November 17, 2022
What are the main categories of interpersonal relationship problems? What's really going on when most people say they have a "communication" problem? What are the criteria for being a good listener? What's the "right" amount of conflict to have in a healthy relationship? How can we best express our wants and needs? What sorts of requests are reasonable (or not) to make of our relationship partners? People can get along just fine when they differ on little things, like the best flavor of ice cream; but how can people maintain relationships when they have deep differences in their core values?
Jayson Gaddis is an author, relationship expert, and coach who teaches people the one class they didn't get in school: "How To Do Relationships." Jayson leads one of the most in-depth and comprehensive relationship educational programs and trains relationship coaches all over the world. Jayson is the host of The Relationship School Podcast, the founder of The Relationship School, and the author of Getting to Zero: How to Work Through Conflict in Your High-Stakes Relationships. Learn more about Jayson and his work via these links:
The Relationship School:
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Jayson Gaddis about resolving relationship conflict, communication and deep listening, and expressing our true selves.
SPENCER: Jayson, welcome.
JAYSON: Thanks, Spencer, good to be here.
SPENCER: I know that you focus on a question that's relevant to pretty much everyone, which is, how do we have better relationships? How do we avoid or resolve conflicts in our life? And generally, how do we be happier in our social world? And so I'm really excited to dig into some of these topics with you.
JAYSON: Yeah, me too. I love talking about this stuff.
SPENCER: First question for you. When people come to you with relationship problems, what are the sorts of problems that they tend to show you? How would you categorize the problems that they have?
JAYSON: I'd say the biggest one is people don't know how to work through difficult conflicts. And they call it, “We have communication issues. We have communication problems.” That's usually an umbrella term for, “We have all kinds of problems, but we haven't actually zeroed in on the actual problem.” But communication problems are probably the biggest complaint.
SPENCER: And so what do you think's going on there? Is it that they struggle to communicate their real feelings? Or is it that they have some kind of dynamic where one of them will say something and the other one misinterpreted, or there's hurt feelings? What's the typical setup that you find?
JAYSON: All of that, for sure. And usually, when people say they have communication problems, they're saying, “I don't know how to communicate what I really want to say, in a way that the other person can understand, particularly under stress. And I also don't know how to listen very well when my partner or the other person is trying to communicate to me.”
SPENCER: Do they actually come knowing that they are struggling to listen? Or is that something that emerges as you go deeper into it with them?
JAYSON: Definitely they’re not aware. It’s something that comes as we kind of explore it a little bit. All of us know how to listen. We know how to nod our head and pretend like we're listening, certainly. But very few people know how to listen deeply to another person's experience, under stress, in a way that the other person feels understood. That's a really different skill set.
SPENCER: Obviously, you want to protect the anonymity of the people you work with. But could you maybe give an example of the typical kind of scenario you'd see? And I'm interested to know what it looks like from the individual people's perspective, but then also, stepping back, what it looks like from your perspective, what's going on?
JAYSON: Sure. Let's say John comes in to see me (we'll just call him John) or comes to one of our courses. And usually people — initially, early in their development on the personal growth path, they tend to think that the problem is the other person. And so they come with a complaint. So John comes with a complaint about his wife Sue, and says, “She always…,” “She never…,” “I can't do anything right. And she blah blah blah blah blah.” And usually it's fairly ‘blame-y,’ as if the other person is the problem. And then John thinks that, if Sue would change, their relationship would be great. That's the most common entry-level problem and that's how people tend to orient. And then, as we dig in there with John and Sue, we find out that actually, it turns out, Sue doesn't feel understood at all by John. John's never really applied himself to learning how to listen differently. John's just doing his habit of communication, which he's done with everyone else in his life, and it works everywhere else so why wouldn't it work at home? But I think people that apply that logic to an intimate partnership, which is the hardest relationship, usually end up in shit creek after a few years, because they keep trying to do what's working elsewhere with their current partner, and it just isn't gonna cut it.
SPENCER: One thing I think about with regard to relationships is that, like a car, relationships tend to accumulate damage over time, where one person does something that hurts the other person's feelings, or forgets something important, or maybe there's some kind of drift in their interest or something like this. And if you don't have those mechanisms in place to fix the damage, if you're not sending your car to get repaired, it just gets worse and worse and worse. And so you’ve actively got to work on getting it back into a good position. I’m curious how you feel about what I just said.
JAYSON: I like that analogy, that's great. I haven't ever thought of that. But it's very much like a car, and people drive a brand new car off the lot and it immediately depreciates. In a relationship, after the drugs of the honeymoon stage wear off, it feels kind of like it depreciates. It's like, “Oh, this doesn't feel as good.” And part of the reason is because we purchase fantasies about relationships and how they go, and then we get discouraged when reality comes in. Then it's like, “Oh, there's another person here and it turns out, I'm difficult. It turns out they're difficult. And we don't know how to deal under stress with each other.” The car starts to break down, and they keep trying to do what they've always done and that just isn't gonna get them anywhere.
SPENCER: So what are some of these fantasies that people come into relationships thinking are going to happen?
JAYSON: I think the biggest one, Spencer, is that if you find the one, or meet the, quote,’right person’, then everything will work out and you won't have that many (if any) relationship problems. That's probably the biggest fantasy. People really believe that it's about the person and so, if you have relationship problems, that means you picked the wrong person. You have a bad picker or something. And that's just not the case. I've seen it time and time again. I tend to find that the universe brings us the person that we need for our growth and development, not always the person we think we want…well, we want initially, but then again, a few years in, it's like, “Ooh, this person is annoying and they're kind of triggering, and I don't like them in some ways. I don't like how they live. I don't like some of their choices. I don't like how they do money. I don't like blah blah blah.” And I think that's good, because it wakes us up out of the fantasy, cracks that whole romantic narrative. And it puts us in contact with what's real and authentic, which is, relationships can be hard and they can be very triggering and very upsetting. And the higher the stakes, the more upsetting they can be sometimes, and that just points us to learning again. If we're not a learner, we're going to have problems in relationships, because I think you need to learn how to do it differently.
