Feelings, Facts, Feelings

“It’s so frustrating. I try to help her, but she just won’t listen.”

My friend called to confide in me about a conversation he’d had with his wife earlier that day. Some drama about a problem she had with a co-worker.

“It’s the same stupid thing over and over. She’s intimidated by this co-worker. Plus, I know that she misunderstood what this person said, which only makes it worse. She could make it so much easier on herself if she would get the facts straight. The real problem is she’s making up stories.”

I know this man, and I know he means well. Yet what is it about us guys that we keep trying to help instead of just listen? Reminds me of wise words a mentor told me many years ago: helpful people…aren’t.

“And how are you feeling in all this?” I asked.

“I’m angry! And I’m sad for her—this has really taken a toll.” I sensed real compassion in his voice.

“Does she know you’re sad, or that you’re angry on her behalf? Or that deep down, the most important thing you want her to know is that you really care about her?”

He paused for a second. “Well, she has to know. Why else would she think I’m trying so hard to help her?”

Ah, yes; now there’s something I could hear myself saying: “Of course my wife knows how I feel! Why should I have to tell her? My actions do that.”

One of the things I like about what I’m learning from my Crucible brothers is how important it is to know my feelings, to name and own those feelings, and even communicate them to others with words. Especially to my wife.

“Are you open to my advice?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s why I called.”

“When it comes to helping your wife, here are three important words to keep in mind: feelings, facts, feelings. And in that order. When she asks you to listen to her, first, join her in her feelings. If she’s sad, tell her you’re sad too — or at least that you understand. If she’s angry or afraid, same thing: tell her what you feel and that her feelings make sense and that you are with her. She just wants to know she’s not alone. So don’t talk about the facts in the beginning — just join her feelings.

There was a pause. “I guess I can see how that might be a good thing,” he agreed.

“Once you’ve joined her in that way, then you can talk about the facts of the situation. Or even go into problem-solving mode. But only after you’ve established the feeling connection with her first.”

Then he seemed puzzled. “But some of her feelings are there because she’s got the facts wrong. If I can correct her, she won’t feel so bad.”

He made a good point. But I realized he was missing something. “That may be true. But when we’re in an emotional state, we often can’t hear reason. So it’s much better in intimate relationships to focus first on feelings and on joining each other. Then later go to facts. And when that’s all done, it really helps to go back feelings and end on that: how you feel about her and letting her know you’re feeling with her.”

He agreed to try the feelings, facts, feelings order of conversation with his wife.

He called back the next day, exuberant. “It was amazing! We talked about the situation again only I took a completely different approach, just letting her know I felt bad about what was happening to her. She seemed to really appreciate that. Then I talked about my perceptions. And I ended by letting her know I was here for her and that I was sorry she was in this predicament. The difference from the earlier conversation was night and day.”

I found the same works for me — both when others want me to hear them, and when I want to be heard by others: first feelings, then facts, then feelings again at the end. Give it a try in your next difficult conversation and see if it works for you.

By Judson Poling

Judson met Greg Huston (The Crucible Project’s founder) in 2002 and staffed his first initial weekend the following spring. Judson is a founding board member of The Crucible Project and co-developer of The Crucible Project’s four second-level weekends. He also served on staff of Willow Creek Community Church for 29 years. Judson is now a best-selling author and President of Cambia Resources, LLC, doing consulting, coaching and freelance writing.

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