late, and I value our time together."

And you can, in the spirit of NVC, add a request here, such as "Would you be willing to talk a little about this with me?"

Again, one of the main reasons for approaching things in this way is to maximize the chances that you'll be heard. And to maximize the chance that you will hear the other person. So much of conflicts boil down to not listening deeply enough to each other, and simply jumping to conclusions or judgments that may have nothing to do with the actual truth. When I look back at some of my relationships during my 20s, I kind of cringe at the numerous ways in which I failed to listen well, and simply assumed the worst.

And so, I offer NVC, as well as a general call for deeper listening, as methods of truth finding, and also relationship strengthening.

Your thoughts?


  1. This is great advice for people who can actually understand, and verbalize, how they feel and what their needs are. Most people, at least in my social circle (IT, high-tech, my ex-bf's professor buddies are also definitely in this group) go through life vaguely registering that they're feeling kind of off, don't know why, don't know how to react. Then one day they blow up for reasons unknown even to themselves. I admit I am not without blame on that one myself.

    Also, many people, especially women, go in the opposite direction of the overreaction that you described. They see their partner doing something that should be addressed, day after day after day, and either pretend not to notice it, or make excuses for it. "he came home at five in the morning, OF COURSE he must've pulled an all nighter again, he works sooo hard" Until again, one day it becomes too much, and they blow up.

    We should all be in touch with our feelings and with our surroundings a lot more than we are. And by we, I mean myself in the first place.

  2. I agree that the majority of people go through life vaguely registering what's going on, and struggling to even convey some basic sense of their experience to a partner or another person in their lives. And you're also right that another tendency is to ignore or rationalize problematic behavior.

    One of the strengths of NVC is that it offers a lot of very concrete language. Even if someone only is able to pick up some of that language to help them speak about their experience, that would be an improvement. And often, the improvement comes through experiencing someone else in your life offering their take on things in a non-accusatory manner. Sort of a mirroring effect you might say.

    I haven't met too many folks who are really attuned and able to fully embody something like NVC in their relationships. I'm not there myself. So, one way to think about what I wrote above is to reflect on where you're at, and how some aspect of NVC might be useful or not.

  3. I think its important to understand your feelings and where they come from. I'm a bit of a catastrophizer, like the scenario you describe above. I found that after doing cognitive therapy I was able to just identify my root feelings and it made me feel 100% better, in turn I wouldn't react by getting upset, crying, fighting, etc.

    1. This is exactly the issue I am having, that I would really like to address sometime soon. In my last relationship it actually got worse than getting upset and crying, because it had gotten very exhausting for me physically towards the end (which I had not realized at the time). Not only was I dozing off at the wheel (and everywhere else too), I'd started having this weird thing when all of a sudden, I'd feel a lump in my throat and have trouble breathing. And I still thought everything was fine between me and bf and this breathing thing was probably just part of getting old. It went away completely after the breakup and never happened to me again. I wish I'd been able to register how I was feeling before I almost ran myself into the ground. Thanks for the tip re cognitive therapy. I'll ask around to see who in my area offers that.

  4. if only we could act from such a place of sensibility all the time, instead of shooting from the hip...

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