Volume 18, Number 5
July/August 2001

Protecting Your Personal Relationships

By Standish McCleary

When she stopped crying, she explained that she was actually very touched and pleased to have her husband finally listen and show some understanding. He replied that he thought he always had understood her, at least intellectually, and that perhaps they expressed their feelings of understanding and caring differently.

Indeed, they did have different communication styles, and they struggled to reach each other despite their many differences, not the least of which were gender and profession. He was a lawyer, and she was not. Neither was crazy or wrong, but both were handicapped by their stylistic constraints and hurt by misunderstood intentions. They were ultimately able to accept these differences, make adjustments without taking or casting inappropriate blame, and create a satisfying, close relationship. It could just as easily have ended quite sadly.

Achieving closeness with others is not only a wonderful aspect of life's richness, it also provides relief from excessive stress and burnout. Lawyers, however, can unwittingly undermine close relationships if they bring home with them an adversarial turn of mind, especially the desire to dominate information and never acknowledge error or uncertainty.

Our intellectual, focused, hard-driving, emotionally distant work style can be counterproductive and even resented at home or in a significant relationship. We ratchet ourselves down to stay on task and meet our responsibilities, and we are taught to keep our minds unclouded by emotion in order to do our jobs. Such emotional distance can become excessive, even destructive, far more easily than we realize.

Making the transition between work and home can be an interesting proposition. We are certainly prepared to analyze, sort out, and give the benefit of our analysis to whatever problem we see presented for solution. But suppose our significant other is more interested in first talking about feelings, being understood emotionally, or having some unconditional empathy and support. Can we discern the difference? Are we willing to do it and restrain our urge to assess, solve, advise, and conclude? If we wish to respond empathetically and talk about our own feelings, are we able to do it appropriately? If we are part of the issue, can we get past feeling defensive and launching a point-by-point defense?

I recall, many years ago in marital therapy with my (then and present) wife, insisting that my point of view was much more reasonable and valid than hers. It didn't seem to me to be simply a matter of my feelings; I insisted that any 12 people off the street would agree with me, as if that should somehow settle it. I wanted objective validation for my views. Things improved greatly only when I realized that I didn't live with any of my imagined juries and judges, and, thus, they really didn't matter.

How can we learn to leave our intellectual, emotionally distant professional style in the office? How can we exchange our highly focused, if not rigid, work style for one suitable for communicating with the people we love?

Life Is Not a Cross-Examination

Suppose you have spent the better part of a hypothetical day dealing with an opponent's expert witness. Looking at how you do this provides one of the starker contrasts between the discipline of doubt, which you need for your work, and the ability to suspend judgment, which you need to nurture your relationships. The expert's views are an "admissible" form of subjective opinion in the legal world. Indeed, it is one of the few occasions where opinion means much at all, and even then the opinion is couched as factually and objectively as possible. There are specific rules that govern the entire encounter.

So on this hypothetical day, you have thus asked no open-ended questions, nor any questions to which you did not already know the answer. You asked nothing unless you had a statement, document, or incontrovertible fact with which to discredit the expert if you didn't get the specifically desired answer. You extracted concessions to your point of view; jumped on any inconsistencies or contradictions; and attacked limits inherent in the person's experience, qualifications, preparation, or bias. You filtered what you were told through a well-considered objective analysis of what was normal or reasonable, given the case's particular objectives. You were dogged and persistent. You were great!

You could also be a bit scary for anyone else venturing into your line of fire with mere personal subjectivity, such as a spouse, child, or loved one who may want to talk with you now that the day is finished. We can easily develop limitations in our ability to listen uncritically and empathetically to the loosely wrapped personal opinions, feelings, and musings of the regular people we find when we go home. This is particularly so if we manage to discern, in our fatigued state, that someone seems to have some kind of problem with...us. At this point, listening openly becomes especially challenging.

We need to stop and ask ourselves what exactly we have to lose if we accept what we are being told as essentially valid, relevant emotional information. Perhaps it is important and worth suspending defensiveness to hear. It's easy to get defensive, but once we do, we essentially shut down emotionally, interfering with any genuine understanding.

