Category Archives: Communication

Who’s Listening?

Ever considered what an astonishingly powerful tool deep listening really is?

The summer holidays are coming.

David turns to his wife Judith over breakfast and sighs;

Screen shot 2015-05-20 at 12.23.34 PM

I’m dreading summer this year!”

See if you can hear how Judith responds differently to David depending upon what Part of her is doing the listening. Or, to put it another way, depending upon who Judith is as she listens.

Judith has a Part of her who likes to keep things light and fluffy…a sort of “Don’t rock the boat” Part. This Part says:

Oh heavens – what are you saying? You love the heat and going to the lake house.”

And, Judith has a Part of herself who is hyper attuned to what-is-fair between her and her partner. This Part senses the balance may be off and from there Judith responds:

Look whose talking! It’s a pain for me with both kids home all summer, you gone all day, me trying to get work done and no routine!”

And, Judith has a Part who gets easily triggered by guilt and this Part smells a guilt trip coming so she says:

OK, OK… we agreed I’d go part-time and have some flexibility to be with the kids in the summer, and now you complain….You love your job, right?”

And Judith has a Part finely honed in response to her high-achieving-but-distant-and-grumpy-Father whose expectations for year-round hard work cast a shadow on Judith’s childhood desires for fun. This Part comes out as a snarky “don’t tell me not to have fun!” teenager so when this Part hears just those 5 words from David she quips:

You’re just like my father! It drives me nuts when you pour cold water on the kids’ summertime fun. Stop being such a grouch!”

So three questions immediately arise here.

  1. What might Judith’s responses trigger in David?
  2. What did David really mean?
  3. Instead of this, is it possible for people to listen in a way that fosters ~
    • understanding and love for oneself?
    • understanding and love for others?
    • more relationship satisfaction and closeness?

What might Judith’s responses trigger in David?

Since I see variations of this theme in my offices pretty frequently I can tell you how David is most likely to respond.

When someone initiates a conversation with a partner hoping for some solace, and that partner listens only through the narrow prism of his or her needs, fears and ghosts, and responds from those places, the speaker will not feel heard at all.

In fact, they’ll feel ~

  • dismissed (answer #1)
  • attacked (answer #2)
  • manipulated (answer #3)
  • unreasonably accused (answer #4)

And when a person feels any of these emotions, they are likely to respond with some combination of

  • frustration
  • counter attack
  • anger
  • defensiveness.

Not helpful – right?

What did David really mean?

Do we know?

All he said was “I’m dreading summer this year!”

Without being curious with David about what he meant, we have no idea what’s going on for him.

How can we ever know what someone really means?

Which brings us to the last question:

Is it possible for people to listen in a way that fosters ~

i)   understanding and love for oneself?

Yes yes, self first!

Going back to Judith, she’s not wrong for having being triggered. This is the magic of relationship! Being in this relationship with David allows Judith to discern these Parts of her. They all have a role to play. To grasp this point more fully if “Parts language” is new to you, you might find this post helpful.

The work – for yes, coming to understand and love yourself does take effort – is to cultivate a relationship with these Parts of you so that you can:

a) know what triggers this pattern of feelings, fears and beliefs (what I call a Part of you),

For Judith, can she become aware of situations that get interpreted by this Part of her as “Potential for some upsetting boat-rocking here.” ?

b) understand why this Part is concerned since all Parts are trying to help and protect you;

For Judith, can she hear that this Part is on high alert because it vividly remembers a time she was disobedient as a child and her mother yelled at her saying “Can’t you see how tough things are for me? How dare you rock the boat! Your father and I are at breaking point!” ?

 c) listen for the deeper beliefs which fuel this Part’s protective triggers

For Judith, can she allow herself to connect the dots between her belief that emotional instability leads directly to overwhelming pain and chaos and that it’s all her fault? That she has a belief if she does not keep things calm, bad things happen?

d) and might she be interested in releasing these long-held but unhelpful beliefs?

For Judith, can she witness this inner pain and let go of the belief that emotional pain is dangerous and it’s up to her to never let it be expressed?

This is the gift of relationship: it offers opportunities for us to understand, love and unburden (or de-trigger) ourselves.

ii)   understanding and love for others

To the extent we allow this gift of relationship to help us understand, love and unburden (or de-trigger) ourselves, we can offer the gift back.

If we can be clear about how we get triggered, and bring compassion to our own inner Parts so we can stay clear, present and untriggered as we listen to those we love, we can help others come to understand, love and unburden (or de-trigger) themselves.

Let’s see what that looks like for Judith and David.

Here’s their “do-over.”

The summer holidays are coming.

David turns to his wife Judith over breakfast and sighs;

Screen shot 2015-05-20 at 12.23.34 PM

I’m dreading summer this year!”

Judith’s been doing some emotional homework.

She’s immediately aware of a bunch of feelings which bubble up inside of her.

She notices a pang from her “Don’t rock-the-boat Part” which she quickly calms with a warm inner hug and a reminder to this younger Part of her that she is safe in her adult relationship and not vulnerable to her parents’ volatility;

She has a momentary pang from her Part who worries David might be saying he is working harder than her and reassures this Part that she and David check in each week with how each is feeling in their respective worlds and both are mature enough to take responsibility for getting their needs met;

Her guilt-detector runs a quick scan but knows David doesn’t do guilt-trips, and she’s been working to liberate herself from the grips of this bad-boy for a while now;

And that Part who got so triggered by adults preventing kids from having summertime fun also gets a warm inner hug of acknowledgment.

Now Judith feels clear. She is centered in a calm and curious inner space from which she can say, with warmth and genuineness:

I’m sorry you’re dreading the summer David. Do you want to talk about it? What’s going on for you?”

David might need to test the waters a bit to see if he really does have permission to be curious; to be sure Judith is not going to pounce on him if he is not coming up with what she needs to hear.

I’m not sure. It’s odd – I usually love the summer but lately I’ve been feeling this sense of gloom and dread. Are you sure you want me to talk about it?”

Judith can reassure him with a compassionate nudge.

“Yes absolutely. Tell me more. You’re right, it’s odd. You do normally love the heat and the lake. What do you think is going on for you?”

Screen shot 2015-05-20 at 12.59.40 PMNow Judith is listening.

She’s created a deep pool of space, permission, curiosity and compassion for David to explore what is going on for him.

In that place of quiet permission, David can explore.

“Well, now that you ask, I think there’s a mix of issues.

I DO love the summer, and time with you and the kids up at the lake. It’s one of my favorite places. And, I feel good about my work right now. I’m getting ahead and doing well. I guess one of the issues is I feel so pulled. I want to be with you, and yet I’m needed more at work to cover when others are on vacation. And then I feel bad – whichever I choose, I’m letting the other one down. I think that’s what it is.”

What a difference – right?

iii)   more relationship satisfaction and closeness?

Need I say more?

When one partner can bring self-awareness and self-compassion to his or her listening, it’s a game changer.

How much more deeply satisfying is an exchange like this, than the Parts-triggered and Parts-led alternative?

Hence my question at the top of the page: “Who’s Listening?”

If you want to build great relationships, do your best to clear the decks and show up with curiosity and compassion. For the both of you.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self


The 7 Deadliest Fights – Part 2

Last week and this I’m exploring the 7 deadliest fights.

Not those knock-down-drag-out-referee-over-the-body fights.

But those we launch with words, looks and silences on those we love.

I actually believe fights can be good. They are a sign of robustness and courage and can clear the air. I’m almost worried when I meet “nice” folks who tell me with pride they’ve “Never had a cross word…”

But, there are fights, and then there are FIGHTS.

