Monday, September 10, 2012

Effective Communication - The Importance of Emotional Safety

Aside from speaking and listening, one of the most important factors in establishing effective communication is the understanding of the underlying emotions behind the communication.  Specifically, emotional safety plays an important role in determining whether a conversation will succeed or fail.
When emotional safety is present in an interaction, communication is often open, fluid, and spontaneous.  In the absence of emotional safety, people tend to feel guarded, hesitant, or even hostile when they speak with each other.  Examples where emotional safety may be compromised in everyday life would include disagreements with colleagues at work, or a heated argument with your spouse at home.
Unfortunately, people often resort to using criticism, blame, shame, or sarcasm when they feel frustrated, angry or disappointed.   As a result, an unsafe emotional environment is created which causes the recipient of such communication to act defensively.  Instead of speaking with the intention to exchange information, people become preoccupied with protecting themselves when they feel unsafe, leading to a communication breakdown.  
In the 1980’s, psychologist John Gottman created a “love lab” at the University of Seattle, as part of his research on marriage.  In this study, over 3,000 couples were studied and the success of their marriages were tracked for up to 14 years.  Surprisingly, Gottman was able to predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple would stay happily together or divorce after listening to the couple interact in the “love lab” for as little as five minutes. 
Over the course of his research, Gottman was able to make his predictions based on the communication patterns he observed when people were engaged in a discussion.  The patterns that he observed that made him predict divorce included: criticism, harsh start-up of a discussion, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  All of these patterns involve forms of communication that lead to an unsafe emotional environment which drastically increase an individual’s stress level.  Over time, problems begin to surface and relationships can rupture under such build-up. 
As much as John Gottman’s study focuses on the subject of marriage, the idea of creating emotional safety as a foundation for effective communication is certainly applicable in other areas as well.  How often have you witnessed the same type of negative communication patterns in professional, personal, or social settings that have left people feeling disconnected, sad, or angry? 
Becoming more aware of the impact of both what you say and how you say something is one of the first steps towards improving your communication.  After all, effective communication isn’t just about a set of superficial skills; it is also about developing the understanding of the emotions underneath the communication.
To learn more about the art of effective communication, please join us for our October workshop: Mindful Communication, Healthy Relationships.  Follow this link for more information:

Helen Tang, RPC, CHt, CMA
Registered Professional Counsellor & Couples Therapist
Office: South Surrey, BC

Providing marriage & couples counselling services to the communities of
White Rock, Surrey, Delta & Langley, BC

Monday, August 8, 2011

Effective Communication - The Power of Deep Listening

By Helen Tang, RPC, CHt, CMA

In any relationship, conflict is virtually inevitable because of our individual uniqueness and differences.  In itself, conflict is not a problem.  The problem is in the way we handle conflicts and resolve differences.

In my work as a counsellor, I have come to recognize that one of the reasons why conflicts arise is because people don’t really listen to each other.  We hear each other at an intellectual level, but we don’t listen to each other deeply and fully.

True listening is an art; it requires us to take in information from our ears and into our heart.  Often times, when we communicate with another person, our mind is too pre-occupied with our own thoughts, agenda, and assumptions.  We are often too busy thinking of what to say to respond to the person we are talking to rather than fully taking in what they are saying.

One of the things I do when working with individuals and couples is that I often ask people to slow down.  In this increasingly fast-paced world, some of us spend much of the day dealing with the daily grind of life, taking kids to their soccer game, busily working away to meet deadlines at work, fulfilling family obligations, running household errands and much more.  We rush from one place to the next without taking the time to reflect and truly communicate.  Often times, our emotional state becomes more reactive when we choose to rush around like that, instead of pacing ourselves.

In certain instances, it is ok to be reactive.  For example, when there is an emergency or when you are in danger.  However, it is not good to be in a reactive state constantly, especially when you are dealing with people.

Why is slowing down so important, especially when it comes to effective communication?  The primary reason I ask people to slow down is because when you slow down, you tend to listen better.  Often times, when we are rushed, we are also more reactive, impatient, defensive and quick to anger.  External information does not land very well when our internal space isn’t receptive.  We are more prone to be triggered when our internal state isn't receptive and calm.  One person's reactivity can also act as a trigger or catalyst for another, and pretty soon, you may find yourself in an unpleasant situation where feelings are hurt, and misunderstandings and resentment begin to build.

So how do you slow down?  Let us suppose you are about to have a conversation with your partner to resolve a disagreement and you are feeling a little overwhelmed after a busy day at work.  One option you have is to postpone the conversation until you are in a better space.  If that is not possible, you can start out by taking in a few deep breaths to ground yourself.  You can also supplement this process of slowing down with some helpful imagery or visualizations. 

After you've sensed a slowing down in your physical body and your internal space, it is now a good time to set an intention for the interaction you are about to have with your partner.  Ask yourself whether your intention is about connection and understanding or if it is about winning an argument and getting your way.  I suspect most people would say that they want connection and understanding.  If that is the case, it is important to align your action with that primary intention.  One of the actions that is in alignment with the intention of connection is to listen fully and deeply.

How do you listen deeply and how is it different from our usual way of listening?  The answer is a simple one, but it isn't always easy to do because it takes practice.  The way you listen deeply is that you suspend your agenda and assumptions, and you make room for your partner's points of view.  This is where people often get stuck because they assume that if they listen to the other person’s view fully and deeply, they would have to surrender their own needs and agree with the other person.  I wish to emphasize here that this assumption is not true.  You are not asked to abandon your view, you are not asked to have to agree with your partner, all you need to do is to make room for his/her views so they can express themselves.   Much like welcoming a guest into your house, you simply welcome and acknowledge your partner's view.  Deep listening is a precious gift to both you and your partner.

