James Farrat, LMSW
After you’ve done couples therapy for a while, you start to see very similar patterns of miscommunication, which result in partners repeatedly hurting one-another. One party says the other one doesn’t listen, while the other party says he/she talks too much. One party says their partner, “never says sorry” when the other one will say, “But I always do!” They hurt one another over and over again until it gets to a point where they start asking themselves, “why are we here and why isn’t it getting better?”
In his blog post “How Leaders Make it Right When They Blow it," Michael Hyatt, one of the top Leadership gurus in America, walks us through five steps that not only will help leaders of a business team, but also individuals in a relationship who want to resolve issues that seem to just keep coming up. Hyatt himself writes how his relationship with his own wife helped him learn, “how to make things right with just about anyone.”
Step 1: Take Responsibility
Hyatt notes that this first step is the most important because if, "we’re unwilling to take responsibility, we’re basically telling our people that making it right isn’t worth it. And that’s just another way of saying they aren’t worth it.” As we will see in step two and three, if we are defensive and make excuses, we communicate to our partner that what they are saying doesn’t matter. Many couples come into my office and blame the other party first. It’s hard, but if both parties are hurting, someone needs to take the hit and take responsibility first. It’s risky, and what usually goes through someone’s mind is, “but then they won’t admit that they’re wrong too!” I can assure that anytime one party begins to take responsibility, and I mean really take responsibility, the other person always begins to soften and resolution can happen. Let’s take a look at the next two steps to see what really compromises “taking responsibility.”
Step 2: Don’t Be Defensive
We’ve all been there and we’ve all used them. “I didn’t mean to…” “Well it’s not my problem…” “You never bother…” These statements cause the diplomatic relations to fall apart. Hyatt notes, “we’re actually causing serious damage…by defending ourselves, we’re essentially abandoning those we’ve hurt.” He’s right. When we apologize defensively, it’s no longer an apology — it just becomes a reminder of why the other person is wrong and you are still right.
Step 3: Avoid Ifs, Ands, or Buts
The last step was discussing defensiveness; this step is about the defense. When we make excuses, we are dodging responsibility. Saying, “if you had…” “and then you also…” and “but it could have been better if you…” only flips it back on your partner. Hyatt notes, “there’s a fine line between explanation and excuse, and people in pain are likely to miss it.” If you are sorry for what you’ve done, then stick with the apology and sit with the pain of being wrong. Anything less just sounds like you are sorry you got caught, rather than being sorry you caused the pain.
Step 4: Express Empathy
Here is where things really take a turn. Once a person takes responsibility, they can then start to have empathy for the other person’s pain. Suddenly, they are able to see and hear the other person differently. Many of my clients, when they feel validated, are then able to hear their partner for the first time say, “I’m sorry.” Empathy is the bedrock of any therapy, and sometimes simply repeating the same word that your partner just said can produce a breakthrough.
Step 5: Ask Forgiveness
Finally, the last step is asking for forgiveness. Hyatt talks about a “breach” being closed. He says “…it takes more than asking. It takes an answer, and only…—the people we’ve hurt—can do this part. We can take responsibility and lean in, but they have to honor that and reciprocate.” Even if forgiveness doesn’t happen right away, you have laid the groundwork for it to happen eventually.
I admit, these aren’t five easy steps. They are 5 steps that take a lot of courage and trust. And that’s what therapy is here for.
James Farrat, LMSW is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you feel you would like support with communication in your relationship contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.