These 2 weeks are dedicated to helping you bring things down a notch or two.

So here they are ~ The 7 Deadliest Fight Strategies

  1. Attacking
  2. Belittling
  3. Criticizing
  4. Contemptuousness
  5. Defensiveness
  6. Escaping
  7. Escalating

(Today I’m writing about 5 – 7. Last week was 1 – 4. Too long for one week.)

Deadly Fight #5 – DEFENSIVENESS

Screen shot 2015-04-28 at 3.56.19 PM

One of the most subtle and common of the deadly fight strategies, it is the rare person who has not responded to an attack with excuses, explanations, justifications or a counter attack in the form of blame. “The other chap started things, of course I’ll defend myself!”  you righteously think.

Maybe it sounds like ~

  • “But I didn’t mean to!”
  • “That was so not my fault!”
  • “No, no, no. Let me explain.”
  • “Well obviously I had to do this because…”
  • “You know, if you would have done this first we’d not be in this mess.”

What you’re doing is pushing away what the other person needs you to hear. It might well be that this person is coming on strongly and is angry so you find yourself feeling the need to defend yourself. But not listening to what this upset person has to say will not solve the problem. The more close to the bone the complaints, the more likely you are to reach for those innocent sounding explanations and excuses.

The problem with this is ~

No one is listening! If you’re not listening to what this other person is trying to tell you, for sure they will be in no mood to listen to you. All your excuses, explanations, justifications and blaming will not only fall on deaf ears, it will fuel the flames.


Get curious. If you’re in the habit of responding to criticism or “feedback” with excuses, explanations, justifications or a counter attack in the form of blame – switch to asking questions.

Stop. Breathe. Listen. If you feel defensiveness bubbling up, the deeper truth is that if you could only stop long enough to listen, maybe you’d agree just a little… but instead of exposing that vulnerability, you launch a (clearly justifiable!) defensive mission. If the other person is shouting by all means let them know you’d love to listen when they can calm down. Then, if they can talk to you without shouting, really listen. Ask questions. Get curious. Your goal is to fully understand what is upsetting them. This is important:

Seeking to understand is not the same as agreeing with their point of view or admitting any fault.

Understanding is simply that – understanding. You are the anthropologist seeking – in a non-judgmental way – to see things from the other culture’s point of view. You want to briefly inhabit their worldview so you genuinely see what they see. There is no salve as calming as feeling heard.

I know this can seem like nothing. Or not enough. But once you try it, I think you’ll find its a hugely helpful way of being in the face of someone’s anger. Often indeed, simply listening deeply, non-defensively and with genuine curiosity will allow both of you to flush out what the other person needs to express. And that can be enough.

Deadly Fight #6 – ESCAPING

Screen shot 2015-04-28 at 4.04.27 PM

You escape – either physically or emotionally – without letting your partner know you need a time out. You just walk out, drive away, slam a door, hole up, or get lost in the TV, internet, or music.

Maybe it looks like ~

  • A door slamming.
  • A car engine revving.
  • The TV on full blast.
  • A person lost in distractions, buffeted by headphones.

What you’re doing is running for all you are worth away from the pain. You are possibly flooded with sadness or rage; shame or guilt. You are spent, exhausted and done with the effort of figuring out what anyone needs or wants, yet everything is left hanging and no resolution is in sight.

The problem with this is ~

It’s abandonment! If you do this to a friend, it’s unkind. But if you do this to your committed partner it’s devastating. It triggers deep places within people in primary relationships when a partner makes a unilateral move to withdraw with no warning, no explanation, no reassurance. And, right when the stakes are high, your partner’s anxiety will go through the roof.

He or she is left thinking:

  • “When will s/he come back?”
  • “Will s/he ever come back?”
  • “Will s/he do something stupid?”
  • “What should I do now?”


Ask for a break. If you are in the habit of leaving abruptly, either physically or emotionally, without letting your partner know you need a time out, please – pause before you leave. Right when that “I am not taking this any more” button gets pushed see if you can tell your partner what’s going on for you.

Don’t leave them hanging. Before you take that break tell them “I’m totally overwrought. I need to take 15 minutes. I’ll be back.” Then go. But come back when you said you’d come back. If you know you need an hour, say you need an hour, but come back in an hour. If you feel you want to run away for a longer period of time, it works better to move a bit more slowly. Take a 15-minute break and then come back and negotiate a longer space, like a weekend away. The idea is to not lose sight of the goal – which is to reconnect with your partner and heal the problem. If you just take off without negotiating this space, you run the risk of making the issues so much worse because now you’ve got whatever the initial issue was, plus abandonment. And believe me – the latter is a hard repair.

Deadly Fight #7 – ESCALATING

Screen shot 2015-04-28 at 4.13.44 PMYou know you’re way too far gone when your partner has de-escalated their part of the fight, is trying to listen to you, is making soothing noises, is asking you to calm down, and is clearly telling you they want to stop. But you are so overwrought, angry, righteous and caught up in emoting that you don’t notice the cues. You just keep on punching the air like a blind fighter alone in the ring.

Maybe it sounds like ~

  • ”No I’m not willing to calm down and take a break”
  • “Don’t change the subject on me now…”
  • “No I don’t want to sit next to you and talk calmly!”
  • “We need to figure this out right now!”

What you’re doing is throwing a “Fire & Brimstone Anger Party” for one. No one else wants to come. You’re horrid company. You make no sense, and you look like you have no intention of stopping any time soon.

The problem with this ~

You are pouring gas on your own internal fire. You are, effectively, fighting with yourself. Your partner is not the issue anymore. You are not listening to anyone, most especially yourself.


Get some firefighting skills. If you know there are times when you loose the plot and escalate conflict, it’s time to get some pre-emptive, flame dousing skills. Here are three tips to get you on your way. The fourth, if these are not helping you, would be to let yourself go talk with a good therapist.

  1. Think of this out-of-control behavior as a Part of you, not the all of you. Say to yourself “I have a Part who escalates fights in certain situations.” (See here for more on the idea that we have distinct inner Parts)
  2. If you can see that you are not only your anger, then immediately new possibilities open up. You may notice other Parts of you who get judgmental and critical of this fearsome, escalating angry Part, but you might also find it within you to be curious about it. What does that Part of you need right then? Quite possibly something about the fight has triggered deep emotional pain, and this aspect of you – this Part of you – tries to protect you from emotional pain by escalating the external mayhem to distract you from the internal maelstrom. This behavior probably made sense at some point in your life and this Part does not understand that it’s not such a great approach today.
  3. Tell your partner about this Part and make a firefighting plan together. If you fight and your partner notices this super angry Part is on a path of escalation, what do you want to do? Some partners come up with a protocol which keeps the non-escalating partner away from receiving the brunt of the escalation without shaming or abandoning the partner who has been overtaken by this pained Part.
  4. Or, seek good therapy. It is so wonderful to de-trigger these Parts of ourselves who hold on to old pain and trauma.


In truth, the tips above about thinking of a potentially problematic behavior as a Part of you – not the all of you – help with all of these tough fighting scenarios. If you attack your partner verbally it”s not the all of you attacking, but you sure have a Part in attack mode.

Or maybe a Part who is

  • Belittling
  • Criticizing
  • Contemptuous
  • Defensive
  • Escaping
  • Escalating

If you want to thrive in your relationships, remembering that different Parts of you show up in different contexts is very liberating. Go back here and here to explore this some more and to let the implication of thinking of ourselves as having Parts sink in a little deeper.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

How To Never Be Boring

Or ~ The Five Levels of Conversation

 You’ve been bored before, right?