SPENCER: One very wise thing my mom once said to me was that, when you're looking for a life partner, you need to find someone whose flaws you can live with. I've always kept that in mind. I think that's a really interesting way to think about it.
JAYSON: I like your mom's advice. I think it's really sound. Sometimes I say find a good enough partner. A lot of men, in particular, tend to (because of how we're trained and conditioned, and the images we see online and on TV and media everywhere), think that the perfect woman looks like ‘this’ and acts like ‘that’. We sort of compare ourselves and start to create a fantasy in our mind (if we're a heteronormative person), of what an ideal woman looks like. I just think that's really shallow. I approached it with the ‘good enough’. Yeah, they have flaws. We all have flaws and weaknesses. And it's about learning how to love the person with their flaws and weaknesses.
SPENCER: Do you ever have people that you're working with, where you actually think the right solution is just, okay, these people are not compatible, they should not be together? And when that comes up, what do you do in that scenario?
JAYSON: Usually, that's a different problem going on. But one thing that does start to happen over time is that, if two people aren't applying themselves and learning how to do relationship well, learning how to love each other well, and learning new tools and skills required to love well, then the other person does become quite annoying, or we become quite annoying to them. And if we're not figuring things out, it starts to feel really bad all the time. And that leads to burnout. People get tired, they get exhausted trying. Often, their approach to trying is usually suspect and not great. But, whatever, let's just say that they tried and tried for years and then they call it a compatibility issue when, in reality, it's user error, really. Each person didn't learn the right tools in the right way with this particular person. And it wasn't mutual. One person maybe was doing the work to take responsibility for their part and the other person wasn't…that usually is not a good fit. One of the most common dynamics that some of your listeners might relate to is, they're into personal growth and development, and they're willing to learn, but their partner is not. Well, long-term that's just not going to work and that relationship usually will end.
SPENCER: I’m a little surprised though, because it sounds like you don't think that people often date people they’re just sort of fundamentally incompatible with. Am I understanding that properly?
JAYSON: Yeah, I would say if it's a compatibility issue (if we're going to make that the thing), the question that they didn't answer very well is, ‘do we want the same type of relationship?’ Not, ‘do we want the same things in life’, like to be married, or to be mutual earners, both of us working full-time, etc, or where to live. Those are pretty big issues for some people, but it's usually more of the type of relationship people want. I have it that there's three types: there's a careful relationship, there's a carefree relationship, and then there's a caring relationship. And if I'm the careful type, I just want to tiptoe around and not rock the boat, and you're a carefree type, that's not going to work very well. Because you want no problems, you want to just have fun all the time. And, if I want to get in there and get serious, and make sure we're working through our conflicts, that's incompatible over time.
SPENCER: Can you dig into those three types a little more, maybe give us a definition of what is careful type, carefree type and then caring type?
JAYSON: Careful types, again, like tiptoeing around, not wanting to rock the boat, definitely avoiding conflict, not wanting to say the upsetting triggering thing to my partner. That's careful.
SPENCER: Is that related to an anxious attachment style? Or is that just a different concept?
JAYSON: A little different concept because you can have an anxious attachment style in all three of these. Alright, so that was careful. Carefree is the fun-loving, ‘I just want things to be easy’, no drama. “Why is this such a big deal? Why are you so emotional? Why are you so reactive? Let's just get over it already. We already talked about this, why are we talking about it again? Let’s just go watch a movie and have a beer.” That's carefree. And then caring is…I call it challenge and support. You're into growth and development. You understand that relationships are both challenging and supportive. You're willing to support and challenge your partner, they're willing to support and challenge you, so that you two can have a fulfilling relationship where the security of the relationship is earned. It's not given because you're working on it.
SPENCER: So you try to get people to move to the caring mode?
JAYSON: Yes, because to me, love is a practice. It's not a destination where I fall in love, and now I'm forever in love and everything's easy now. Because again, that's back to the fantasy. To deeply love another human being is difficult, especially if all of the true colors are going to come out years into the relationship, the lack of sex, the money issues, the messiness, the name-calling, whatever. It's hard to love another person over many, many years. I treat it like a practice. I don't know if that makes sense.
SPENCER: Yeah, I like the idea of thinking of it as a practice. That really does make sense to me. You mentioned before these skills for relationships. Do you want to go through a few of those skills that you think are really important?
JAYSON: For sure. If we want to uplevel our communication (if ‘communication issues’ is one of the biggest issues people have, if we keep it under that umbrella term), then we've got to both become a better speaker and a better listener. And my favorite term that I use, that I teach in my book and all my courses is, (I call it) LUFU. It's an acronym that just stands for ‘listen until the other person feels understood’, L-U-F-U. And if we make a commitment to LUFU the other person (and there's eight steps that go along with the LUFU practice), that's gonna feel really good to the other person. Because if I say to my wife…if I'm listening to her, but I'm waiting for my turn to speak, I'm over here building my case and I'm actually not listening to her. And then she's gonna obviously feel misunderstood, or not understood. If, on the other hand, I say, “Honey, I'm committed to listening to you until you feel understood,” not till I think I understand you, but until you say you feel understood — that's gonna feel good. She's gonna be like, “Wow, thanks, that level of commitment is pretty strong.” And then my heart and my being and my mind are behind that commitment. And that means I'll hang in there, through tough conversations (no matter how long it takes, no matter how many days it takes), I'm committed as a listener to having this person feel understood. And most of us want to be deeply understood or known or feel seen or cared about. And this supports that to happen. So that's one of my favorites.
