A reader sent me an interesting email, following on from my last entry about the three positions we can relate from, which are as “I” (my point of view), as “you” (looking out of your eyes) or as an observer.
She wrote of an interesting exercise she was shown:
” I was asked to sit in a chair and to surround myself with 5 or so chairs, each representing a significant person in my life. I was told to state a small problem in my life. Then I was told to sit in each of the chairs, one after another, and state what that person would have said to me as advice to solve the problem.
“It was such an amazing experience. And by the end of it the problem simply didn't seem worth worrying about.”
I have never tried that one, but certainly will in future. I have, when reaching an impasse with my husband or a close friend, set out 2 chairs, one for me and the other for them. I put my point of view, then got up and sat in the other chair and replied to myself. I just let the words come out and what was so interesting was that what they said wasn't what I expected. It gave me much pause for thought and a completely different approach the next time we talked.
In day to day life, I do tend to flick in and out of the “I” “you” positions, cycling through our points of view. The great thing about this is not only am I easier to live with, but I realize that very seldom is the other person against me. More often they are swirling in their own vortex.
I remember the woman I worked with coming in one day, slamming down her purse, not speaking. I automatically started into defensive/apologetic mode. “Why is she cross with me – what have I done?” Which could easily have led me down a hurt path. But I was just learning all this stuff, so I pulled myself back and asked her what was wrong. Not me at all, big head that I had. Her ex-husband had been round the night before, threatening her.
Of course, assuming it is NOT me can lead me to be complacent or insensitive, which is why I tended to take things personally. I have a horror of blundering on, blind to the reaction I'm getting. Better, I thought, to assume I am the target and not take any risk.
Strange to be self-centred to avoid being self-centred!
One really useful technique I learnt was to imagine you take the other person's head, put it on your shoulders and look out of their eyes. Amazing how different the world looks! I tried this with a friend who had become dismissive and snubbing. When I put his head on, I immediately saw the problem. He had sailed through school and university, with a first class degree and little competition. Now he was going up against the big fish, a job with several contenders, all as proficient or more than he. He was scared and it was not a feeling he was used to. Putting me down reasserted his position.
This didn't make him easier, but made me stop defending myself and gave me necessary space. He calmed down after the interview and we still had our friendship, which I have really valued over the years. I was so glad I didn't engage with him, but left space for the relationship to right itself.
One other fascinating trick: if you want to know how someone is feeling, just mirror their posture and also make sure you are breathing in sync. Our bodies are not in a position by chance. We slump or walk lightly for good reason, which is why if you smile you start to feel better. I used to run an exercise during seminars, where the participants sat in pairs. One had to think about an emotional experience; their partner had to mirror them, while staying silent. After a few minutes they had to name the emotion. Almost all of them got it right.
And the really neat thing about this is that people entrain. They lock together, so to speak. Once you have mirrored someone and you are in sync, you can then lead them. So if you are trying to comfort a friend, it doesn't work to bounce in energetically trying to jolly them out of it, which I always feel is like verbal rape. Much better start where they are, matching their posture, tone and pace. Then when you are in sync, gently move your body, speed and loudness of speech to be more positive.
That is what my friend Margaret did when my mother was dying. I was all over the place, trying to absorb a transatlantic call from a busy hospital and book a flight home. She sat with me while I digested the news, and a few minutes later, I was stilled and talking of my mother quietly and affectionately, albeit still disjointed.
My big lesson learned with all this is the variety of worlds buzzing beside us, occasionally intersecting, but stretching back and forwards, each person the key player in their life. And I sometimes have the privilege of stepping as a bit player onto their stage.