Why Forgiving Does Not Require an Apology: There is an important difference between forgiving and reconciling.
by Robert Enright Ph.D.
When I discuss the theme of forgiving people who acted unfairly, I sometimes get this response:
What you are proposing is dangerous. It makes no sense to forgive. Forgiveness lets my guard down. I then am vulnerable to the abuses which I suffered before. No, I will not forgive until the other person: 1) knows that wrong was done; 2) feels an inner sorrow for doing it; 3) apologizes to me; 4) and makes amends. Then I know it is safe to forgive and enter back into the relationship.
The above statement, which is quite common, confuses what forgiveness is and what reconciliation is. Forgiveness is a moral virtue in which the offended person tries, over time, to get rid of toxic anger or resentment and to offer goodness of some kind to the offending person. Reconciliation is not a moral virtue, but instead is a negotiation strategy in which two or more people come together again in mutual trust.
All moral virtues concern the inner quality of goodness and the possible outward manifestation of it. For example, the moral virtue of justice has the inner quality of knowing what it means to give people what they deserve and the outward manifestation of being fair. If you contract with a bricklayer to pay $1,000 for a new wall to be built, you first have the inner intention to pay for the work. You then follow through outwardly when you exercise the virtue by paying the bricklayer once the work is done. If the bricklayer, for some unexplained reason, leaves the United States never to return, and gives no forwarding address, you do not then exercise the outward manifestation of justice. You do not pay the $1,000. Yet, you have exercised the moral virtue of justice because you have the inner quality of fairness and the intention to pay.
It is the same with forgiveness. You start with the inner quality of a motivation to rid yourself of resentment and the inner intention to be good, within reason, toward an offending person. If that person has no inner sorrow, never intends to apologize or to make amends, then you do not exercise the outward quality of forgiveness directly to that person. Yet, you still can have the intention to reconcile if the person substantially changes and the interactions become safe. You even can show an outward quality of forgiveness, for example, by not talking disparagingly about the offending one to other people.
In forgiveness, if a person continually verbally abuses you, you can have the inner quality of struggling to rid yourself of resentment as well as the inner quality of intending to be good to the other if that other substantially changes. Yet, if that person shows you by continued verbal abuse that there will be no apology, no making amends, then you do not exercise the outward quality of forgiving, at least not toward the person directly.
As you forgive in the above circumstance, you do not reconcile.
Suppose now that you decide to make the following rule for your life: I will not forgive if I cannot reconcile. What, then, are the implications for your own inner world, for your own psychological health? In a recent blog here ("8 Reasons to Forgive," April 16, 2018) I argued that one of the reasons to forgive is “to become emotionally healthier. Forgiving can reduce unhealthy anger.” A growing body of research shows that as people forgive by exercising the moral virtue of forgiveness by trying to be good, within reason, toward an offending person, then the forgiver can reduce not only in anger but also in anxiety and depression and improve in self-esteem and hope (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). There are more reasons to forgive than this one, but this one can make a substantial difference to the forgiver’s health.
Why would you not want to become healthier? If you reject forgiving because you conflate it with reconciliation, you may be inadvertently depriving yourself of a second chance at a healthy psychological life and even at a healthy relational life with others (not necessarily with the offending person). Deep anger from injustices can lead to a lack of trust in general, thwarting potentially uplifting relationships.
The offer of forgiveness can be **unconditional,** not at all dependent on the other's response of any kind, including an apology. Reconciliation, when at least one party is deeply and unfairly hurt, is **conditional,** dependent on how the offending party or parties understand their hurtful ways, change, and even apologize.
How we think about forgiveness matters a great deal. If we make the philosophical error of equating forgiving and reconciling, then we are allowing the effects from an offending person to live within us for a long time, perhaps even for a lifetime if the psychological wounds are deep enough.
Forgiving and reconciling are not the same. You are free to forgive, if you so choose, even if the other refuses to apologize.
Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R.P. (2015). Forgiveness therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Original Article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-forgiving-life/201804/why-forgiving-does-not-require-apology
You long for sleep. You may even feel tired before going to bed. But as soon as your head hits the pillow, it happens again. You're wide awake. You can't stop thinking. It's the worst.