(Yeah, yeah – maybe even here!)

See if these are the sorts of conversation agonies that bore you:

  • The Prima Donna talks only about herself;
  • The Pulpit-Hog launches into lengthy “sermons;”
  • The Unobservant has no idea your eyes have long glazed over;
  • The Prude avoids the pith and zest of life;
  • The Afraid-to-Offend sticks to topics so fluffy they are content-free;
  • The Conflict-Averse never utters anything worth arguing about;
  • The Disinterested-in-Life can find nothing of interest to share;
  • The Puritan won’t tell or “get” a joke;
  • The Cliché-Hound offers up nothing but (you got it) “Clichés”

So – in the face of these onslaughts to our time and intelligence, we have options.

If we’re at one of those compulsory-enjoyment parties, encountering one of the above one could ~

  • Urgently fain illness or incontinence and speed to the nearest facilities;
  • Politely swoon from hunger or thirst and make for the food and beverage trays;
  • Become exasperated with your (where-have-I-put-the rascal?) missing hearing aid and head to your car;
  • Seek revenge by introducing your companion to someone else;
  • Or – one can jump ahead to HELP – WHAT TO DO? below for a kinder approach.

And if we find we are growing bored by our own beloved over the morning coffee, we most definitely will want to invest in a kinder approach.


We get bored when people hide.

When they don’t show up with honesty, courage, authenticity and some excitement for who they are so we can pick up on that.

And, when they are oblivious to us as their companion on this journey of conversation. So, for a person not to be boring, they need to come out from behind their hiding place.

Check out these five levels of conversation which explain this idea.

The Five Levels of Conversation

Level 5: Small Talk. Verbal ping-pong designed to keep the ball in the air. Fluff for avoiding silences. We tend to be neither invested nor particularly attentive. E.g.,


“Going well?”

“How are things?”

It’s the filling of silence. We don’t really care what we hear back. At a party it’s tolerable. In a long-term relationship it’s death. If we are stuck with someone caught up in fluff, invite them to drop down a level. Can they share some interesting facts? What have they done lately? What are they hoping to do? It’s OK to stay with the facts m’am.

Level 4: Factual Conversation. He-said / she-said.

My Dad (bless him!) dwelt here. He loved the “Name that fact” game. This first is one of his.

  • “How many gallons of fuel do you think it takes to run the Victoria Clipper from Seattle to Victoria?”

But all of these fit this category.

  • “What was the score?”
  • “Did I tell you about that time when I drove cross country and…..”
  • “Hey I put my four point seven on my eight three cos it was blowing twenty plus but it really must have been closer to thirty so I switched to my four point two and put it on my seven eleven.” (Yes – this is how my husband Mark would talk to his wind-surf buddies at the Columbia George back in the 1980s)

Functional, maybe. Factual, probably. But not sustainable over the long haul! If we are stuck with someone fixated on facts, invite them to drop down a level. Might they have an opinion about a particular fact? Is something too long, too much, too loud? What might they dare risk thinking about something?

Level 3: Ideas and Opinions.

Getting better here. For those bores at a party who are loath to show up with a genuine thought or opinion, encouraging them with questions about their ideas and opinions can invite them to come out from behind themselves. If they are hogging the floor with their ideas and opinions, obviously the challenge is for you to insert yours somewhere.

I remember a great opening gambit I found quite shocking at a party in Auckland when we lived there:

You know (said a guest at a party) I think we ought to ban all cats from the country. All house cats, all pets.”

As a dog and cat lover I was shocked. “Whatever for?” I asked.

Cats are eating our endangered song birds and ground nesting birds. They are a total menace!” was the response. OK – fair enough. There’s grist for the conversation mill for sure.

So, while you are stepping toward intimacy there is a danger you may stay in the head-trippy place of ideas and opinions. If we are stuck with someone caught up in opinions, invite them to drop down a level. Opinions are a terrific step – and can they risk telling us how they feel about an issue? Sure, in their opinion cats ought to be slaughtered, but how do they feel about the song birds? What sparked this love and loyalty? Do they have a song-bird tale to tell?

Level 2: Feelings and Emotions.

Now we’re getting somewhere. How you feel about what is going on in your life is gritty, real, and intimate. The stuff of true relating.

So are you angry, frustrated, excited, overwhelmed, resentful, excited?

Going back and forth with someone you want to get to know more fully, or someone you know and care about – this is real communication now.

A wonderful combo is to alternate ideas and opinions with how you feel about it.

You know – I hear you about that cat-ban. I love the songbirds too. And, I love my cats! They are part of my family. And it seems to me to be morally offensive to have a government, or special-interest, dictate to me the nature of my household – which species I may or may not live with. I think we need to find another way through this difficulty.”

It is hard to feel “stuck” here. This is a terrific level of communication and many of us are happy to bob and weave through the first four levels. If we are truly in synch with a beloved however, we might find ourselves so moved, so connected that a sharing of feelings and emotions between people. becomes transformative.

Level 1: Deep Insight.

We are up in rarefied air here. This is that place where the connection between two people is transformative. From time to time you may find yourself perfectly in tune with someone else. There is an understanding, closeness, and deep emotional connection. Ideally this happens between people who love and are committed to one another. Not every day for sure – but enough. What might that look like? This is not necessarily a true tale, but imagine if the cat lover and song bird rescuer had been able to have a deeply respectful conversation – might they have come up with this idea… of finding ways for cats and song birds to co-habit? This deep soul connection conversation is not always about finding win-win solutions to shared issues. It happens in my office a lot when two people are willing to show vulnerability; to express pain, to listen to the other person’s vulnerability. And this is a sweet story about a woman who resolved the song bird and cat issue!


Here is a fun article about how feeling bored (not just bored by conversation – but that deeper boredom) can be a great catalyst for social engagement. See what you think!


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.

Click the box for the full list →    → Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

Five Conversations

When I was twenty-something my boss, who was thirty-something, told me “When you’ve been married a while, you begin to have the same conversation over and over again.”

I was newly in love and this seemed like an impossible nightmare. We – Mark and I – would never run out of things to learn, to say, to inspire, to challenge, to encourage, to deepen our love.

Now we’ve been married for thirty-something years and we’re working to keep things fresh: Mostly. It’s a journey. It’s a conscious effort. When you say “’Til death do us part” these days – man – that can be a L O N G time. How do folks keep conversations fresh, connective, helpful, real?

And, that’s only one challenge for “The Conversation” – that relationship heavy lifter; that bridge over troubled waters; that small brave rocket launched from one soul to another across unfathomable distances of culture, meaning and interpretation to land into what – hostile waters? Toxic air? Fertile ground? We often don’t know, when we launch that first “Hello!”

But, if we are to be in relationship to someone else we must keep launching our words as emissaries of hope and tentative connection else – what? Radio static? Terrifyingly unfathomable silence?

OK – enough of the hyperbole. I had fun there.

But I have – through years of conversations as a professional therapist, wife, mother, sister, friend – discovered The Rule of Five when it comes to learning about and engaging in great, powerful, connective conversations.

I figure there are ~

  1. Five Assumptions I’m Making
  2. Five Conversations
  3. Five Principles of Great Conversations
  4. Five Levels of Intimacy
  5. Five Conversation Killers

And, as luck would have it, there are five Wednesdays in April for me to share each of these!

Today I’m going with 1 and 2 since you’ll need to know my assumptions. And besides, I need week five for that little something special I have up my sleeve!