SPENCER: That's a really nice concept. It reminds me of something that I think comes up a lot in relationships where, when you're in an argument with someone or having a disagreement, there's an aspect of that, which feels like the other person is being unreasonable. You feel like they're in the wrong, you're in the right. And something I find helpful to remind myself in those situations, when it's with someone I'm close with is like, “Oh, wait, this is a really good person that I'm dealing with. From their perspective, there's probably a pretty good reason they feel the way they do or a pretty good explanation for why they're acting this way.” And then switching to that mode of curiosity of ‘what do they think is happening now?’ I find that helps jolt me out of my ‘I'm right, they’re being unreasonable’ perspective.
JAYSON: I love that. Because you're talking about mindset, right? You're talking about the mindset of assuming positive intent, and you're seeing this person is maybe doing their best. And then also, just the kind of way you just described that is caring, it's caring about someone. And the curiosity you mentioned, which I love, that's part of the LUFU process. It's one of the steps. You gotta stay a curious listener and like, “Huh, that doesn't make sense to me, Honey. Let me keep asking questions so that I understand.” Not asking questions from an interrogation place but from a curiosity place. The energy is different there. There's a few other little tools within LUFU that are really powerful, and I want to just introduce maybe two of them. One of them is, one of the fastest ways out of any fight or disagreement or issue is to take responsibility for our side. So we can do that by just a simple sentence. “My part is…” or “My part was…” and that way, we’re saying, “Yep, I have a part and it's that I raised my voice” or “I didn't respond to you in a timely manner,” or “I was kind of a jerk yesterday.” When we own our part, it does a ton to settle the other person's nervous system. And if we want to take it another step further, we can add empathy in the process and one of the ways we can practice empathy (because it doesn't come naturally to a lot of us, especially if we're more left-brained), is we can say things like, “I was a jerk yesterday, because I raised my voice, and I sort of dismissed you, and I can imagine the impact on you was (blank).” I try to imagine what it's like to be them. And if it's my wife, let's say, I can say, “I can imagine what it's like was that you felt really dismissed, you felt belittled, and you felt hurt. Yeah, and I just want to say that I did that. And that sucks.” All of a sudden, my wife starts to relax. So those are just a couple of quick tools. And if I want to make it even more powerful, I can say, “Your disappointment, Honey, or your discouragement or your sadness, or your hurt feelings make sense to me because I did that thing.” I can weave those three tools together in this LUFU process and I can say three words, “That makes sense.” And it has to genuinely make sense to me or I wouldn't recommend saying that. You can practice saying it, just try it on and see how it lands for the other person but it's gonna go better if you genuinely mean it, if it does kind of make sense to you. Let's call it validation. We validate someone's feelings, we validate their experience. It goes a long way.
SPENCER: Why do you think that people desire validation of their feelings so much? I definitely agree that they do. This is often something people want, and they feel a lot better if they get it. But why is it that we don't just know that our feelings are legitimate?
JAYSON: [laughs] That's a good question. There's maybe a lot of ways I could go with that. I'm curious what you think, too, Spencer. I think a lot of us grew up in families where validation wasn't happening a whole lot. Those types of people longed to be known and understood because they felt so misunderstood for so long in their life. And then I also just think, no matter who we are, where we come from, I think all of us want to be loved and accepted for who we are. Belonging is one of our core needs as humans, because we're social mammals, as you know, so we want to belong. And part of that belonging is that we feel accepted as we are. We don't have to be different. And we want it, with all our quirkiness and weirdness and issues and messiness, we just want to be accepted for who we are. And I think, along with that is this validation that who we are makes sense to other people, that how we are makes sense to them. It's okay to be how we are. It's okay to be a little neurotic sometimes and the way we are. I just think it's part of the human experience. But I'm curious what you think.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think that's well said. Maybe I would add that, when we feel like we've been wronged, there’s something really nice that someone says, “Yes, you were wronged. And the way you're reacting is reasonable in this situation.” Maybe it has to do with the social mechanisms of dealing with being wronged that maybe existed in our ancestral past. I'm just speculating here. It’s like you've got the tribal support in what's going on, and that you're not just solo or dealing with it alone.
JAYSON: Yeah, totally. I think one of our worst fears (because we're pack, herd animals) is we don't want to be cast out or kicked out or left out of the group. And so this is why we'll do just about anything, including betray ourselves, to belong. And people do this in intimate partnerships all the time. They certainly do it in groups in high school and elementary school and middle school. But adults do it in intimate partnerships, because we don't want to be alone. I think that's a bummer but it's just part of, I think, our human experience. And I think we all deserve to feel connected to at least one other person in our life. But we need to sometimes see how we're contributing to the problem.
SPENCER: Being someone that helps others deal with relationship conflict, do you feel pressured to have sort of a perfect relationship? Because I can imagine, that creates a lot of stress.
JAYSON: Now, that's a really good question. Because I've been doing this for years now. And I describe myself as a relationship student and teacher. Yes, I teach this stuff. But, just like a science teacher, hopefully I'm always learning about science. And so I'm always learning, I love to learn about psychology and relationships and human behavior. And I definitely get projected upon, like, “Oh, Jayson must have the perfect relationship.” I do my best to try to be transparent about my issues and I do that on my podcast. I do that on Instagram. When my wife comes on, we talk about some of our challenges, to try to normalize that even ‘relationship experts’ or people that are knowledgeable in this area also struggle here. There's no real summit that you arrive at one day where everything just somehow works out. I've been married 14 years now, together almost 18, two kids. And we're in another cycle right now of working through another kind of challenge that we're going through, just like any other couple. The difference might be that we're both willing, we both want to work on it, we both want to get back to zero, back to a good place. That might be the difference. But we're like everyone else.
SPENCER: You mentioned ‘back to zero’. You want to talk about what that means?
