Relationships

Misunderstood Part 4: A Lack of Curiosity by Stephan Gombis LCPC

How Stress, Blame and a Lack of Curiosity Prevent you from being Known

Double. Chocolate. Brownie cake from Sweet Mama B’s Cafe. YUMMY! And this was Mike’s favorite. Knowing this, Kim went 40 minutes out of her way to stop by Sweet Mama B’s. The whole way there and the whole way back she pictured herself sitting across from Mike, smiling at each other and basking in the little piece of joy she brought for Mike. Kim envisioned Mike’s gratitude as he delighted and enjoyed his favorite cake with her.

But that’s not exactly what happened…

Kim got home a few minutes before Mike, so she decided to take a quick shower. A few minutes later Mike came home, opened the fridge and to his delight, saw his favorite cake just sitting there.  With gratitude, Mike pulled out the cake, cut himself a piece, sat down and ate it. When Kim walked into the kitchen and saw Mike washing his cake dish, she felt hurt and exploded. And Mike (rather than trying to understand where Kim was coming from) argued that he had no idea this would upset her.

So what happened here? How did a lack of curiosity impact their ability to be understood?

First off, all feelings need to be acceptable, though not all words or actions are always acceptable. It is ok, and even understandable, that Kim felt hurt. It's her response, not her feelings, that accelerated the situation. She took her assumption and ran with it.  

On the other side, Mike went straight into defense mode where all he cared about was getting the anger and blame to stop. The problem is, you can’t stop anger with reason. Without a sense of curiosity about where Kim’s anger stemmed from, Kim just got more upset and nothing could get resolved.

What is a Lack of Curiosity?

A lack of curiosity creates misunderstanding when you believe you don’t need any more information because you already have it all. It’s like being a know-it-all.  You know your partner feels this way when you speak and you see her rolling her eyes. That communicates…

 

            “I’ve heard this before and it has no value to me.”

 

 

We lose our sense of curiosity when we go into survival mode.

In survival mode, it feels like there isn’t enough for the both of us, bandwidth is limited, judgment abounds, and you feel rushed to fix the problem because your survival is on the line.

 

A relationship filled with a lack of curiosity looks similar to the characteristics marriage researcher John Gottman calls, “The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These characteristics are contempt, stonewalling, criticism and defensiveness.  And when a relationship has these characteristics it communicates that you can no longer be influenced. You prefer monologue to dialogue. 

But maybe you’re thinking, "I do ask questions, but my partner says it feels like an inquisition.”

Some questions aren’t questions at all. They are statements of judgment wrapped up in questions. This is what’s called a “Leading question," a question that's basically a statement with a question mark after it instead of a period. 

And here are a few examples of statements with a question mark tacked on:

 

“You’re trying to hurt me. right?”

           

“You knew we couldn’t afford those purchases but you spent the money anyway didn’t you?”


“So this is what you consider a clean kitchen?”


“Don’t you hear the baby screaming?”

 

To counteract the tendency to ask leading questions I recommend “I” statements. So let’s restate the leading questions from above.

 

“I feel hurt” or “I’m having a hard time trusting you right now”

 

“I’m frustrated that we’re facing this much debt” or “I’m annoyed that we don’t have a budget we can agree to stick with”

 

The most valuable advice I can give on preventing a leading question from being asked, is to avoid asking questions you think you know the answer to. Assume the best in your partner, and ask questions from a place of genuine curiosity.

 

We’ve covered a lot in this section, but here are the main points…

  

Summary:

1-A lack of curiosity is taking the posture of a “Know-it-all"

2-We lack curiosity when our bandwidth is limited, when judgment abounds, and when we feel rushed to fix the problem

3-A lack of curiosity manifests itself in contempt, criticism, defensiveness or stonewalling

4. We can counteract this lack of curiosity by seeking to truly understand our partner

At this point we’ve covered the how stress, blame and a lack of curiosity lead to being misunderstood. In the next and final section we are going to look at steps you can take to minimize this three-headed monster and some resources that can help you along the way.


Misunderstood by Stephan Gombis LCPC

How Stress, Blame and a Lack of Curiosity Prevent you from being Known Part 1 & 2

Part 1: Introduction

A few years back someone sent me a YouTube link of a German commercial. That commercial went like this:

A rookie German coast guard was left alone to monitor incoming calls of ships that might be in trouble and in need of rescue. About ten seconds into the commercial a ship captain called into the German coast guard, but in English saying, “Mayday, mayday.  We’re sinking, we’re sinking.”

The rookie German-speaking coast guard feeling a little frazzled cautiously replied, “This is the German coast guard. But it sounded more like: “Zis is zee German coast guard.”