I regularly speak to groups about the necessity of sleep for prevention of burnout, management of stress, improvement of mood and a host of other benefits. Almost every time I do, someone comes up to me and says:
“I know I need more sleep. But what do I do if I can’t fall asleep? I get into bed early enough to get eight hours, but then I just lie there with my mind racing.”
I also frequently hear this from coaching clients and patients. When I do, I start asking questions. And usually find the answer.
Here are the questions, for you to ask yourself:
1) Do you take your phone to bed?
First of all, the light from the phone is stimulating to the brain and can suppress melatonin release (melatonin helps you sleep). The best solution is to not look at your phone after 9 pm (or an hour or two before bed), but lots of people aren’t ready to give up that habit. If that’s you, use a blue light blocking mode like “Night Shift” on iPhones and turn your screen brightness down as far as it can go.
2) What are you reading or doing in bed, before you go to sleep?
This is my second point about the phone. I once heard a sleep expert at Harvard say that texting at bedtime is a bad idea. The thought processes that you use are too stimulating to your brain. Obviously, checking work emails (or any email) at bedtime is a really bad idea, especially if you come across something stressful. You may not even want to read the news, in case there’s a headline that stimulates thoughts or concerns.
If you like to read to wind down, choose a book (the printed kind). Ideally, that book should not be too thought-provoking or stimulating. It shouldn’t be disturbing. It also probably shouldn’t be so incredibly captivating that you can’t put it down…
3) What do you do with your evenings?
If you have trouble winding down to sleep, take care not to wind yourself up over the course of the evening. Good rules of thumb:
4) What lighting do you use at night?
This is another key to winding down. People used to sleep an average of nine hours a night, before the advent of widespread electricity. The lights we have on at night in our homes are stimulating and can also suppress melatonin secretion.
Feel the difference between two late evening scenarios:
A) All the lights are on. The TV is blaring. You’re sitting at a table catching up on emails while simultaneously conducting a logistical discussion with your spouse. You feel stressed and don’t even want to go to bed. You’ll need at least an hour of Netflix to wind down from this (not a good idea, because of the screen involved and also if it’s a really well-written show it will be hard to turn off in time for bed).
B) All the lights are off, except a warm yellow lamp in the corner of the room. Soft music is playing. You and your spouse are quietly reading. As you read, the inevitable happens. Your eyelids start to droop. Your head bobs as you fall asleep for a split second. Even though it’s earlier than you’d planned, you get up and head over to the bathroom to start getting ready for bed.
5) Is there something specific you're worried about?
article continues after advertisementPerhaps there’s a stressful situation you can’t stop worrying about, keeping you awake. In this case, I’d recommend a variety of approaches:
6) How are you using your bed?
Leverage the strategy of “stimulus control.” If you do lots of different things in bed (watch movies, answer emails, take phone calls etc.), your body and mind get confused about the purpose of bed. If you have insomnia, it’s best to only use your bed for sleep. For the same reason, if you can’t fall asleep, get out of bed and go do something quiet and relaxing until you start to feel sleepy and then head back to bed.
7) How much caffeine are you drinking?
The sleep expert I mentioned earlier also said that if you struggle with insomnia, you should eliminate caffeine (and any other stimulants) completely and see if that helps. If that feels impossible, start by eliminating caffeine in the late afternoon or evening. Sources of caffeine include coffee, non-herbal teas, chocolate and some supplements.
Note: some people who can’t sleep have a bigger issue, such as Generalized Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder or other medical concerns. If your sleeplessness is extreme or doesn’t respond to simple interventions, it’s important to talk to your doctor about it.
In 1942, an American psychologist called Abraham Luchins published a seminal experiment called the “Water Jug Problem” . In this experiment he investigated the cognitive asset of mental flexibility—the ability to be adaptable in the way you think and solve problems, as opposed to always thinking in the same, rigid way.