 Five Assumptions I’m Making

  1. You want great relationships – not mediocre ones. This teaching goes beyond Conversation 101.
  2. You are self-aware and learning all the time. These ideas are not for the denizens of denial.
  3. You are willing to take responsibility for quality conversations. This is not for the whiners and complainers.
  4. While you can use this information at a one-off work social, these tips are intended for those wanting, or in, longer-term relationships.
  5. “Conversation” is not just about the words. It includes the silences and non-verbal overlays.

The Five [Types of] Conversations

When you’re in a relationship for the long haul (think partner, parents, in-laws, kids) your conversations have to be versatile. Marriages don’t survive on the “What’s your favorite movie?” or “How was lunch?” level.

You need to navigate the ~

  1. Connecting – the frequent comings and goings and ins and outs of relating;
  2. Deepening – the processing of life’s ups and downs;
  3. Transacting – the tasks of living and giving and taking that demand some finesse;
  4. Transforming – that invitation to grow oneself-up that relating precipitates;
  5. Healing – the willingness to apologize and forgive when we hurt one another.

These are different skills.

1.  Connectingthe frequent comings and goings and ins and outs of relating

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 8.11.51 AMSo OK – every relationship starts someplace. Maybe even at the office social. At one end of connecting therefore is that “What’s my opening gambit?” fear. How do I know if I even want to get to know X or Y more fully if I can’t pluck up the courage to say “Boo.”

Here’s an info-graphic based on shyness-expert Professor Bernardo J. Carducci’s five (that “Five” again!) stages of a successful conversation.

But out beyond the initial connection, every-day connecting and re-connecting comprise the warp threads of long term relating. All day, every day – with people who matter to us – we’re structuring our relationship through conversational bids for connection. They look like this:

  • Did you see that sunrise? Boy it was breathtaking today!
  • I found a new farm for happy-chicken, free-range eggs. What do you think of them?
  • Oh, the neighbors are putting in a new planter box – I wonder what they’ll grow.

Yup – seriously folks. These are long-term-relationship conversational bids for connection. You know how you could blow it? By hearing them as slightly mad one-liners, instead of conversational openers. Sure they could be the mad mutterings of the old cat lady down the road, but if you want a great relationship with the mutterer in your life then you need to also hear what is underneath: you need to listen for the unspoken sub text, which is “Hi there! You’re on my radar. Am I on yours?” And yes, you need to respond.

These Connecting Conversations do not have to be long. A little friendly volley works wonders. Not in the mood? Nurturing the inner grump today? No worries, as Dan Wile writes, you can still honor the spirit of a Connecting Conversation by simply commenting on your state: “Hon, I’m all over those eggs. Right now I gotta dash. See you tonight – good luck with that meeting.” That right there – while brisk, is not brusque. It lets a partner know you heard and they are indeed still an important blip on your radar.

2.  Deepeningthe processing of life’s ups and downs

If Connecting is the warp thread, Deepening is the woof. Every day we rally forth into the world to study, work, play, teach, shop, search – whatever. And we come back with our share of triumph and tragedy. It’s with our loved ones that we process this stuff – or at least, ideally. It’s how we converse about these daily experiences that builds or erodes our mutual trust, love and attachment.

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 2.01.31 PMThese conversations tend to go well to the extent one or both parties have some emotional fluency. For a brief overview I’m going to paraphrase from that master of emotional intelligence, Haim Ginott as explained in Chapter 1 of Faber & Mazlish’s  How To Talk So Kids Will Listen (yes, this works for grown-ups too).

So, imagine it’s the end of the day and you’re regrouping as a family. One of you has suffered some sort of indignation and wants to use this Deepening Conversation (though they don’t use that term!) to process what went down. They want to feel better. To understand why it felt so bad. To see if they need to respond. What do they need to keep this conversation feeling helpful and good?

Here are 7 things they do not need!

  1. Denial of feelings ~ “There’s no reason to be upset. It’s foolish to feel that way. You’re probably just tired and blowing the whole thing out of proportion. Come on, cheer up!”
  2. Philosophy ~ “Look, life’s like that. You can’t always get what you want. You need to learn how to take things in stride. Nothing’s perfect.”
  3. Advice ~ “Here’s what I think you ought to do. Tomorrow go here and say that. Don’t get sidetracked…”
  4. Questions ~ “Well what did you do that precipitated this whole thing? Didn’t you think of that? Didn’t this same thing happen last month?
  5. Defending the other person ~ “No wonder X did this. You were a total jerk! You’re lucky it wasn’t worse!”
  6. Pity ~ “Oh you poor thing! That’s just terrible! I feel SO sorry for you.”
  7. Psychoanalysis ~ “Has it ever occurred to you that the real reason you are so upset is that this reminds you of how your father treated you, and you always over-reacted to him?”

So, what might forward this conversation in a way that deepens your relationship?

  • Empathy ~ “Boy that sounds like a rough experience. To have that happen at work, in front of X and Y, especially after all the effort you put in, must have been pretty hard to take!”
  • Follow-up ~ “What do you need right now, to move forward with this?

So, deepening conversations do more than Connecting. They let the other person know you not only heard them, but you are seeking to understand their experiences and get on their team. Once you respond thoughtfully, empathically, these conversations will keep spiraling deeper – have a go. See what you notice.

3.  Transactingthe tasks of living and giving and taking that demand some finesse

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 2.21.48 PMThese are those grittier conversations which often take place at that edge where we bug one another.

The proverbial toothpaste and toilet seat perennial arguments that marriages are purported to crash upon.

No more!

For these conversations, I am totally indebted to Marshall Rosenberg and his work in developing and teaching a process he calls Non-Violent Communication.

Whether you click on the graphic or download the PDF here – 4part_nvc_process – you’ll have a brief over-view of a hugely helpful 4 part process for figuring out how to have a conversation about needs that not only helps you get those needs met, but also deepens your relationship.

This is such a super important issue for great relationships, I’m dedicating the whole month of August to the topic. So – do please come back!

4.  Transformingthat invitation to grow oneself-up that relating precipitates

The origin of the word and concept behind “conversation” – according to the online etymology dictionary, is ~

mid-14c., “living together, having dealings with others,” also “manner of conducting oneself in the world;” from Old French conversation, from Latin conversationem (nominative conversatio) “act of living with,” noun of action from past participle stem of conversari “to live with, keep company with,” literally “turn about with,” from Latin com- “with” (see com-) + vertare, frequentative of vertere (see versus).

which seems to imply a more snap-shot of what is than a transformative anything.

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 2.51.17 PMHowever, the fact of living together and being with one another can be transformative.

I’ve seen it in my work for years. We can be called forth to be better.

Again, a lofty topic worth taking time over, and here is a wonderful little book that will help you get there, from Mona Barbera.

Two key concepts to whet your appetite?

  1. The intense pain you think [the other person] is causing is really your own.
  2. No matter what [the other person] is dishing out, you can choose to give better back.

Mona’s book is targeting couples, but her ideas are universal and can absolutely help you use these forms of Transformative Conversation to do just that – to become a bigger you.

5.  Healing – the willingness to apologize and forgive when we hurt one another

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 2.35.49 PM

Another whopper as far as relationship resiliency goes, and one that is getting covered in depth in October (Apologizing) and November (Forgiving).

If you are keen to get a feel for how these conversations might look, you could visit these articles I wrote in 2012:

Come Fall, I’ll rework these articles – so again, do come back!


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.