JAYSON: Since we already have the frame of being social mammals, when we get triggered by another person, we tend to disconnect, we get scared. And we go into some kind of response that most people understand is fight, flight, freeze, faint response. And I just say we disconnect, we go from the front part of our brain to the back part of our brain, and we're less reliable there. And if we do a scale of zero to 10, of how triggered or activated we are, zero being ‘I feel great and good with you and I right now’. But if you say something that hurts my feelings, or something, maybe I'm a three. The sympathetic part of my nervous system activates, mobilizes as a way to protect myself. And I just pick a number, like ‘how bad is it right now?’ And I try to encourage people to pick a number between zero and 10 of how triggered they are. I just call it the trigger scale. And so zero is this place we want to be at. We want to live our life at zero in a good place because we already have so many other challenges going on. Why do we need to be living our life from a place of five at home when, gosh, I need all the help and resources I can get to face my life? So I try to teach people tools that keep them at zero. And also if they're three, five, seven, how to get back to zero, alone and together.
SPENCER: Is there a state that's better than zero, where it's not fight or flight, but you're kind of on the other side, and you have like this positive buffer that protects you?
JAYSON: I haven't experienced that. I'm curious if you have. But, in my nervous system, zero is kind of my happy place where I feel very resourced, very connected to myself, very much in my heart, in my body, willing to tackle my life. I feel connected to my partner, it feels really good. So to me, that's the kind of experience I'm after, which I think is the baseline I want to be living from, and 80% of the time, I'm there. And 20% of the time, I'm probably not there.
SPENCER: Got it. Because, calling it zero, it sounded like the absence of these negative traits. But it sounds like, the way you define it actually, zero implies a number of positive feelings at the same time.
JAYSON: Yeah, exactly. Zero’s baseline and it’s good. I feel good. We feel good. We're cool. My life's operating in a great way. My nervous system feels safe and secure and good and strong. That’s zero.
SPENCER: One concept I mentioned is this idea you have of inner conflict vs. outer conflict. Can you tell us a bit about that?
JAYSON: Yeah. I like to encourage people to lean into conflicts obviously, because it's through the conflict repair cycle (repair being how we kind of fix it after a conflict happens), it’s through the conflict repair cycle that we build security and strength inside of an intimate relationship. And even inside of a business partnership or a family relationship. It's not through the absence of conflict. Conflict is actually required to get to a really solid, secure relationship. Think of adversity. In training or strength training, you actually need heavier weights and more of a cardio burn, and you need to challenge your system to get stronger. It's the same in a relationship. You can't get stronger without adversity inside the relationship. So when we avoid that, we create an inner conflict (we're actually stuffing our truth and withholding), and that creates tension inside of us. So I call that the inner conflict and, on a more meta level, an inner conflict is when a child tries to conform to their parents’ values. Let's say they do, they create a split, an inner conflict in them where there's their true self (what they really want to do, who they really are) and then there's who their parents or who their culture wants them to be. And that rift between our two selves (I call it the true self and the strategic self), that creates a pretty big inner conflict. And I could certainly share stories from my own life of the inner conflict I dealt with for decades, before I figured this stuff out. And it doesn't feel good. Usually people that have a big inner conflict going on between two selves feel depressed, feel anxious, and just feel bad.
SPENCER: Well, I'd love to hear your story. But I just wanna make sure I understand the concept first. The way that I understand it based on what you said is that, if you feel hurt or upset at someone, and you express it, that's outer conflict. If you hold it inside and don't deal with it, that's an inner conflict. And so by avoiding the outer conflict, you create the inner conflict. Is that correct?
JAYSON: You got it. Exactly.
SPENCER: Okay, awesome. Do you want to tell us your story about this inner conflict you experienced?
JAYSON: Yeah, I'm curious, too, for you and the listeners also, just reflecting on your own childhood. Did you conform to the social group, or to your parents’ values, or what they wanted you to do? So my basic story is, I was a sensitive, emotional, empathic, little kid. And I grew up with a stern father, and boy culture on the playground. I was very much into sports and, if you cry on the playground, you're gonna get made fun of or beat up or called a girl or some other misogynistic comment. And that was kind of the environment I grew up in. So my sensitivity, I felt, was kind of scary to bring out in the open. It wasn't really that welcome. So I did my best to repress it, stuff it, hide it, in exchange for more socially acceptable behaviors, like playing hard in sports, not crying in front of other people, performing, being funny, trying to be charming, doing well in a variety of areas of my life, and really hiding my pain. And that created a very large inner conflict in me over time, to the point where I was pretty disconnected from myself up through my 20s. And then I got into intimate relationships and, of course, as you know if you're in an intimate relationship, it's pretty hard to hide who you actually are. In other words, my sensitivity and emotionality and stuff was in there. It was just behind a really thick armor wall. And all the women I was dating wanted in on that action, they wanted behind the wall, like ‘who is that guy behind the wall?’ And I kept defending and posturing and trying to get them to go away, because that was too intimate, too vulnerable. I was honestly too scared to let them in because the last time I let someone in, I got hurt. When we have that big of an inner conflict, it can create a lot of problems. Just the feedback from life is suffering, essentially. I think we're just more fulfilled in general, when we're aligned with who we are, we're being ourselves, we have permission and freedom to be who we are, at home, at work, wherever we are. It just feels a whole lot better.
SPENCER: You mentioned that conflict is really important in relationships. It can make them stronger. I've heard some people say things like, “Oh, if you and your partner don't yell at each other occasionally, then something's wrong,” or how arguments are good. But I guess what I've always thought about that, is that it depends a lot on the details of the argument, because sometimes people bring out issues they're having, but they come away after that conversation feeling worse about each other, if that makes sense. I'm wondering if this idea of ‘it's good to bring out our conflict’, what caveats would you add about what the nature of that conflict should be?