To do this he asked people to answer a series of 10 numerical problems. For each question the person had to propose a simple equation which allowed them to solve how the capacities of 3 different jugs could deliver a desired quantity. For example, if jug A could hold 21 units, jug 2 could hold 127 and jug 3 could hold 3 units, what equation was needed to compute the desired quantity of 100 units?
Here is a full list of the 10 problems he set them.
Source: Luchins, 1942All these problems (except number 8) could be solved using one particular formula B – 2C – A. For problems 1-5 this was the simplest solution. However for the subsequent problems (6-10) it was possible for the person to use a simpler equation (either A + C or A - C) to solve the problem. By designing the problems in this way Luchins was able to explore whether the person’s experience of solving the first five problems prevented them from realizing that the subsequent ones could be solved by this simpler solution. In other words, demonstrating whether their “familiar” routes of thinking and problem solving would inhibit their ability to use a novel, more efficient, approach to solve the problems.
Choosing the simplest solution?
Luchins gave the set of problems to two groups of people and recorded what equations they used to solve each of the 10 problems. In the first group, people answered all problems in order, while in the second group, they were only given the last 5 problems.
What he found was that in the first group, the majority of people used B – 2C – A on the later problems instead of choosing to use the simpler solution. In addition, 64% completely failed to solve problem 8 (compared to 5% in group 2), which could be solved by the relatively simple formula A – C, but not the familiar one. In contrast, almost everyone in the second group—who skipped the initial problems—arrived at the simplest answer for the later problems.
article continues after advertisementWhen good thoughts block better ones.
So arose the idea of the “Einstellung Effect”—a mentally undesirable situation in which your familiar thoughts block or inhibit your ability to generate novel solutions and ideas. They introduce a degree of rigidity—where you steadfastly stand by what you know and think, often blind to other interesting possibilities or more efficient alternatives. And like many “biases” in your thinking, it all happens without you even realizing it.
This Einstellung effect, explored more recently by researchers such as Merim Bilalić from the University of Oxford [2,3], is one example where “forgetting” can actually be beneficial—something that has also been shown in other creative contexts. For example, researchers at the University of California showed that people who were better at “forgetting” recent distracting information (in this case, ideas provided by the experimenter), were actually able to generate more novel ideas on a creativity task .
Regretful thinking and fear inhibit flexibility
There are also other examples of how your inability to “let go of the past” prevents you from being flexible. Take the example of regret, a feeling that can prevent you from choosing the optimal action to take, causing you to “shut down"—paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong decision as you recollect the unpleasant outcomes of your past choices [5,6].
However, you also have inbuilt mechanisms to help you “extinguish” or re-program these unpleasant memories (a process called fear extinction), allowing you to flexibly update and adjust your thoughts and behavior in line with the ever-changing environment . The neural dynamics of this memory re-programming have even been shown using neuroimaging techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG). For example, researchers from Justus-Liebig University Giessen and Harvard Medical School measured EEG activity when people underwent a “fear extinction” task . They found that when people recalled memories of feared experiences, it was associated with changes in theta activity across anterior mid cingulate cortical sites. In contrast, when they recalled the “reprogrammed” memories where this fear had been extinguished, it was associated with changes in gamma activity across ventromedial prefrontal sites.
Mental flexibility is your ability to update, inhibit and overcome well-worn neural pathways to ensure that you are capable of adapting to your diverse and ever changing technological and social environment. It is the cognitive asset that has enabled humans to be so evolutionarily successful across a diverse range of experiences. Understanding the weaknesses in our mental flexibility, such as those illustrated by the Einstellung effect, and learningmore about how we can make it more efficient, is therefore key to creating human success stories across the globe.
Holidays can be tough. Some people love them; some people dread them.
I thought a lot about the holidays as I was writing Happier at Home, because the holiday season tends to be a time when we focus on home. Maybe you’re going “home” the way I go home to Kansas City for Christmas–which may be fun for you, or not. Maybe you’re deciding how to decorate your home. Maybe you’re making an effort to arrange the holidays the way you experienced them as a child–or the opposite. Maybe you’re feeling sad, or happy, about whom you will or won’t be seeing.
