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About 12 years ago, I experienced one of those “ah-ha” moments that changed the trajectory of my marriage forever. My wife and I were sitting on the couch talking about an issue she was dealing with. About a minute into the conversation, I gave her my opinion of what she should do about the issue (isn’t that what husbands are for anyway — to fix things ?). At which point, she looked at me and said, “Don’t solve my problem.”
Baffled, I looked at her and said, “Well, then, what do you want me to do when you have an issue like this?” To which she responded, “I can solve the problem myself. What I need from you is to listen to me.”
As we talked that night, the lightbulb went off in my head. I wasn’t there to solve the problem — I was there primarily to listen and build emotional intimacy with my wife. During that discussion, Cindy and I came up with a signal that would indicate that I was truly listening to her and not just trying to solve her issue. As she talked about any issue she was dealing with, sometime in the conversation I was to say to her, “So, how does that make you feel?” When I say that, she would know that I was trying to enter into the world of her feelings. Over the years, I’ve said those words numerous times, and each time the words cause Cindy to chuckle as she resonates with the fact that I am trying to enter into her world of emotions.
In addition, as we talked, we decided that I was not to solve the problem until Cindy was done expressing herself about the issue. When she finished expressing her feelings, I could then ask her if she wanted my thoughts on a solution.
Through my doctorate program, I’ve come to realize those words that we came up with 12 years ago were actually quite profound. The reason is that they represent the crucial third-step in a five-step process by which couples can reach emotional intimacy in any discussion. Often, couples will stop at the second step and simply try to solve the problem instead of reaching the fifth step of emotional intimacy.
Through my research, I’ve come to understand that reaching emotional intimacy in a discussion (and then, in time, in the marriage) takes five intentional steps.
Step # 1 - Learn — Learn the facts about your spouse’s situation.
Step # 2 - Perceive — Listen to understand the important facts.
Step # 3 - Feel — Discover how your spouse is feeling about those important facts.
Step # 4 - Connect — Express to your spouse that you understand how they are feeling.
Step # 5 - Empathize — Express to your spouse that you perceive the situation as they perceive it.
Over the last 12 years, Cindy and I have made it a point to try and solve problems only after reaching emotional intimacy. And, it’s made quite a difference. I find it fascinating how 7 words (“So, how does that make you feel?”) can lighten a serious conversation and help bring oneness to a discussion. I only wish it hadn’t taken 9 years for the light bulb to go off.
If you want to know how this looks in real life, stay tuned to my next blog. On Thursday, I will tell a true story about how these five steps changed the trajectory of one couple’s discussion.
If you’d like further hints on how to make this work, e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call me at 802-6604. I’ve love to help you take some strides in that direction.
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