Your recovering spouse seems sullen when he comes home from work one night. “I’m getting a new job!” he exclaims. “I feel like my boss is afraid I’m going to screw up and end up back in addiction treatment. She doesn’t trust me, and she’s always hovering. It’s just too much!”
You want to allay his fears, so you say the first thing that pops into your mind: “Honey, of course she trusts you, or she wouldn’t have wanted you back at the company. She knows how hard you’re working in your recovery, and I think she’s just trying to be supportive.” He then lashes out at you, “Didn’t you hear what I said? It’s obvious she doesn’t trust me! You just don’t understand,” he says and stalks off.
Does this possibly sound familiar? It’s a scene that plays out thousands of times a day between spouses, parent and child, siblings, and friends. One tries and fails to ‘fix’ the problem, while the other needs to be heard and validated. In the end, neither person walks away from the discussion uplifted or helped.
Enter Emotion Coaching 101. It is a communication strategy initially designed to help young people learn to self-regulate and manage their stress responses. It was developed by Dr. John Gottman, a renowned clinical psychologist, resulting from more than 20 years of research on families, couples, and children. The key is to spend some time recognizing and validating the emotion before attempting to soothe or problem-solve. Gottman and other therapists worldwide have found that the success of Emotion Coaching is not limited to children. Adult relationships benefit just as much, if not more.
Imagine you’re at the top of a stairway and your loved one in distress at the bottom. Problem-solving and logic, or sympathy, are like cheerleading from the top of the stairs. Emotion Coaching, or empathy, is like walking down the stairs, joining them at the bottom, and letting them know they are not alone. To connect with our loved ones, we need to tap into those painful feelings within ourselves. “Because the truth is, rarely does a response make something better,” says Dr. Brené Brown in a video on empathy. “What makes something better is connection.”
The following are the main steps to Emotion Coaching your loved one:
- Validate Emotions
- Emotional Support/Connection
- Practical Support
Validation involves conveying an understanding of your loved one’s experience and demonstrating that you ‘get it.’ Example phrases might begin with: “I could understand…; I could imagine…; No wonder…; It makes sense that…; When I put myself in your shoes I could imagine that… .” An alternate response in the situation above might be something like, “It makes sense that you feel like your boss doesn’t trust you…”
Demonstrating that you ‘get it’ involves using three ‘Becauses’ in your reasoning. Why three? When your loved one is distressed, he is using his downstairs brain, the part that operates on impulses and emotions, like anger or fear. He needs to calm down enough to get to the upstairs portion of his brain, where logic, self-awareness, and informed decision-making can take over. Experts agree that using three ‘Becauses’ works best to achieve this calm.
Going back to the above situation, you might say something like this, “It makes sense that you feel your boss doesn’t trust you, because it sounds like she’s micromanaging your work, and because she is always asking how you’re doing, and because she doesn’t appear to do that with any of the other employees.” This response engenders an entirely different feeling, doesn’t it? Talking this way may feel stilted at first, but it will become second-nature with practice.
Now, you and your spouse can move to the emotional support and connection stage. Whereas before, he may have shaken off an attempted embrace, now he might be calmed down enough for that kind of physical support. Encouraging words like “I support you” and “We are in this together,” are likewise more effective at this stage because you have taken the time to demonstrate to him that you’re truly listening.
The third and final stage of Emotion Coaching is providing your loved one with the practical support he needs, such as brainstorming and problem-solving together, teaching and using coping skills, or even taking over to solve the problem.
Coaching your loved one through challenging and often painful emotions is not easy, but it can be infinitely rewarding as you both learn to communicate with more love and understanding.
For more tips like these, check out the Renaissance Ranch blog, where we discuss various topics centered on substance addiction recovery and mental wellness. Renaissance Ranch is a top-rated residential addiction treatment center for adult men located in Bluffdale, Utah. Renaissance also offers free monthly online and in-person classes for family members of those who struggle with substance abuse and addiction.