Setting the stage: It’s more important than you think.
Linda: I had to learn this one the hard way. In the early years of my relationship with Charlie whenever there was something that I felt that we needed to discuss, particularly something that was bothering me, I would launch into a conversation, leading with my concerns, often before Charlie had any sense of what was going on. Not surprisingly, he often didn’t know what hit him. To put it mildly, this wasn’t the best way to begin the conversation. While I usually felt like I was just being honest about my feelings, Charlie often felt like he was being broadsided by a medium-sized truck.
Consequently, the result was that I was now dealing not only with the initial disturbance that had motivated me to speak out in the first place, but in addition, with Charlie’s (understandable) defensiveness and reactivity. Over time (more than I care to admit), I came to realize that Charlie was interpreting my gestures to heal a rift between us as a surprise attack, which didn’t exactly predispose him to being open and conciliatory. I want him to feel that way, but I had no models from my past experience of how to initiate important conversations in a respectful way. I was ignorant of how crucial it is to set the stage for an important dialogue.
Preparation is an often overlooked and neglected aspect of skillful communication. When I did finally come to realize how important this was, I referred to this phenomenon as “introductory remarks.” I might, for example, say something like, “I have something that I’d like to discuss with you. Is this a good time for us to talk?” or “I have something that is bothering me. It’s touchy material and I want you to know that the reason that I’m bringing it up is because I want us to be closer to each other.” Or “I want to get something off my heart. I don’t want anything to be a barrier between us. Are you available now?”
The main things that I wanted to communicate before initiating the actual conversation was that my intention was to enhance the quality of our relationship and not to criticize or blame Charlie, and to reassure him that I was making a request or extending an invitation to a dialogue, as opposed to making a demand, and that I would respect and accept his response to it, whatever it was. Fortunately, Charlie was generally likely to accept my invitation, perhaps because I was generally willing to take “No” for an answer if he wasn’t feeling ready to talk at the time. Over time, his “no’s” became less frequent, perhaps because I could accept them without pressing or trying to coerce him to accommodate my request. By inviting him to choose the time of our talk, I was giving him a chance to prepare himself and affirming his authority as well as mine to influence the process.
All too often a couple will launch into a heated topic (money, sex, kids, in-laws, to name a few) before they have properly set the stage. They’ve already gotten off on the wrong foot. The same frightened, anxious, energetic that sent them diving into the conversation is likely to have them continue blurting out statements that are less than constructive. By taking the time to set the stage, we optimize the likelihood of creating the best possible outcome from the dialogue. Taking a contemplative pause gives us each time to consider our intentions and desired outcome for our conversation. Taking a few quiet moments prior to engaging with each other helps us to presence ourselves in a way that supports a spirit of goodwill and an intention of mutual satisfaction, rather than a win-lose outcome.
When I announce my intention as one of deepening the connection that Charlie and I have, rather than one of making him wrong for something he may have done or said, my motivation in doing so is not only to put him at ease and provide him with reassurance, but also to support myself in speaking my truth by living down a life-long pattern of cutting myself off at the throat by pushing down feelings of dissatisfaction, disappointment, pain, or anger. In doing so, I am reassuring myself that I am not simply whining, complaining or being mean-spirited, but am holding an intention that is worthy, legitimate and mutually fulfilling. I trust into my sincere desire to create a loving, cooperative relationship, one that wouldn’t require either one of us to be subordinate to the other in order for both of our needs to be met.
Both Charlie and I needed plenty of practice in those days in order to break the decades-old patterns that we had brought to our relationship, and we got it. Old habits don’t die easily, but they do eventually dissolve, although the process usually takes longer and requires more practice than we think it should. Along the way, however, we get to cultivate other necessary qualities and strengths that serve us greatly, not only in our relationships, but in all areas of our lives. Qualities like perseverance, commitment, vulnerability, trust, integrity, and generosity. Like anything else of value, there are prices to be paid, but in this case, in the final analysis, the benefits far outweigh the costs.