JAYSON: Yes, I'm making the assertion here that not fighting in a long-term relationship, after many years, is problematic. And bragging or being proud that you don't fight ever, I think, is problematic on a number of levels, long-term. Now, in the first year or two, most couples don't fight because they're feeling really good and kind of falling in love and they're infatuated, and everything's kind of hunky dory. I'm talking about years in. So just to set that kind of frame up. And then yeah, I'm absolutely encouraging people to speak truth, stop withholding, be honest. And there are skillful means, as they say in Buddhism, that there's a way to say it, that is going to be more compassionate and caring toward the other person and who they are in their nervous system and how they roll in life. We want to say our truth in a way that's not ‘blame-y’, that's not super ‘judge-y’, that's gonna shut a person down. Sometimes the problem here is that no matter how skillfully we say it, it can still have a really strong reaction. And this is where people tie themselves up in knots. As people do start learning tools, they try to perfect the language and, still, no matter how hard they try, the other person still reacts. So it's not a good idea to set it up so that the other person doesn't react. The way to set it up is be skillful, try your best to learn skills and tools. Learn who you're communicating with, and plan on them reacting. And then plan on what are you going to do when they react, and how are you going to handle them when they react, and how are you going to handle yourself when you react to their reaction. So I think that's just a better approach.
SPENCER: How does it differ between romantic relationships versus, let's say, friendships? Do you see big differences in how we should handle them? Or do you think we should do it very similarly?
JAYSON: I handle my friendships and my intimate relationship very much the same way. Obviously (I'm having sex with my partner, where I'm not having sex with my friends), there's obvious differences here. I'm co-parenting with my partner, I'm not co-parenting with my friends. There's these obvious differences. But in terms of communication, when I hurt a friend's feelings, or when they hurt my feelings, or there's some issue between us, the agreement that we all have is we're going to talk about it, we're going to bring it up. And so there's already a context that we're operating under that it's okay to bring up difficult things. We want honesty, we want transparency here, we don't want anyone feeling like they have to withhold who they are. That doesn't feel good. We want a mutual relationship. In other words, that means if we're in a boat, for example, and you've got a paddle, and I've got a paddle, it means we're both gonna paddle. It's not, ‘I'm paddling, and you're sitting on your ass’. We set up relationships so that they're mutual, so that there's some basic ground rules that allow for conflict to happen, and repair to happen in a good way. We always come back after a conflict happens and we repair and we work on ‘how do we work through this’ as a team. We agree that, if we get too into the weeds, we'll hire an outside facilitator to help us because maybe we get that stuck. We want to set the whole thing up. That can be in friendships. It's certainly in a partnership. Most friends aren't going to get that elaborate, which is totally fine and understandable. But again, depends on what depth you want in your friendships, how real you want to be, how authentic you want things to go. I want friendships where I can be totally myself, and I can come out with all my shame and just my issues, my celebrations, my wins, my losses. I want those kinds of friendships. I don't want to just talk about the game, you know.
SPENCER: It sounds like you have a group of friends that is unusually communicative and emotionally mature. I'm wondering what advice you'd give to someone who has a friend group where maybe those kinds of conversations are less likely to happen, and maybe people are more likely to feel hurt, and we act in a way that's counter-productive if you bring up issues with them, and so on.
JAYSON: It's an important question because not everyone's after what I'm after, for example. And some people just want to have maybe a little better connection with a friend, or they have been withholding something they've held on to for years, and it's like, “Shit, that doesn't feel good. I'd rather show this person the respect and bring it up.” I always encourage people just, first of all, commit, ask yourself what kind of relationships do you want? What kind of friendship do you want with this person or these people? Describe it, actually journal about it. Do you want depth? Do you want transparency? What do you want? Do you want to feel like you can air all your dirty laundry? Yada, yada, really get into the description of that. And then have that actual conversation with the friend and say, “Hey, friend, I really care about you a lot. And I'm wondering if we can keep getting more honest here as friends? Are you up for that? I'm just curious what that would be like for you, if we just had full permission to just be even more honest, more transparent. Because I notice we sometimes talk up here and I want to go a little deeper.” That's one way we can approach people. Another idea is just to appreciate our friends in a more intimate way and we can say, “Hey, will you look me in the eyes? I just want to appreciate you. I just love you and I care about you as a friend. I just want you to know how much you mean to me. We've been through so much together. It's scary for me to say this and it's kind of vulnerable and intimate, but I just want you to know that I really, really care about you.” That is huge, just in a friendship. I want people to feel like they feel known in their friendships and, if they don't, then do something about it.
SPENCER: I'm wondering what you think of NVC (nonviolent communication), which for those who aren't aware, is a kind of framework for having conversations where you express yourself in a certain way, with the idea of trying to create better outcomes in these kinds of conversations.
JAYSON: I think it's great. I think any communication tool that's gonna help us learn how to be a better communicator is awesome. NVC is a little dated for me, just because Marshall Rosenberg created this in the late 80s or 90s, before the big wave of neuroscience and all the attachment science that we know about now and how the nervous system works under stress, and it's still a solid model. I just prefer some of the stuff we're teaching here at The Relationship School but it's all fine. Again, anything that's going to help us do better relationally, I'm a yes to.
SPENCER: Are there certain aspects of NVC that you think could use an update, certain things that help you to do or…?
JAYSON: Seriously, the name ‘non-violent communication’, I think this is why people use NVC. When you bring up, “Hey, Spencer, can we do some nonviolent communication right now?” the assumption is you're communicating violently to me, or something. That's not the world I want to live in. I want to live in a more inspiring place. To define something as not something else is interesting. So I would start with the name, I would change the name. But it's pretty embedded in the culture now, which is cool. It's really penetrated a lot of groups and society in a cool way, I think. But I just don't love the name. I also think the needs stuff is a little overdone and overwhelming, honestly.
SPENCER: That's where you talk about what your needs are in that scenario? Is that right?