From talking to people, it seems that one of the biggest happiness challenges of the holidays is dealing with difficult relatives. You want to have a nice dinner, but Uncle Bobby makes you crazy. What to do?
1. Ahead of time, spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to behave. If you’ve had unpleasant experiences in the past, think about why they were unpleasant and what you could do to change the dynamics of the situation. Get more sleep. Give yourself more travel time. Pick a seat far away from Uncle Bobby. In particular…
2. Think about how topics that seem innocuous to you might upset someone else. You may think you’re showing a polite interest, but some questions will rub a person the wrong way: “So do you have a girlfriend yet?” “When are you two going to get married/start a family?” “Didn’t you give up smoking?” “Can you afford that?” “When are you going to get a real job?” Show an interest with more open-ended questions, like “What are you up to these days?” or “What’s keeping you busy?” Also…
3. Dodge strife. Some families enjoy arguing passionately amongst themselves; however, most don’t handle arguments very well. If you know Uncle Bobby’s views are going to drive you crazy, don’t bring up the subject! And if he brings it up, you don’t have to engage. Try to make a joke of it, and say something like, “Let’s agree to disagree,” “Let’s not talk about that, and give the rest of the family something to be thankful for,” etc.
4. Don’t drink much alcohol. It can seem festive and fun to fill up your glass, but it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re drinking. Alcohol makes some people feel merry, but it also makes some people feel combative, or self-pitying, or lowers their inhibitions in a destructive way. I basically had to give up drinking because alcohol makes me so belligerent. And if other people seem to be trying to avoid or curb their drinking (or their eating, for that matter), don’t make a big deal of it or urge them to indulge. In my study of habits for Better Than Before, it became clear to me that many people become very uneasy when they feel out of step with what others are doing, and that makes it tough for them to stick to a good habit. Don't make someone feel conspicuous or strange in what they're doing.
5. As best you can, play your part in the tradition. For some people, traditions are very, very important; for others, no. You may feel irritated by your brother’s insistence on having exactly the same food every Thanksgiving, or by your mother’s extreme reaction to your suggestion to eat dinner an hour earlier. Try to be patient and play your part. In the long run, traditions and rituals tend to help sustain happiness and family bonds. On the other hand…
6. If you’re the one who wants everything to be perfect, try to ease up on yourself and everyone else, so you can enjoy the day, whatever happens. Even if the day isn’t exactly the way you hoped it would be, try to enjoy what it is. My mother once told me, “The things that go wrong often make the best memories,” and it’s really true. And too much fussing to make an experience “perfect” can sometime ruin it altogether.
7. Find some fun. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is Just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it’s fun for you, and vice versa. If the time with your relatives is meant to be fun, make sure you’re spending at least some time doing something that’s fun for you. Working in the kitchen, playing touch football, sitting around talking, running errands, watching the parade on TV—these things may or may not be fun for you, no matter how the rest of the family feels.
8. Find reasons to be grateful. Be thankful that you get to cook, or that you don’t have to cook. Be thankful that you get to travel, or that you don’t have to travel. Be thankful for your family or your friends. Be grateful for electricity and running water. Find something. Studies show that gratitude is a major happiness booster. Also, feeling grateful toward someone crowds out emotions like resentment and annoyance.
Wait, you might be thinking, these strategies don’t tell me how to deal with my difficult relatives—they tell me how to behave myself. Well, guess what! You can’t change what your difficult relatives are going to do; you can only change yourself. But when you change, a relationship changes.
by Cindy Ricardo, LMHC, CIRT, Mindfulness Based Approaches/Contemplative Approaches Topic Expert Contributor
“Stressed souls need the reassuring rhythm of self-nurturing rituals.” --Sarah Ban Breathnach
Do you find yourself doing things for others, with little or no time for yourself? Do you walk around feeling stressed out and irritable? Is there little room for joy, gratitude, and peace in your life?
If you feel like an electrical outlet on its way to burnout, it’s time to look at how and where you’re spending your energy.