Click the box for the full list →    → Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity

The Art of Apologizing ~ in 5 Calming Breaths

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 2.35.49 PMWhen someone you love does something that hurts you, it’s quite common to find you are caught between two opposing desires:

  • Revenge – make ‘em pay for your hurt
  • Forgive – and forget as quickly as possible to remove the pain.



However, neither revenge nor forgiveness are the best idea on their own, since they can both block genuine reconciliation. This is the place where each of you gets to do some emotional homework .  Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 12.51.58 PM


If the hurt partner stays in revenge, it will eat away at their soul, heart and mind and destroy them from within like a worm in an apple.

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 3.22.45 PM


If the hurt partner is too quick to jump to forgiveness, they run the risk of losing their voice, and becoming  dis-empowered, like it feels when someone offers you a limp-fish handshake.



This is where the Art of the Apology comes in.

A genuine, full heartfelt apology – coupled with the self-awareness this process fosters – can actually serve to bring two people closer.  While the person who has been accused of doing (or being) hurtful can do an awful lot of reparation using the Breaths I suggest below, if the two of you get fully engaged, you can use this episode to create a deep and genuine reconciliation.

I use the metaphor of the Breath (rather than the Step) for two reasons:

  1. When we are stressed it really helps to breathe: Keep breathing!
  2. There are in-breaths and out-breaths.  To stay alive, you need both.  This process works to bring two hurting people closer because it softens those edges between in and out, right and wrong, accused and accuser,  victim and culprit.

This is what makes apologizing an art form. With practice you can cultivate this ability to mastery. And as you do, you’ll be modeling the process for your partner and your children. And they, in turn, can model it for theirs. Lord knows, we need more reconciliation on the planet!

NOTE: Each of the Five Breaths has a role for both the Accuser and the Accused. Try on both roles from some past issue. Walk yourself through how the process might have gone had you tried it.  What do you notice?

Breath 1  ~  STORY

ACCUSER   Just let it out!  Tell your partner the story of why you are so upset  ~  Give as many details as you can to help the accused see things from your point of view.

“I’m never ever going to an office party with you again! You abandon me the moment we get there, you schmooze with everyone and don’t introduce me to half of them. And then, at dinner, you sit next to that new woman and spend the whole night in quiet conversation leaving me across from you between two crashing bores whom I didn’t even know!”

ACCUSED   Listen quietly to the accusation  ~  Face your accuser. Breathe deeply. Give this issue your full attention. Do not, under any circumstances, explain, justify, defend or deny. Zip it and listen. If your mind is busy doing anything other than listening, you’ll miss too much.

Breath 2  ~  FEELINGS

ACCUSED   Acknowledge the other person’s FEELINGS  ~  Put yourself in your accuser’s shoes and imagine how they felt, even if they have not expressed any feelings beyond anger. Until you have done this they have no interest in anything you have to say. Trust me! It will not help them one iota for you to tell them:

  • But I didn’t mean to . .
  • You have no idea the pressures I was under!
  • Hey, you could have  . . .
  • No, I did not do these things!
  • In fact, I did the opposite of this most of the time.

So, do not. Instead, try this ~

“Oh Fiona, you felt awful that night!  You felt abandoned by me when I did not introduce you to those folks we were talking to. And then at dinner, it sounds as though you felt jealous that I had someone to talk to – and it did not help that it was a woman – and you were stuck between two folks you did not enjoy.  And for sure you don’t want to get put in a situation like that again. Did I get this right, or am I missing some parts still?”

ACCUSER    Continue to clarify your  FEELINGS   ~  Did they express accurately how you were feeling? Do you need to have them understand any aspect of that painful event more fully?  Now is your chance to see if you feel genuinely and fully understood. It’s your job to help the accused understand you – there is only so much they can guess.

“Well, you’ve got most of it right. I did feel abandoned and jealous. I think what made it worse for me is that you know how vulnerable I feel amongst your super-smart financial market friends. Right in the midst of my six month parenting leave and all I can think to talk about is Sylvia sitting up and how cute she is. I ended up feeling boring, dumb and unattractive.”

ACCUSED   Repeat Breath 2  ~  Keep going around by inviting the accuser to say more about feelings while you continue to acknowledge what they are saying.

Again remind yourself – you are not pleading guilty. You are simply helping someone in pain name their symptoms.

Breath 3  ~  REPENTANCE 

ACCUSED   Say Sorry  ~  If you can hold-on to the idea that this person is simply telling you they are hurt; and if you can refrain from taking the focus back to you by explaining,  justifying, denying, or accusing*,  you may be able to offer a heartfelt. . .

“I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry you felt abandoned by me and jealous and boring and all those awful feelings you just shared with me.”

ACCUSER   Receive their sorrow  ~  Listen with your heart. If the accused has genuinely sought to understand how dreadful you felt, you can most likely be sure that they are genuinely sorry you felt that way.

Breath 4  ~  OWNERSHIP

ACCUSED   Accept responsibility for the parts you feel you can genuinely accept responsibility for. This empowers you to see how you could have done things differently  ~  Not everything is 100% within our control so the trick here is to take ownership of what is  Own up to the parts you can own up to.  You do not have to lie down and be a whipping boy. If there are things beyond your control, or actually more within your accuser’s control, don’t take those on.

“Fiona, I totally see how I blew it with the introductions. Truth was I blew it even more by not remember those guys names. I could have just spoken up and said ‘Hey – I’d like you to meet my wife” and hoped they’d have offered their names! And I did get way too interested in the things Betty had to say – that woman you spoke of. She’s from corporate so I was being a bit of a brown-nose I know. I can see how that must have looked to you.”

ACCUSER   Listen as your partner accepts responsibility  ~  You’ll know if this is genuine. You may find he or she is not taking responsibility for absolutely everything.  This is actually good. If you choose to notice what items were left on the table, you could – under calmer conditions – explore the extent to which you could have done something to help yourself under those circumstances. Own your own piece.

“Well thanks. I know I blame you for the two bores I sat between too – but I see I could have asked them about their kids and maybe sparked some sort of conversation I was interested in. Hey – I possibly could have asked to swap seats with someone after coffee too.”


ACCUSED   Seek forgiveness  ~  After you’ve heard the story and understood the feelings, after you’ve repented and taken ownership for what went down and how things could be different next time, you may want to ask for forgiveness.  I have noticed that when this process has moved successfully through these four stages, not everyone feels the need for this final step.  However, it can’t hurt!

“Fiona – I’m really glad we talked about this today. I want us to be close again. I’d love it if you could forgive me. Is there anything else  I need to do? Will you tell me?”

ACCUSER   Offer forgiveness when you are ready  ~  You may need some time;  you may not. Sometimes it helps to have a little ritual – like the confessional for Catholics when the priest dolls out “Five Our Fathers and Three Hail Marys”. 

“Yes. I’m glad I got this out. I felt so hurt I thought it was the beginning of the end for us. But I see things much more clearly now.  So – I’d say forgiveness will cost you dinner for two at that new wine-bar next week!”

That’s it. Give it a go. I’d love to know if you have anything to add.

*  So what to do with all your pent-up desire to explain, justify, deny or counter attack?  I’ve noticed one of two things might help.

  1. You may just be able to let them go. The whole point of all that was to try to make your accuser feel better and not think you were a jerk – right?  Well, now they feel better and probably feel great about you too. Can be best to just dump ’em.
  2. If you feel stuck, then one day – when the issue has cooled down a bit – you could bring these up more as a reporter of the event than protagonist.  “You know, I find I still hang on to wanting to let you know why I didn’t introduce you to those chaps at the office party. Funny really. I guess I wanted you to know I didn’t intend to hurt you. Can I tell you about things from my perspective, now that it’s all behind us?”