JAYSON: Yeah, exactly. Because needs are so complicated. Most people just do not want to be perceived as a needy person. And having needs is really gross for a lot of people. And that's because (well, there's a number of reasons), but we're dependent human beings. We're actually dependent on other people. Even to be having this conversation, we're dependent on a lot of things occurring, a lot of people making this connection happen right now. But in an intimate relationship, you can feel bad to need another person. I think there's a more effective way we can approach our needs, and owning our needs and taking responsibility for them in not an off-putting way, but also not an overwhelming way to other people.
SPENCER: By the way, for anyone interested in NVC, I'll put a link in the show notes to an article we wrote that summarizes it, so just a quick way to learn about it. It's funny that you bring up the idea of needs, because I think I have a little bit of a problem with that word. We have a need for, let's say, oxygen. If we don't have it for a certain number of minutes, we'll die. And we also have a need for, let's say, our friend to not say things that put us down. But it feels like there's some really big difference between our need for oxygen and our need to not be put down and the word ‘needs’ collapses it all together in a way that I find unhelpful.
JAYSON: And if I came to you with all my need, Spencer, and you and I are in a relationship, it might be a turn-off and, after a while, you might kind of pull away from me because I feel so damn needy. So what I teach people is there's four basic needs — and these are from Dan Siegel's work, who's an attachment neuroscientist guy that I really love at UCLA. — I look at child development, and one of our most fundamental human needs is attachment. Like you were saying with oxygen, if we don't have another person taking care of us as an infant, we’ll die. So attachment is our primary need. And then our next need is self-expression. We have to be able to express ourselves to get a need met. And then I have this whole needs hierarchy. But the basic essence is, children need to be secure in a relationship and, for optimal human growth, they need to feel safe, emotionally (and physically, of course), but emotionally safe to express themselves. They need to feel seen in that expression, like “I see you, Honey, that you're hurting. You’ve got tears over there. You're crying, I see you. And I see that that sucks and you fell down” or whatever. And they need to feel soothed (“Come here. Let me pick you up, I got you.” Or “Here, let's get a band aid” or whatever). Soothed, and then supported and challenged. And I say I add ‘challenged’ because support and challenge, to me, is love. But kids need to feel like we believe in them. And then that allows the child to grow into a pretty healthy, normal, functioning member of society. In adult relationships, strangely, we need the same things to create a secure bond and connection. And if I lead with those needs though, say, “Hey, Spencer, I need you to do this so that I feel safe,” that's going to kind of be off-putting. I always teach people when you're talking about your needs, lead with your desire and just say ‘want’. And if it's such a big need for you, why do you continue to…if you need to feel safe emotionally and you don't feel safe emotionally in a relationship (which I think all of us should be in relationships where we feel safe to express our emotions), if you don't feel that, then move on. It's amazing to me how many people will stay in relationships where they don't feel emotionally safe because it's the water they've been swimming in since their childhood so they think it's normal. Anyway, those are a few thoughts on needs.
SPENCER: Could you elaborate on this idea of emotional safety and what it's like to be emotionally safe and not be emotionally safe?
JAYSON: Yeah. I grew up physically safe, but I would say that it wasn't as safe to express my emotions. I got punished, yelled at, ignored, whatever. Same with my boy group friends growing up. They didn't necessarily say that. I just didn't feel safe enough to express my true vulnerability within my friend group growing up, and also with my parents (sometimes with my mom, not so much with my dad). It doesn't feel safe to just express my tears or my anger or my hurt feelings. And I got that message over and over enough to go, “Cool. I'm not gonna bring that part of myself here.” And that's what happens when people don't feel safe, is they stuff their feelings.
SPENCER: One thing I've seen come up in relationships sometimes is, when one person has a demand that the other person views is unreasonable (even by a more objective standard, like if you were to poll 100 people, maybe most of them actually would agree it's unreasonable). Yet, it's actually very important to the other person in the relationship. So an example of this might be, let's say, someone likes to watch TV one hour a night. And that seems like a reasonable thing to do, a lot of people do that. But let's say it really bothers the partner for some reason. Maybe they associate it with being a loaf who gets nothing done. And so the partner’s like, “It just really bothers me when you watch TV every night.” And then their partner is like, “But it's totally reasonable, one hour, that's reasonable.” I'm curious how you navigate situations like that.
JAYSON: Ooh, such an important one. I define these as reasonable requests. What is reasonable — and it's obviously pretty subjective, based on the couple, based on each individual. I write about this in my book as an example, where I worked with this guy, for example, that was smoking pot. And his wife had a big problem with him smoking pot, and it was starting to tear apart their marriage. In her eyes, she was making a reasonable request to have him stop smoking pot. Now was that really reasonable? Given who he is, where he comes from, what his life is like, what his stress is like — for him, all he wanted was to be able to smoke pot once in a while. And to him once in a while was like, Saturday nights, “I just want to check out and get high, watch the movies, I just want to do that. And I want to do that in my own home. I don't want to have to hide it in front of you,” etc. And so to him, that felt reasonable that he gets to do that. It's his house, he's an adult. And so was her request reasonable? I don't think it was. It was a little unreasonable, because it was very black and white. And she married the guy, and he was smoking pot years ago when she married him. So to ask him to, all of a sudden, stop completely and not smoke pot anymore, I think, is unreasonable. And he thought that, too. They ended up getting a divorce, by the way. Could they have found common ground? I think so. But she would have had to really accept him for who he was and say, “You know what? It bothers me. And it's okay, because I love you. And I just don't feel like being around you that night. I'd rather just go do my own thing with the girls or myself. And it's okay, I'm not going to make this an issue anymore.” I think couples can figure that out. Same with the TV example.
SPENCER: I think it gets particularly tricky when it's not just a preference but, let's say, it's something rooted in trauma. Let's take the pot example. Let's suppose that the person had had an experience where someone had given them pot and it was bad, and then they had been sexually assaulted. So maybe they had this really strong association with the pot and so that triggered their trauma. And then we might say, “Well, it seems really unfair to make that demand.” But we can also understand why that demand is being made. This person went through this traumatic experience around pot.