Signs that you are in need of self-care:
Let’s face it: If you don’t take care of yourself, who will? Neglecting yourself to meet others’ needs can negatively impact your physical, emotional, and mental health. For example, not getting enough rest or a good night’s sleep can result in feelings of exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, increased anxiety, and irritability. Over time, the stress might settle in your shoulders, neck, and back, creating physical pain like backaches or headaches. Your appetite could be affected, leading you to eat too much—seeking to tame anxiety by eating more—or too little—under stress, the brain releases a lot more acid, which can lead to feelings of nausea or heartburn. Living with a high level of stress could lead to high blood pressure or other heart conditions. The reality is that your body is like a car: if you don’t take good care of it, it will break down!
Emotional stress is often linked to stressful thoughts. This combination can have a detrimental effect on your level of energy, mental clarity, and emotions. Years ago, a family relative was stressed and overwhelmed by the things that were happening in her life. Her mother was ill and in need of personal care. She was also going through a divorce, on an emotional rollercoaster, and walked around with a constant headache. As a result of these factors, she was overwhelmed and her ability to focus and perform at work was seriously affected. Pressure was mounting, and something was bound to happen.
One morning, she was driving. She was so overwhelmed by emotions and thoughts that she didn’t notice a red light and ended up getting into an accident. Thankfully, she wasn’t seriously injured. Emotionally, however, it was a wake-up call for her to shift perspective and identify ways to create balance in her life by attending to her needs.
Lack of self-care can lead to anger and resentment. Putting your needs last on the list creates feelings of resentment and anger and can hurt close relationships. You may feel as if others are taking advantage of you or taking you for granted. You may be angry with yourself for not setting boundaries and being assertive. Mentally berating yourself or others doesn’t help. What helps is learning how to value yourself just as much as you value others. This can be a challenging task!
There are many reasons you may have a hard time practicing self-care:
Reflect on ways to incorporate self-care into your daily routine by reviewing the following list:
When you become still enough to connect with what is going on in your body, mind, and heart, you take the first step toward self-care. It is in that moment, when you identify needs and make time to nurture yourself, that you open the door to balance and life.
May you have moments of peace.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cindy Ricardo, LMHC, CIRT, therapist in Coral Springs, Florida
By Justin Lioi, MSW, LCSW, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor
Everything is connected.
Perhaps you have heard your therapist say this after you began talking about something you dismissed as tangential or irrelevant. The thing is, there really isn’t any such thing as irrelevancy in therapy.
When you allow yourself to talk about that strand of an idea, that fleeting thought, or even that object on your therapist’s shelf that caught your eye, the potential is there for you and your therapist to move into a deeper space—one that may very well be connected to what it was that brought you to therapy in the first place.
We call the thing that brings us to therapy the “presenting problem/issue.” Effective therapy doesn’t lose sight of this, but rather allows space for other things you discuss to provide valuable insight that may be quite relevant to the presenting issue. No matter what you’re talking about, there is a good chance it will lead us back to what is causing you difficulty. This is an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the issue and perhaps identify a path to relief.
HOW SOMETHING OFF-TOPIC CAN BE ANYTHING BUTOnce, during a therapy session, an offhand comment about a detail I remembered from another session prompted a question about my memory. “This is off-topic,” the man said, but he noticed that I don’t take notes … so how could I have remembered that? I didn’t think it was such a feat, so I asked him about himself—did people usually remember things he said? This led to a deep discussion about his parents forgetting his birthday when he was very young. Something he thought was “off-topic” was, in fact, connected to what he was more actively exploring in therapy.
Unsure of the benefit, people in therapy are often reluctant to talk about things they believe are unrelated to why they’re there, but let’s take a look at some important issues that can come up because you’ve been brave enough to travel down that rabbit hole with your therapist:
On one hand, I’m talking about trusting your therapist, but more than that, I’m talking about trusting yourself.
The brain, though, is a bit more mysterious. Past events--“big T” and “little t” traumas—get stored in different parts of us, different ideas. We don’t always know up front the way in, so we learn to trust our core self. We trust the part of us that has an association with a topic and we dive in. Or dip our toes in, at least.
On one hand, I’m talking about trusting your therapist, but more than that, I’m talking about trusting yourself. Trust the part of you that says, “Examine this memory for a moment, would you? Take a look at this story or why this particular feeling is popping up.”