Dating~How to call it quits

By it’s very nature dating is a temporary state.  When was the last time you saw a greetings card for “Congratulations on 17 Years of Dating!”

You see her across the Bistro. He invites you for coffee. Maybe you go running together. Then dinner. Maybe a weekend away. By and by you decide not to date other people. You’re in that “I like what I see. I’d like to keep the competition at bay while we have a chance to see where this leads. Will we find more and more in common, get closer and find it easy to be with and talk to one another, or will we stall out  in stagnant-ville, or will we lurch into a nasty, belittling downward spiral of misery, pain and suffering?”

You have no idea at the get-go. That’s why you date. You’re dipping your toes into the relationship. At some point you’ll decide to go fully in or fully out in which case you’ll need to make a transition out of dating and into:

  1. Long term commitment (see NOTE below)
  2. “Mutually-Ex” ~ either you know from the start that the relationship has a built-in expiration date due to other life circumstances –e.g., finishing college, distant graduate schools, work overseas, military service, etc; or you both agree it’s time to move on and part ways amicably.
  3. “Unhappily-Ex” ~ when only one party wants to end the relationship.

This article is for those facing Option #3. You’re dating but feel the relationship is not right long-term. You want to end it. But how?

Obviously there are dreadfully heart-wrenching breakups  (which perchance can be lucrative if you channel that pain – think Taylor Swift, Adele or indeed any one of the writers of the 50 greatest breakup songs of all time). But there can be breakups which are dignified-if-bittersweet. Endings which are firm-but-gentle, with a genuine nod to what “might have been”, and an acknowledgment of good-times-shared and lessons-learned, even as you guide your soon-to-be “Ex” through the transition from “main squeeze” to “former squeeze”.

As a relationship therapist I’ve come to understand 3 important truths which may help you here – as you contemplate your farewell:

  1. You have 100% control over how you behave in this transition
  2. You have ZERO control over how your soon-to-be Ex behaves
  3. Having compassion both for yourself, and your friend, makes a huge difference

When you bring a relationship to a close with compassion, you’ll be able to see ~

  • You are both good folks
  • You’ve probably both been bruised a bit by life
  • You’ve probably both said and done dumb things
  • Dating is dating – it’s OK to move on if you want to
  • This is an opportunity for some good learning
  • Learning is a choice not everybody makes
  • Bitterness, blame, vengeance and anger hurt the person who feels them way more than the person toward whom these emotions are directed
  • You will always have what you two had – the good, bad and ugly
  • You are now simply this person + these experiences

So, practically speaking, how does one break up?

The Five Stages of a Principled Break Up

  1. You begin to have doubts
  2. You try to fix things
  3. You realize it’s not going to work
  4. You declare it’s over to your partner
  5. You learn, heal  and try again

Let’s break it down.

1.  You begin to have doubts

Whether it’s her habits or his disorganization; the way you fight or your differing loyalties to families-of-origin; her ambition for med school or his desire to take his bagpipes and busk through Europe, but somewhere along one sunny afternoon you’ll be visited by an inkling of  “I’m not sure this will work.”  Some intuitive, gut-clenching, heart pounding, sad dawning will flutter across your consciousness and you’ll find yourself seeing your sweetie in a new, less certain, light. You’ll feel suddenly alone. A chasm of possible mis-match has thrust its way between you and now, for the first time, you experience some doubt.

Compassion Point:  When you are first in love you see your partner through rose-tinted specs.  As your love matures you’ll encounter genuine power struggles as you each need to get back in touch with who you are in this relationship. Doubt is common as this stage. It’s normal.

2.  You try to fix things

This is where your relationship goes through some heavy lifting. Hopefully you’ll have the awareness to begin to name the differences you notice and discuss them. This can open up a rat’s nest of course, since discussing differences is tough even for seasoned couples.  But you’ll notice one of 2 things: your discussions will bring you closer or drive a wedge between you. Pay attention to which it is.

It is very typical for dating couples to cycle through a Beatles’ play list:

Repeat . . .until you’ve become jaded by the cycle and “Yesterday” becomes your background theme tune more often than not.

Compassion PointAll couples go through this cycle. You are going along. You  bump into some differences. You try to figure them out. You muddle through. Until the next time. You go around again. If, however, you begin to feel like you’re trapped in a situation you can’t improve, or your differences mostly lead to painful fights which are driving a wedge between, you’ll need professional help, or to move on. 

3. You realize it’s not going to work

Professional help failed, or you know your paths are leading to different horizons and you’ve come to the conclusion it’s time to move on. This post on “When to call it quits” might be helpful here. This can be a lonely time. For some couples it can be helpful to have an honest conversation about how you feel, at this stage. Your partner might be relieved, admit to the same realization and you can shift to parting more or less amicably. If there is a chance this could be a mutual parting, then some sort of conversation about “How do things feel to you? Are you hopeful we’ll pull through these differences, or not so much?”

Or, you may know that your partner is much more committed than you are and you’ll have to take charge of the transition. If you are to make Stage 4 successful (when you tell your partner you are leaving the relationship) you need to do your homework here.

Ask yourself the following questions  (because your partner is going to ask you)

  1. What do you feel for your partner?
  2. What emotional needs are not being met?
  3. Have you tried to get these needs met with your partner?
  4. What is causing you to give up on the relationship?
  5. Why now?
  6. Is there anything your partner could do that would make enough of a difference that you’d stay?

Compassion PointAs you answer these questions, keep your focus on YOU – your feelings, your needs. These are not up for discussion and cannot be dismissed even by a potentially angry or grieving partner.

4. You declare it’s over to your partner

When you know you are through; you’ve tried and tried again; and you’ve done your homework (above) it’s time to tell your partner, firmly but gently, that you are moving on. The following tips might help.

  1. Call and ask to have some time one morning / afternoon / evening.
  2. Go to their home – in this way you have control over your departure and they do not have to drive.
  3. Let them know you’ve come to a decision and want to let them know.
  4. Keep your opening statement simple: “Mary, we’ve been dating for 2 years now. I’ve loved getting to know you and the fun times we’ve had. However, these past 9 months of fighting and name-calling and drama have been pretty tough. The way we are together isn’t good for either of us. We’ve both tried – I know that. But I’ve come to the decision that I need to move on. I’ve come to say goodbye.”
  5. Be prepared for all sorts of possible responses – anger, pain, tears, shouting, a speedy invitation to “get out and never come back” – you can imagine how your partner might react.

If your partner behaves badly ~ lashing out with verbal, physical or emotional abuse, take your leave quickly. Let them know if they want to have a more reasonable goodbye later, you’d be open to that. But for now protect yourself and leave calmly. Do your very best not to get caught up in more drama – this is why you are moving on.

If your partner becomes unglued ~ and you fear for his or her emotional stability, let them know you are worried about them and you’ll be calling in their friend (helps if you know someone who cares for your ex whom you can call).  Leave them with this person for comfort – not you.

If your partner behaves well ~  and the two of you can process your relationship’s evolution – wonderful. Have the conversation. A great deal of healing can come as the two of you sit together, side by side, and mourn what was.

Compassion Point:  Given the sudden quality of this news, your partner will be plunged into a shocked, reactive state. They will not be at their best.  They need you to be the adult – so be one.