Often times when I facilitate a dialogue that involves deep listening like that in my office, people are surprised to find that previously unsolvable matter isn't so hopeless after all.  Many times, part of the disconnection in relationships (marriage or otherwise) is the struggle of being heard.  When we truly hear and are heard by another, our internal world changes.  In those moments of connection, understanding, and softened edges, our differences don't seem to take on the same importance as it once did.  At times, to their own surprise, people may even find that they don’t have much of a difference in their point of view after all.  Other times, the solution to the problem may even present itself because an environment of collaboration has been created between two people, initiated by the practice of deep listening.

If a conversation between two people is to be looked upon as a dance, ask yourself what  kind of dance do you wish to be engaged in; graceful, elegant, collaborative, generous in spirit, or awkward, tension-filled, competitive and anxiety ridden?  You may not always have full control over the direction of the conversation, but you certainly have an enormous amount of influence over it.  How do you plan to use your influence?  By being a follower, going along with the way you have always done it, or, by being a leader, choosing to do something differently this time through the art of deep listening?  The choice is yours, as it has always been.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article, a part of my Effective Communication Power series.  I would love to hear your feedback and your comments.   -   Helen


Helen Tang, RPC, CHt, CMA
Registered Professional Counsellor & Couples Therapist
Office:  South Surrey, BC

Providing marriage & couples counselling services to the communities of
White Rock, Surrey, Delta & Langley, BC


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions about Couples & Marriage Counselling

By Helen Tang, RPC, CHt, CMA

What to expect - your first couples counselling session?

During the initial session, I will ask you a few questions for the purpose of assessing your current situation and establishing the goal for counselling.  These questions may include:

Why you sought counselling.  The issue(s) that have led you to see me.  I will ask each of you to describe the problems from your perspective.  This is done because couples often see issues differently.  I will also ask what solutions has been sought in the past and what has worked, not worked based on those experiences.

Your current life situation.  Sometimes, outside factors such as having a newborn, moving to a different part of the country or one partner suffering from a chronic medical condition can add stress to the relationship.  It is important for me to have a bigger picture of your life in order to help you.

Your goals and expectations.  I will ask you both to share with me what you are hoping to get from the process of counselling.  This is the beginning of defining your goals and objectives of being in couples therapy. 

In addition to the above, I will tell you at a general level how we will work together going forward.  I will also answer any questions you may have about counselling or about the issues presented.

Because I believe that it is important to have a good fit between the counsellor and the client, at the end of the session, we will check in to see whether the counselling process is to be continued. 

Who do you work with?
I work with couples who experience a variety of challenges.  I also work with couples who have good relationships and are looking to further their connections and growths together.

Whose side are you going to be on?
I am on the side of your relationship.  My job is not to determine who is right, who is wrong, who is good, who is bad.  My focus is to help the two of you to dissolve your differences in a mature and respectful way and re-create the connection you long for.

Is counselling confidential?
Confidentiality is an extremely important aspect to counselling.  With a few exceptions to your legal rights to have confidentiality and privacy, which I will go over with you at our first session, your sharing is completely confidential.

How many sessions are required ?
This is not an easy question to answer.  Couples come in with a variety of issues and the severity of the issues are also different.  Depending on the types of issues we are looking at and how long you've had these issues, the number of sessions vary.

The progress of the therapy also depends on how much work you put in.  The counselling process doesn't work like the medical model where you tell your doctor about your symptoms and he/she diagnoses and prescribes you a medication to cure your illness.  Counselling is a team effort.  The more you participate, the more benefit you will receive.  Active participation means that you can directly influence the length of the therapy.  I will share with you at our first session what active participation looks like.

You can start and stop counselling at any time you wish, you can work as fast or as slow as you would like to.  Since most relationship issues cannot be resolved within 1 to 2 sessions, having enough sessions will give you a sense of clarity of the issues at hand and the progress you are able to make in that time span.  Ultimately, it is your decision.

If you are asking this question because of financial concern and you are making progress and are satisfied with the work, it is a good idea to talk to me about your financial situation as we may be able to come up with an alternate arrangement so that you can continue with counselling.

How long are the sessions and how often do we see you?
Generally speaking, the sessions are 90 minutes in length and you can see me either weekly or bi-weekly.  I am also open to discuss alternative arrangements with different session length and frequency.

How much does it cost?  Is it covered by insurance?
Counselling services provided by Registered Counsellors may or may not be covered by your insurance plan.  Please check with your insurance provider for more details.

The cost of marriage counselling is a worthwhile investment compared to many of the other alternatives.  For example, it is much more expensive to hire a mediator or a divorce lawyer, not to mention the cost of your mental and emotional suffering caused by the stress of your relationship.
Click here for rate information.

What happens if I need to cancel or re-schedule a session?
I respectfully request a 48-hour notice should you need to cancel or re-schedule a session.  Otherwise, the full session fee will apply.  I will go through my policy in detail at our first session.

What happens if I run into you in public places?
It might be awkward to run into me in public places because what has been shared during sessions can be extremely personal and private, in any case, I will respect your privacy.  I will wait for you to acknowledge me and will not greet you unless you do so.  If you choose not to acknowledge or greet me, I completely understand.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Welcome to my blog!  Please visit often to learn more about counselling and hypnotherapy related topics.

Best regards,