The scared English-speaking captain repeated, “We’re sinking, we're sinking.” To which the rookie coast guard now confidently replied, “What are you sinking (thinking) about?”

The ad was selling English-education services, but it’s a perfect example of what a misunderstanding can look like and how easily it can happen. Of course misunderstandings aren’t always this funny. Sometimes it’s no laughing matter. But funny or serious, I find that there are three reasons why misunderstandings occur. And those three reasons are:

1-Stress

2-Blame

3-A lack of curiosity 

After 11 years as a marriage therapist, and 9 years of being married, I’ve come to realize that being understood is at the heart of every matter we can argue about. So I put together this 5 part article series (that will be emailed out over the next 5 days) to help you discover how stress, blame and a lack of curiosity get in the way of being understood.

The first barrier we will begin with is stress.

Part 2: Stress

Imagine you are looking forward to an evening spent hanging out with a close friend. Then, at the last minute, your friend cancels. You’re disappointed, but more than that, you’re frustrated: this is the third time she’s canceled on you in as many weeks.

This frustration causes stress.  You know you need to discuss your frustrations with your friend, but  even thinking about talking to that friend can be stressful too.

Relationships cannot thrive when issues are ignored. If we can voice our concern without attacking, defending or withdrawing, our relationship can likely be restored and even improved. 

So you’ve heard of stress; and being human you’ve most likely experienced it too (maybe even on a daily basis). But what you might not know is how stress contributes to misunderstandings. 

What is Stress?

The definition of stress is, “A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances,” (Oxford Dictionary). Stress comes from the Latin word “Strictus” meaning, “drawn tight.” In French the word for stress is “Estresse” meaning “narrowness” or “oppression.” All pretty good descriptions, don’t you think? 

I find it’s helpful to look at how stress is described across the language spectrum, as it fills in the picture of what stress feels like. As you can imagine, if you’re feeling, “Strain, tension, tight, narrowness or oppression," misunderstanding might be close behind.  That would make sense wouldn’t it?

How stress prevents us from being understood

You can’t be both narrow and open-minded. You can’t be both tense and free to explore. And it’s tough to feel oppressed and still try to listen. Without listening we have no ability to understand or comprehend our partner. Stress restricts our natural ability to listen because the body releases stress hormones that trigger a sequence of reactions like the list below:

1-Lose periphery vision and into tunnel vision

2-Lowered ability to think logically

3-Less mental flexibility

4-Enter into fight or flight mode

5-Cold hands/feet as blood flow contracts and concentrates in vital organs like the heart and lungs

Now imagine you’ve been frustrated with your partner’s approach to parenting, and a challenging situation with your six year-old has sparked yet another disagreement with your husband. As the conversation intensifies, you begin to become annoyed that your partner doesn’t see how right you are. And at the same time, you start to ask the question, “What am I doing with this guy?” He keeps talking, but it all sounds like a huge waste of words. At the same time, you’ve overlooked that fact that he apologized three times, “saying it wasn’t sincere enough”. Guess what… Your stress is fueling the misunderstanding and preventing you from being understood. 

Are you starting to see how stress creates a likely scenario for misunderstandings to flourish?

When you’re focusing all your energy on surviving the present moment; taking the time to explore another person’s perspective is as likely as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

But can stress ever lead to understanding?

It sure can. It’s true that stress and stress hormones can leave our minds less flexible, but stress in the right dosage can be the trigger that prompts us to lean into our fears and comprehend what’s actually happening.

You can leverage stress to be more mindful, and to create greater understanding. One way to do this is  to lower your stress hormones into the optimal zone through a method called Pulmonary Muscle Relaxation. It’s easy to do while sitting or lying down. There are three main steps to Pulmonary Muscle Relaxation and they are:

1-Contract one muscle group at a time (I recommend starting with your hands and then working your way up to your head and then down to your feet), while at the same time taking a deep (Yawn-style breath in).

2-Hold the contracted muscle group and your breath for 7-10 counts.

3-Release your muscles and slowly blow out the air as you bring your stomach muscles in

That’s it! This exercise is great for you to do when you’re feeling a discussion is going nowhere and you’re becoming less and less patient. Take that signal as a warning that you need to lower your stress hormones or this discussion is going to turn into a fight.       

Let’s review what we covered in this post shall we? 

Summary:

1-Stress is narrowness, oppression, or tightness

2-Stress shifts our body/mind resources to be narrowly focused on survival rather than conversation

3. When we notice our stress levels rising, we can work to actively release stress in order to create a better environment for communication.

In my next blog post, we will be addressing Blame and how it can cause misunderstandings to happen.