  1. Go back and forth, “OK, you want me to stay through your exams?”
  2. Cultivate dependence of any sort – it’s only good for your ego, not their Self-hood;
  3. Forget that your partner was successfully single before they met you and will be successfully single after you as well;
  4. Bad-mouth your “Ex” to others;
  5. Agree to lingering connections that feel sticky like “We’ll still swap cars next Thursday right?”  “Will you still feed my cat? Come to my performance? Celebrate my parents’ wedding anniversary-they do love you! Attend cousin Chloe’s wedding, we’ve already accepted!”  Those arrangements were for you as “date” not you as “Ex”. Your “Ex” needs to know they can survive without you more than they need you at these events. Honestly.

If you are living together, things are more complicated certainly – you’ve got to deal with your shared living space, possessions, pets, and finances.  However, all the work you’ve done to become clear about your decision will be the same.

5. You learn, heal  and try again

You may be in considerable pain, even though it was your decision to move on.  You are likely to feel a whole bucket full of complex emotions – guilt, loneliness, embarrassment, anger, loss, frustration, relief, excitement, sorrow.  Trite as it sounds, let it be. Let the feelings wash over you.

Undertake a deliberate course of self-care ~

  • Start a blog / journal
  • Take up a new sport
  • Consider martial arts
  • Take a class  – Japanese cooking, singing, French, archery
  • Get into nature
  • If necessary, schedule one or two sessions with a relationship therapist to process what you’ve learned

Let yourself rebuild trust in the idea that relationships can be happy, equally satisfying, nurturing and positive. Start gently though and definitely wait a few months before “going steady” with someone again.

Compassion Point: If you find you are telling yourself a story that is filled with how dreadful your “Ex” is and what a victim you were, see if you can change that story. As long as you are Victim in one story it’s hard to be Heroic in another. Work to understand what you were responsible for in your old relationship. If you avoid this introspection, you may find yourself getting a chance to re-learn that lesson next time around.

NOTE (from beginning of Blog)

Obviously “Happily Ever After” belongs in story books.  Just because someone makes a transition from dating to long-term-commitment does not mean the relationship is – as they say in New Zealand –  “done and dusted.” These fizzle half the time as well. But working through the breakup/divorce of a long-term committed partnership is a tiger of a different stripe.  Maybe for another blog mini-series.

Narcissist~Living with one

If you’ve read my two previous posts Narcissism – Symptoms and Narcissism – Now What, you may be wondering whether it’s possible to have a successful relationship with someone on the narcissism spectrum.

Both my research and my clients tell me it is possible. I’m always a little surprized by the number of people who knowingly continue to live with, or work for, a narcissist once they understand why they’ve been feeling so awful for so long. However – knowledge really is power. This post is for those of you who, for whatever reason, are choosing to stay involved with someone suffering with symptoms on that narcissism spectrum.

3 Key Practices for Surviving (Even Thriving in)  Life with a Narcissist

  1. Inform yourself fully ~ Learn all you can, scour the local library and internet, so you may fully understand the sort of pain, hurt, sadness and possible abuse you will be up against.
  2. Decide where you will take your stand ~ As you review the list of “Things You Cannot Change” about a narcissist below, identify any you feel you need to take a stand against. If it’s the rages you hate,  then figure out how you will behave in the face of the rages. And stick to it.
  3. Commit to on-going self-care ~ Daily contact with a narcissist can be crazy-making, isolating and lonely. If you are in this for the long haul you’ll need to identify how you’ll stay healthy, not burst a blood vessel, keep your self-esteem/self-compassion tanks topped up and meet your emotional needs outside of this relationship.

According to Dr. Judith Orloff, if you are to live or work with a narcissist, it is wise to accept that there are some things you cannot change. As you review this list  below, notice if any of these inevitable traits are particularly bugging you.  It is OK – even wise – to take a stand against those traits that you find most draining.  As we might respond to any bullying behaviour, if you say “I find your rages too huge for me and the kids. When you raise your voice I will leave the room,” and if you stick to this, you will eventually get that pattern changed between you. (Note – the narcissist does not stop raging. But what you do in the face of the rages is what can change.)

  • Be aware that the narcissist can respond negatively if you complement other people while you are in the narcissist’s company. The narcissist is likely to see a compliment paid to someone else as an indirect insult to the narcissist (e.g. the narcissist might say something like “you are always saying good things about X but you never say anything good about ME”).
  • Don’t expect the narcissist to understand jokes the way that non-narcissists do. Just accept this and go and enjoy telling jokes to people who are not narcissistic.
  • Give the narcissist what he or she wants when he or she wants it and do not expect the narcissist to reciprocate any favours.
  • Don’t expect the narcissist to take any real interest in you (unless he or she is very eager to please you, in which case the narcissist will be very good at pretending to be interested in you).
  • Do not expect the narcissist to apologise or to show any consideration for your feelings.
  • Be careful about making any expression of affection towards the narcissist as the narcissist might respond to this in a nasty manner, particularly if the narcissist thinks that you are becoming dependent upon him or her. Also, do try to keep your independence and, if possible, try to make the narcissist to some extent dependent on you.
  • Expect to have to clean up after the narcissist but don’t expect the narcissist to clean up after you.
  • Expect the narcissist to try to demand all of your time but don’t expect the narcissist to give up his or her time for you.
  • Expect the narcissist to be impossible to please. Just think how unfortunate you would be if nobody was able to make you happy.
  • Expect the narcissist to be unhappy when he or she discovers that you actually want to do what they want you to do. When you actually want to do the task which the narcissist has given you the narcissist may perceive this as being a bit like sharing, and this can make the narcissist feel disappointed.
  • Don’t ever say to the narcissist anything like “please have a heart”. Trying to appeal to the narcissist in this way is likely to make matters worse rather than better.
  • Never invite a narcissist to apologise.
  • Don’t expect a narcissist to pay attention to things which do not affect them personally (unless, of course, the narcissist is eager to impress the present company, in which case he/she will try hard to take an interest in the topic of discussion).
  • Don’t expect the narcissist to tell you the usual personal information about themselves (e.g. the narcissist may be reluctant to reveal much information about his/her childhood other than those things which he/she chooses to reveal).
  • Accept that most of the time (but not all of the time) the narcissist will find it difficult to remember back to events in his or her childhood.
  • Accept that narcissistic women will try to force their daughters to be exactly like them.
  • Don’t expect the narcissist to give you what you ask for (unless the narcissist is very eager to please you). If you actually do want what he/she gives you it will not be fun for the narcissist to give it to you.
  • Often remind members of your family that you genuinely love them. This will help to heal the family rifts which the narcissist is continually creating through his/her backbiting.
  • When a narcissist walks off in a rage, expect a return appearance with questions and criticisms. Use this time before their return to ready your answers and responses to them. Try to maintain a low tone, raising it over them will only increase the intensity of the conversation (and lead to a full-on argument).

And some helpful tips? Adapted from Connie Dieken’s Talk Less Say More

  • Give them options. Beneath their bluster, narcissistic people fear being left out of the loop. They crave control. It’s far better to offer them options to choose from, rather than feeding them ready-made decisions. They’ll tear other people’s decisions to shreds. Giving them options helps them feel respected and in control. It also prevents nasty hissy fits.
  • Focus on solutions, not problems. When you explain a problem or a challenge to a narcissist, direct their attention to the solution. Don’t allow them to dissect the problem over and over again. Narcissists love drama and revel in the chaos. They’re easily agitated when frustrated. Define problems and present possible solutions, so they don’t smell blood in the water and tear you apart.
  • Make them the hero. Narcissists are preoccupied with power and truly believe they are special and unique. They live for attention and admiration. Want them to do something? Tell them how great they are at it and watch them perform. Better yet, praise their performance in front of others. Just keep it real, please.
  • Let them think it’s their idea. Narcissists often steal the credit for ideas that aren’t theirs. Why do they do that? Strangely, they truly believe that hijacked results are their own. Grabbing credit is a driving force for them. If this gets things done, I say learn to live with it. Over time, everyone will catch on — wink, wink. Meantime, graciously transferring credit for ideas to them makes things happen.
  • Manage their emotional blind spot. Egomaniacs lack empathy. They’re so caught up in their own world that it doesn’t occur to them to consider your feelings or viewpoints. It’s a huge blind spot. You must put your own feelings on the table, if you choose to do so. Just be smart about sharing feelings with a narcissist. Brace yourself for the guilt trips and disparaging criticism that narcissists often dole out when others explain how they feel.