Do You Listen?

Listening in order to understand is much more subjective and narrative in orientation than the more customary listening we do to get factual information and sort it into useful, abstract categories. Plausibility, the full development of the particulars of personal experience in the story, individual meaning, and interpretation are the appropriate considerations in a personal conversation. In the back of our minds, though, we may wonder if this is perhaps, ah... fluff. In our more honest moments, we may realize that personal listening is perhaps one of the most neglected parts of our lives. We forget to listen fully to our children and others whom we love and, thus, fail to let them in. Unless we listen, they can become wizened in our presence, or mere caricatures of themselves. We may know the facts, but we won't know them. People who have grasped this and changed their listening behavior report astonishment at the new richness and texture of their relationships. They grow quieter, less critical, and more comprehending. They come to know and appreciate more deeply those they had thought they already knew. They speak of how much more love and how much less stress there is in their lives.

When it is your turn in a personal conversation, do you allow your true self to be known, or have you been trained not to speak personally? You might do better seeing yourself as telling a story, your story, rather than framing an argument. Perhaps you will find that speaking subjectively doesn't really diminish your point. Like hearsay rules, your personal feelings are not being offered to prove the objective truth of an assertion so much as for an indication of your state of mind. This assumes that your state of mind, your emotional well-being, is a relevant matter of consequence to the other person in a close personal relationship. If it isn't, why bother?

For many lawyers, it takes a paradigmatic leap to realize that feelings are valid even though "merely" subjective, and perhaps inconvenient, and that they really do not require justification or defense. That realization alone will change the tone of your conversation. Lawyers have the intellectual prowess and stamina to talk endlessly about all manner of things in personal relationships, except feelings. We should also have enough good sense to perceive, even in an utterly mystified way, that we somehow are not really communicating meaningfully to our partners, or perhaps even to ourselves.

Paying the Price

The problem is not just legal training. We live in a culture where long-standing authoritarian, hierarchical styles of parenting and teaching give us few models for empathizing and expressing our thoughts and feelings subjectively. Perhaps, like many others, you got the idea from various people you have encountered since birth that anger, fear, sadness, uncertainty, weakness, and other messy or inconvenient feelings were undesirable and unacceptable. Perhaps you long ago sacrificed concern with that level of personal self in order to please others or meet some prescribed agenda.

Every individual should be considered the world's foremost authority on his or her own point of view, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. In a personal discussion, this information is indispensable. But we may have difficulty respecting and seeking to understand it. It may seem safer to intellectualize very personal matters and reframe the discussion into how things "should" be; what most people do; what's normal, reasonable, or legally or morally right.

As with any other refuge, we pay a price when it comes to our personal relationships. After many years of such habits, we are unable to feel, listen, or speak subjectively when appropriate. All of these skills must be relearned. It may seem quite risky and uninviting to get too personal and subjective, particularly if we do not trust the validity of our own feelings.

Even if the feelings in question are someone else's, we may find ourselves preferring to go immediately to a practical stance. We may prefer to somehow solve the situation and advise upon it, rather than first personally embrace it and provide empathy. We may prefer to see personal suffering as nearly always an avoidable problem, rather than something of a mystery to be experienced, accepted, grieved, and passed through. Keeping it all abstract and conceptual is one way to avoid getting too personally involved.

But if you wish to be more intimately connected and supported in a close relationship, this tendency to remain abstract and removed is an obvious barrier. One thing that can make it easier to respect both your own and your loved one's subjective world is to be clear about how you feel, what you value, and what you want. You will find the rewards are more than worth the effort.

Standish McCleary was an attorney for 16 years before earning a Ph.D. in psychology. He is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Portland, Oregon.

The author of this article has granted permission for reproduction of the text of this article for classroom use in an institution of higher learning and for use by not-for-profit organizations, provided that such use is for informational, non-commercial purposes only and any reproduction of the article or portion thereof acknowledges original publication in this issue of GPSolo, citing volume, issue, and date, and includes the title of the article, the name of the author, and the legend "Reprinted by permission of the American Bar Association."

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