JAYSON: That's a great example. Let's say the woman had that exact thing, then the man needs to give a little bit and go, “Wow, it's totally reasonable that she's asking this of me because it's a big trigger of hers. And it's gonna send her into a two-day dissociation place where she's not doing well. And she has a trauma response every time she smells pot in the house. That's not cool. I love my wife. And I absolutely could give up pot, no big deal.” So that's where the other person can give and be fine, totally cool. So yeah, it really does depend on what is going on and where people come from. And this is why communication is so big. Maybe this woman did actually have something like you're describing going on and she just couldn't talk about it. Who knows?
SPENCER: One of the most messed up things I see happen in relationships is when one person pushes a frame on what's going on, that is actually quite bizarre, but it's such a powerful frame. And then the couple’s spending so much time together that the other partner adopts it. An example of this might be, one of the partners is really selfish and the other one's really selfless, and the selfish partner creates this frame where the selfless partner is never doing enough and is always slacking off when, in fact, they’re constantly trying to prove their worth or something like this. I'm wondering, is this something that you see happen? And what's your analysis on it?
JAYSON: Oh, totally, man. I love that example. Yeah, of course, we attract our opposite, and often we've repressed what is being expressed in the other person. Because I like to think we have all parts. But when we partner with someone, we tend to get triggered by the things that are pretty dissociated in us that we're not owning. That's a good example of selfless and selfish. That's a classic kind of polarity in a relationship, where someone's really messy, and someone's kind of OCD kind of clean and tight and neat. That's another really common one. Again, these can all be worked with, if people have really good communication skills, they understand that relationship’s about growth. It's not about feeling good all the time, that I'm here to learn. I'm here to learn about myself. I'm here to learn about you. I'm here to learn how to be a better communicator, then these kinds of polarities aren't that big of a deal, if people know how to work with them, and they have the maturity online to go, “Oh, yeah, you're judging me as selfish. I'm judging you as selfless. You think you’re selfless. You're actually kind of self-righteous right now. You're kind of putting me down, you're keeping yourself up. Just another polarity. Here we are doing our thing. Is this serving us? Is this how we want to be a team, I don't think this is actually serving either one of us.” And so this is where I introduce concepts like ‘standing for three’ that I like, which is just a context that we can live our relationship from. I take a stand for myself and who I am and what I believe in and what I value. And I'm going to take a stand for you, what you believe in, your success, what you're into. And I'm going to take a stand for us, I'm taking a stand for the relationship. So I'm taking a stand for all three. That means if something's not good for you, but it's good for me, then it's probably not good for us.
SPENCER: I don’t know if you're gonna agree with this frame but, sometimes I encounter situations where someone I know is dating someone who I just think is a bad human being. An example would be like, maybe they're a highly malignant narcissist, at least in my opinion. And I really begin to doubt that they can have a good relationship and, it seems to me, the only solution is they just run the other way. Those are the rare occasions where I'll actively encourage someone to leave a relationship, when I actually think they're dealing with someone who's uncompassionate, extremely selfish, doesn't really care about them, and so on. I'm wondering, do you see those kinds of situations? Do you disagree with me that this is a thing that happens?
JAYSON: No, I'm with you actually. If there was abuse or gaslighting going on, and someone won't own their part, I always encourage people to leave. But it's usually simplistic to say that to people like this because, chances are, they grew up in a family like this and it's all familiar. And they feel now, it's become a self-made prison that they're in and they don't know how to get out. And they're actually getting a lot still out of being in the relationship even though it's abusive, or even though it's really, really dysfunctional. There's still things, there’s still payoffs they're getting out of it. So they need to learn how to extract themselves. And if they just extract themselves and leave without learning lessons and getting empowered, they're going to just repeat the same relationship pattern again, and they're gonna go find another narcissist. And they're going to be in that situation all over again. So it's totally cool to encourage people to leave, as long as there's a journey that needs to be made here. And you've got to learn valuable lessons along the way, about yourself (not about the other person), about yourself so that you don't attract this again in your life and have to learn this lesson you just didn't learn, because you just took a shortcut and left. Again, as long as there's empowerment and learning, I'm good.
SPENCER: For people listening, who find that they seem to attract people that they ultimately conclude are bad, and they do this again and again (and let's assume for the sake of argument that they're actually correct, that they’re not just misperceiving the situation), what advice would you have for them? What does this journey of becoming a person who doesn't attract people like that look like?
JAYSON: First, I want to make sure I'm not conveying that we're blaming (we can get into victim language here), and we're not blaming the victim of a relationship like this, that's in a relationship with a narcissist. We're saying, “Look, you are a victim in a way of being hurt or being treated really poorly.” You're a victim there, but if you stay a victim, you're going to keep attracting people who beat up on you or talk down to you or treat you poorly. So you have to learn as a human being how to not be a victim inside of a really traumatic or terrible environment. How do you get empowered? How do you become what I call an author, take responsibility, and move on and move forward. And one of the first things people need to do is, they need to increase their self-worth. How do we increase our self-worth (because a lot of low self-worth people stay in relationships where they are treated really poorly). Because why would someone treat you better if you beat up on yourself, for example, or if you treat yourself really poorly? So we have to help someone learn how to increase their self-worth. How do we do that? One of my favorite ways is to (‘cause people globalize their self-worth, “I'm just a piece of shit,” or “I'm just such a loser.” “I'll never be loved. I’m so unlovable.” And it's this really bullshit global statement) People need to get really specific. I always challenge people to get specific. Let's drop that label and let's look at where you feel most unworthy or most insecure. And I have people go to an opposite place in their life. Where do you feel competent, confident, and capable? And usually, they're like, “Oh, well, as a mother,” or “as a businessman,” or “as a pianist.” Or “I'm really fucking good with spreadsheets,” whatever. You're good at something at your age, and you made a journey to get there. And so is it true that you're just unlovable in that area? Is it true that you're a piece of shit in that area? And they start to go, “Oh, actually, I'm not. That's not true. I'm actually quite capable. And I feel actually really good about myself in that area.” Great, so stop telling yourself these bullshit stories that you're unlovable and unworthy. We have to get way granular and specific with where people are talking about, and a lot of people just have told themselves a negative story, and now it becomes reality. So we have to just start teasing that apart.