I am running a 5 part mini series ( 25-29 March 2013) on Narcissism. I am seeing more and more clients impacted by living with someone who suffers from NPD and the first step in the healing process is to learn as much as you can about this disorder.  I’ll print a list of helpful resources in Part 5.

  1. Narcissism – Symptoms                       
  2. Narcissism – Now What?
  3. Narcissist – Living with one
  4. Narcissist – Leaving one
  5. Narcissist – Healing from life with one            

Narcissism~Now What?

If you read my last post and find yourself wondering whether you are in a relationship with (or related to) someone suffering from (NPD) Narcissistic Personality Disorder, I have to start off by saying, ‘I’m so sorry.”

This is a tough situation. However, despite all the oncoming tumult, if you’ll allow yourself to open your eyes, move forward and come out the other side,  you can count on 3 things:

  1. You will survive
  2. You will need support.
  3. Time does heal.

WHY this fuss?

If you’ve connected the dots correctly, reading further will have you beginning to realize that your life will never be the same again. Your (formerly?) beloved husband / wife / partner / father / mother / sibling cannot simply “decide to get better.”  You are now the adult in charge. You will need to do all the research, clear thinking, decision-making, due-diligence, self-protection, possible exit planning and face all the consequences by yourself.

You will be alone. Worse than alone – you may be actively undermined.

WHAT are you telling me?

If indeed you are discovering that you are married to / living with / being parented by someone whose symptoms are highly correlated to NPD, and if they are pretty far along (because this is a spectrum disorder – the person you are worried about may have only a few of these traits, or they may be text-book classics) you will experience ~

  • Only They Matter

You are peripheral. The narcissist orbits his/her own sun. You matter only to the extent you have what the narcissist wants. Be honest – after spending how long with this person – do they know you, cherish you, love you, help you, care for you. Do you matter just because you are you?

  • Constant Tension

In an effort to avoid feeling the emptiness inside, a narcissist depends upon external factors for their inner life. There is no stable, predictable place. In any moment this person may spin from a hyper-inflated sense of brilliance after a moment of praise, to outrage and loathing after a perceived snub. While their modus operandi is “It’s all about me” in fact the narcissist lives in a frightening smoke and mirrors reality with a capricious Oz pulling the strings.

  • Ineffective Communication

To avoid feeling vulnerable, the narcissist will come out with guns blazing. Think a large two-year-old having a tantrum. They’re prone to attack, blame, criticize, banter rudely or accuse in public. This makes having genuine friends almost impossible.

  • Being Controlled

Understanding the narcissist is reliant on the external world for their internal reality, you’ll see why they need to control everything – timing, events, people, and finances. Any breach in the choreographed plan is devastating for the narcissist, who will employ any means to prevent it.

  • Lack of Responsibility

If you believe the world revolves around you (as a narcissist does) then common, shared morality is meaningless.  The narcissist typically suffers no guilt; can’t be shamed into behaving; they’ll see no point in accepting responsibility for anything that has gone badly. In fact, because the narcissist must see themselves as superior and blameless in all situations, this trait will possibly uncover a whole heap of lies.

  • Zero Empathy

Since his or her own emotions are too painful for the narcissist to experience, they are certainly not good at empathizing with others. While you may have been told that you need to attend to the narcissist’s feelings, you’ll not get any reciprocity here.  He/she is neither interested nor capable of attending to your emotional realm. This includes never having to say they are sorry.

  • Spontaneous Rages

Living with an ugly void where a healthy self should reside, the narcissist’s inner realm is a painful mess. This means they are highly unstable. A waiter, hotel clerk, teacher, you – might trigger a violent outburst totally disproportionate to the “issue” at hand.

  • Being Exploited

Remember #1 – Only They Matter? You’ll be used. You’re a finite resource that will be mined, polluted, depleted, and possibly destroyed. All your resources – your time, expertise, help, connections, income are up for grabs.

Thanks to Clinton Power for some of this ideas.


I am running a 5 part mini series ( 25-29 March 2013) on Narcissism. I am seeing more and more clients impacted by living with someone who suffers from NPD and the first step in the healing process is to learn as much as you can about this disorder.  I’ll print a list of helpful resources in Part 5.

  1. Narcissism – Symptoms                                
  2. Narcissism – Now What?
  3. Narcissist – Living with one
  4. Narcissist – Leaving one
  5. Narcissist – Healing from life with one            

An Easy A B C . . .

. . . for prioritizing needs and wants

  • Are we renting Argo or Silver Linings Playbook?
  • Do I help Mandy with math or Ben with Biology first – both need me right now?
  • Shall we go with Sage or Aqua blue for the bedroom walls?
  • Shall we eat out or stay home?
  • Are we hiking or biking this weekend?

HELP! Is there a way to make decision-making both more informed and faster to effect?

Decisions large and small come up for couples and families all the time and often prove fertile ground for a good bicker or an outright fight.

Here’s what we came up with in our family. Essentially, each person involved in making the decision gets to assign a level of urgency, or a priority rating, to his or her option.

We call it simply “The ABCs.”

A = This really matters to me. I care about this choice and not getting this will be hard for me. I feel strongly about this.

B = This matters. I’d prefer this option. But if someone else has an A, I’m OK with some negotiation.

C = I’m neutral. If we’re all pretty neutral maybe I’d lean this way – but it’s all good.

Then of course, there’s the fine-tuning.

A+++ = Say no more!

A- = I feel strongly, between a B+ and A: it’s important, but I can hear all options.

B+ = It’s up there – not quite an A

And so forth.

At first this seems either “duh!” obvious, or plain silly since of course everyone will claim their choice is an A to them. But, let me explain the subtle rules and show you what tends to happen in practice.

Three key rules-of-the-game if this is to work

  • “A” needs to be your least-used priority rating.
  • Be honest with yourself, and wise in how you assign your priorities
  • When someone calls an “A”, do your utmost to honour it.

This system works when you all recognize that for the most part, without this system, everything is an A. You want what you want now – regardless of the consequences it might have for your relationships or other peoples’ choices. Essentially, you’ve always seen the A, but not discerned the B and C priority levels.

This method introduces the ideas that ~

  1. That there are grades of needs and wants;
  2. Decisions with others involve a fuller picture, a larger context
  3. In that larger context, there is a simple way to calibrate the groups’ needs
  4. Most likely, your level of priority is between B+ and C-, so chill a little
  5. Each time you process these priority levels you have a chance to build relationship by listening to each person and honoring the As.

Try it out for yourselves. Talk through how you want to describe the A, B & C options. Agree an A has to be limited and very important. I think you’ll find, as we did, that people are keen to be honest, and to only call an A when they really really need it. My hunch is this will build more self-awareness, other-awareness, restraint, anticipation and a few good doses of fun.