Here’s a little tool that offers BIG help for resolving conflicts in marriage and other relationships: “When You Do ‘A’ I Feel ‘B.'” It’s a method for “speaking the truth in love”(Ephesians 4:15). Kristi and I have used this approach for many years personally and in our marriage counseling with couples. (Also Henry Cloud and John Townsend teach this technique in their book Boundaries: Face to Face.)
To use this strategy you need to be able to differentiate between “I” and “you,” “self” and “other.” My behavior and your behavior. My feelings and your feelings. My problem and your problem. Every relationship problem I’ve ever worked with in my counseling office has had boundary problems: overlapping boundaries, crossed boundaries, no boundaries.
Maybe you’ve heard that in conflict resolution it’s important to use “I statements” instead of “You statements.” “When You Do ‘A’ I Feel ‘B'” is a tool for helping you to do that.
“When You Do ‘A’…”
First you describe what your partner said or did that was emotionally difficult for you. Be careful! Resist arguing “the facts” and be humble enough to realize that you’re presenting your perception of your partner’s behavior and he or she may have a different perception. (Perception and memory are imperfect!) Also be gentle! If you’re critical, pressuring, or angry you’re like to evoke a counterattack or defensiveness that exacerbates a conflict.
Also be brief with the ‘A’ part of your communication. All you need to do is to describe the specific situation that is the context for how you felt. Most of your time needs to go into expressing your emotions, the ‘B’ part.
“I Feel ‘B'”
At this point you express your feelings, your emotions — not your perceptions of the other person (that’s the ‘A’). For instance, you say, “I feel sad, hurt, lonely, afraid, angry, guilty, or whatever.” And you elaborate. Go into detail descrying your emotions and experience. Provide an analogy or word picture to illiterate it.
This should be the main part of your communication.
Conflict Resolution Between a Husband and Wife
A lot of people mix up the ‘A’ and the ‘B.’ For instance, a wife said to her husband: “I feel that you going out drinking with your friends is more important to you than I am.” Well, there was some truth to her observation, but she wasn’t expressing her personal experience. Rather, this was her perception of her husband. She wasn’t talking about herself, but her husband.
Predictably, he didn’t like her telling him that drinking with his friends was more important to him than she was. He felt criticized and pressured to change and he reacted with defensiveness and anger: “You’re overemotional. You get upset and just won’t stop nagging me!”
“Well, you make me angry!”
Attack, defense, counterattack. Attack, defense, counterattack… Back and forth they went. The tension was escalating. They were getting angrier and angrier. And neither of them were sharing their hearts. Neither of them were taking ownership of their emotions, desires, or needs.
The truth is that nobody makes us feel a certain way. Her nagging doesn’t explain or excuse his inattentiveness. His criticism doesn’t explain or excuse her anger.
We’re each responsible for how we react to other people. We each have choices on how to respond to the things that people do or say. Our feelings and moods are about us, not other people.
After awhile I stopped their arguing and said:
Look what’s happening here. There’s no vulnerability from either of you. You’re not taking responsibility for your part in the problem. No caring is being expressed between the two of you now. Each of you has used your turns to talk to complain about the other and blame him or her for your problems. I can’t help you if this is what you’re going to do.
When I give you the floor you need to use your time to share wisely. Take the opportunity to invite your spouse to understand what’s it’s like to be you. Help your spouse step inside your skin and experience your emotions.
Then I helped them to take ownership for and clearly express their feelings; we put words to their experiences, emotions, and needs.
The wife said: “When you were late coming home from the sports bar I was disappointed. I had hoped that we’d have some time together before bed. I waited and waited and ended up feeling rejected. It was a lonely night for me. I became angry.”
The husband said: “I was depressed about how bad things have been going for me at work and so I just wanted to escape and have fun with my friends. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I guess I was afraid that when I went home we’d have a conflict like we just did. I feel bad when it seems you’re angry with me and so then I get angry back at you.”
There are different ways you can elaborate on your emotions in your communication of “When you do ‘A’ I Feel ‘B.’” Each of these examples illustrates a different add on to the initial verbalization of personal emotions.
- “When you cancel our date just hours before we’re to go out I feel discarded. At times like this I’ve been looking forward to being with you and then get so disappointed that I won’t get to be with you because something else became more important.” (Notice the use of additional feeling words.)
- “When you raise your voice at me I feel scared. I start shaking inside and I just want to go away and hide. I feel like a turtle that pulls its head inside it’s shell.” (In this case, an emotional word picture was used to elaborate on the feelings.)
- “When you make critical comments like that I feel bad about myself, like I did when my father berated me when I was little.” (Here the expression of emotion was strengthened by offering a connection to a painful memory.)
- “When I’m trying to talk to you about something that’s important for me and then you change the subject I feel rejected. I need you to listen to me and try to understand my feelings.” (In this example the expression of emotions is followed by an expression of personal need.)
If You’re Not Being Heard
For the “When You Do ‘A’ I Feel ‘B'” approach to work each person needs to get a turn. If your partner interrupts you and changes the focus back to him or herself then you can use the “Broken Record Technique.” Are old enough to remember records? Before Mp3’s, CD’s, and cassettes we had records! When there’s a scratch in your record the same syllable keeps repeating over and over and over! Well that’s one way to try to get your point across.
Better yet, a more powerful approach in conflict resolution is to use “meta-communication.” Meta-communication simply means communicating about the communication that just took place. In other words, talk about the person’s unhelpful response to what you shared.
What if the couple I just mentioned had done that? Remember the wife was trying to tell her husband that she felt rejected when he would go out to shoot pool with his friends one or twice a week, but rarely go on a date with her. And he responded by getting angry.
If she were to use a meta-communication response she could say: “I want understand your feelings too, but I was sharing and you interrupted. Right now we’re talking about how I feel unimportant to you. I need time with you, time to connect and share. It disappoints me when we don’t get that.”