Therapy supports our growing awareness of ourselves. It helps us become more connected with us—which, by the way, goes a long way toward having better connections with others.
It really is all connected. You are a pretty fascinating being. When we get down to it, we all are. And if we follow our humanness in whatever direction it leads us, there is a wealth of freedom and self-understanding to be realized.
Original article found at https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/its-all-connected-why-nothing-is-irrelevant-in-therapy-1104164?fbclid=IwAR1Dw9NSO12DDK_rm7AIaIe9tz2rzl6N-3V7PB7Jb6XXeVBiGdNeLBMl6O4
Resilience and hope in childhood: how children can pick themselves up, dust themselves off and believe they can.
by Kim Martinez
We hear the common words resilient and hopeful batted around like ping pong balls but we don’t always know what they mean, how they help our children or even how to tell if our child has them.
Let’s look at their definitions-
Resilient: the ability to recover quickly
Hopeful:feeling or inspiring optimism for a future event
Many others have written about these concepts.
Brene Brown speaks of hopeful as, “Hope is not a way of thinking …And it’s 100% teachable.”
Desmond Tutu explains, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”’
Gever Tulley. “ Persistence and resilience only come from having been given the chance to work through difficult problems.”
But what does this mean for our children?
It means that with hope (the belief it will get better or be better) and the skill of being able to be resilient (the ability to recover from a negative event) children and teens can learn from and move quickly on from what might otherwise be a defeating moment or experience for someone else.
So how do we inspire hope in our children?
There are many ways to do this. Can you think of more ways to teach hopefulness to your child? How do you show your hopefulness to your children?
Focus fully on your child to help build hope and resilience.
Eva Selhub, M.D. states, “Contrary to what many people think, resilience has nothing to do with avoiding stress, hardship, or failures in life. Instead, it’s about knowing that you’ll be met with adversity and that when it happens, you’ll be prepared to take it on, learn from it, and become stronger as a result. In other words, resilience is the ability to bounce back easily and thrive in the face of life’s many inevitable challenges.
It’s true that some people are naturally more resilient than others. These folks see challenges as opportunities, are able to maintain a positive outlook, and find meaning in the struggle. For others, resilience is learned and takes continuous work.
When you’re truly resilient, adversity doesn’t get you down physically, emotionally, or psychologically (not for long, at least). And the most resilient people have an inner trust that they have the resources to handle anything. “
Resiliency is a learned behavior often passed down through generations.
Here’s how to increase your child’s resiliency and your own.
1-Take small steps to create big change. It only takes one small pebble to make a big wave. What can they do first? Next? Taking small steps towards a goal gives them a chance to taste success. With each successive small step/success, they will want to take another step.
2-Have a toolkit of coping skills ready and available that work for you and your child’s individual needs.For example, yoga, mindfulness exercises, coloring, music, dancing, going for a walk, playing with a pet, deep breathing, reading, puzzles, art, etc.
3-Learn to be flexible. Discuss all the possible ways something could go right or wrong, with all possible outcomes. How can they handle minor disappointments or major obstacles?
4-Be optimistic-Is the glass half empty? Half full? Or, as I like to say, “Is it refillable?” Seeing the positives, even in a negative situation, can be difficult. Teaching children to write gratitude down daily can help.
5-Accept support. Learn who can help and when, as well as who are your biggest fans. Lean on them when the going gets tough.
6-It’s not personal:blaming never helps and letting your brain get on the hamster wheel of “what if’s” won’t remove the problem.
7-Nothing lasts forever. Most setbacks are temporary as are most problems. Take a deep breath, rest and take another small step.
8-Change your story. Have you always been the crybaby? Or the bossy one? Don’t let it define you or your child. Reframe the wording of your narrative to a positive. Your child is empathetic not sensitive. You are a leader not bossy.
9-Look back on other times your child succeeded and asks what worked then.See if those skills and tools can be used in this new situation.
10-Find your inner strength or seek guidance from your personal choice of higher power. What does that look like for your family? Prayer, meditation and spirituality have proven to help in times of struggle.
I believe that all humans can be resilient. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be in the career I am in now. Together we can help the littlest babies and our oldest teens how to sail their ship.
“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.”-Louisa May Alcott
Originally article found at https://yourtruenorthcounseling.com/resilience-and-hope-in-childhood-how-children-can-pick-themself-up-dust-themself-off-and-believe-they-can/?fbclid=IwAR237cNyaDN0p8QQMNhDccF9gWr-X6D1-G4MJiPaOh35xgnV7I1Q8KQmnrE
You’d think that as a therapist, I’d be a pretty good listener. Sometimes I am. But too often I find myself not allowing enough silence, not giving clients enough time to gather their thoughts, sit with their feelings, simply be in the presence of a supportive witness. And it’s not just clients whom I deprive of this quiet space; when I respond too quickly with a question, a comment, or a reflection, I also deny myself the gift of time to sit with my own thoughts, feelings, and possible responses.
It’s not just in the therapy office. Like a lot of folks, I notice that in everyday conversations, I’m often quick to respond, sometimes “helping” someone finish a sentence (are they truly not capable of finding the words, if given a moment?), or starting to speak before another person has even finished what they were saying. Sometimes people don’t mind; other times, I see a slight tensing up, or closing down, or a flash of irritation.
Maybe it’s anxiety, this difficulty sitting with silence. Or maybe it’s just habit, years of responding quickly rather than allowing a small pause before speaking.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably “yes." Most of us are great at talking, and great at responding, but perhaps a bit less great at allowing brief moments of silence during conversations. In fact, in group discussions, if you don’t jump in at the first millisecond between comments, it can seem like you’ll never get a word in edgewise…and so the conversation becomes a kind of competition for airtime. Still fun and engaging, but also kind of exhausting. And daunting for anyone on the shy or quiet side.
So I was intrigued some years ago when I discovered a jewel of a technique in the marvelous book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff by the late psychologist Richard Carlson. Carlson called it “Breathe before you speak” and that’s exactly what it is.
Here are the instructions:
Before you respond in a conversation, take a breath. Not an enormous, loud, obvious breath that screams out “I am trying a new technique for better listening!”. No, just a normal, simple, ordinary breath. That’s it. The whole technique, right there.
Well, yes and no. I’ve assigned this technique to hundreds of students as a homework exercise, and they’re always amazed at just how difficult it turns out to be. We want to jump into the conversation, to respond quickly, to interrupt, to finish the other person’s sentence. And other people may even expect us to do so. So when we take this very small pause, create this tiny space of silence, it can create some anxiety, for ourselves and others. If the anxiety is too intense at first, try a smaller breath, or just an inhale. It will feel easier, and it’ll still make a difference.
And then the magic starts. In the therapy office, when I give clients the gift of a brief quiet space created by that single breath, they invariably sit with their experience, and then continue talking. I wouldn’t have known they had more to say if I’d started speaking myself. The small bit of silence allows them to explore a bit more, to formulate their thoughts, to reflect further on what they are thinking or feeling. In our everyday lives, most of us are not used to having this moment of space to relax and think about what we really want to say, what we are feeling, and what we might—or might not—want to share. Therapy should be a place where we do enjoy that kind of space.
article continues after advertisementAnd something else often happens when I take that breath with clients: at least half the time, I reconsider what I was about to say, either saying nothing at all, or something different than I would have said without the breath. The gift of a moment’s reflection is a gift to myself as well.
In everyday conversation, I find I interrupt people a lot less often. In response, people seem more relaxed when we are talking, knowing they don’t need to rush their words and anticipate being cut off. Sometimes, of course, people get uncomfortable. They’re not sure what’s happening, something just feels different, and they start filling in every breath-long space I create. I am reminded then that a discomfort with silence is pretty widespread. When that happens, I shorten it to a half-breath, a gentle inhale, and the anxiety usually disappears.
So if you want to become a better listener, or a better conversationalist, have a go with this remarkably simple yet surprisingly difficult technique. Try taking a breath before you speak. The impact may surprise you.
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.