SPENCER: Before we finish up, I'd be interested to hear more about the different types of fights that people tend to have. Do you wanna walk us through the most common fights that you see?
JAYSON: For sure. Surface fights, resentments, value difference fights, projection fights, and security fights. Is that all of them? I think I named them all. And I can just unpack maybe a couple of those real quick. A surface fight is we're fighting over the dishes, or who went and got the mail, or you dropped the kids off at the wrong time (little shit), your socks are on the floor. When little things become big things, we know that we're not dealing with a surface fight. Most fights start out as some kind of ‘surface-y’ thing — a look on the face, a text that didn't get returned back. Feels kind of benign, but it usually is a tributary to one of these other four. And then I think it's helpful to diagnose what type of fight are we in. Are we fighting about the relationship? Do you have one foot in and one foot out? And that's what we always come back to, is that I'm just feeling insecure that you're not totally in this with me. You haven't made a full commitment.
SPENCER: So that'd be a security fight?
JAYSON: That’d be a security fight, yep. A value difference fight is you believe in X, and I believe in Y. And it seems like nothing we do is gonna get around the fact that you value deeply this thing and I value this other thing. It could be religion, it could be where the kids go to school, public or private, it could be vaccines, no vaccines, it could be whatever. But if we have both hard positions on something, and it's different, that's a value difference fight. And then resentment fight is, we have an unresolved issue that's gone on for years where I said yes when I really meant no, and I've been resenting you this whole time. I said yes to moving to California, and I actually didn't really want to, but I was too scared to speak up, because I didn't want to rock the boat and create conflict. And now, here we are in California, and I don't like being here, and I resent you. All this shit’s going on — the fires and the government — and I don't really want to be here. That's a resentment fight. Projection fights are more like, we tend to project our earliest relational blueprints onto the other person (so mom and dad), usually a caregiver. It’s when the tone of voice sounds like dad, the look on your face looks like mom, and I get triggered. And then we start talking as if the other person is our parent. These are projection fights.
SPENCER: When there's a value difference (one person believes x, one person believes not X) and it’s really deeply rooted. They're really unlikely to change each other's minds, and it keeps coming up. What kind of advice do you give in that situation?
JAYSON: Well, with something as extreme as, let's say, vaccines. Let's say one partner is into vaccinating the kids, for example, and the other partner is like, “Hell, no, we're not vaccinating our kids, ever, not on my watch” kind of thing. How do two people navigate that? That's a very entrenched, stuck dynamic. And I actually worked with a couple like this. And the work was really just about helping them more deeply understand the other person's position. And in that alone, there's a lot of healing. Because people make assumptions, and they go right to their beliefs, and they go right to their corner, and they defend their viewpoint, instead of deeply understanding the other person's viewpoint. “Well, help me understand why this matters to you so much that they're not vaccinated” or “Help me understand. I don't totally get this.” And if I can bring the curiosity you mentioned at the beginning of this interview, gosh, we can go a long way. The couple that I'm talking about softened. It was tears in each other's eyes, it was like, “I finally feel like I get why you believe what you believe.” It doesn't solve the problem necessarily, but now that they have compassion, and they understand the other person, they're more willing to give a little bit and negotiate.
SPENCER: Before we finish, do you want to just talk a little bit about your book?
JAYSON: Oh, yeah, sure. Getting to Zero’s the book, how to work through conflict in your high stakes relationships. It's, I think, a great book [laughs]. Tooting my own horn here. If you're looking for an NVC 2.0 on how to communicate, particularly under stress, this is the book. And I worked really hard over many, many years, this was the problem in my life that I wanted to solve. And I wanted better tools. And essentially, the tool of the book is how to get back to a good place, how to get back to that zero baseline that we all want to live our life from. That's what the book’s about. And it's all kinds of communication tools and strategies on how to get there. There's a quiz. You can figure out your conflict style if you want. You can go to gettingtozerobook.com and there's a quiz there that you can take to determine your conflict style. It's kind of interesting. And you can also, obviously, order the book wherever books are out right now.
SPENCER: Awesome. Jayson, this was really interesting. Thanks so much for coming on.
JAYSON: Yeah, thanks, Spencer, for having me. Thanks for all the great questions.
JOSH: A listener asks, how do you meet all of these interesting people and maintain friendships with them?
SPENCER: I have an attitude that I'm always trying to meet people. I just think that it adds a lot of meaning to life to just have connections with people. Obviously, there's also other benefits too. Sometimes you make business connections, or you get some new idea. There's just so many reasons to meet people. Some people are really introverted, and they're not gonna enjoy that, it's gonna be much less worth it. I'm sort of an ambivert. I'm not extremely extrovert or introvert per se, but I do really enjoy connecting with people. And so I try to meet a few people every single week. And then occasionally, I'll go to events where I'll try to meet 50 people over four days. I think my peak was, in a five-day event, I think I had significant conversations with 80 people. And that was very intentional. I was like, I'm going to try to have at least one real conversation, not bullshit conversation, with every person I can. I think my goal was 100 and I got to 80. So I really try to meet a lot of people. That being said, of those people, I maintain friendships with a very, very small percent. Occasionally, there'll be people where I think we feel a mutual connection there, and then, when we do feel that mutual spark of connection, I will be pretty proactively trying to stay in touch. I think people are not as proactive as they should be, a lot of times. If you meet someone you feel like you have a real connection with, I think there's really a lot of value in being the one to take initiative and really trying to foster that connection, because the other person just might not happen to do it. And that doesn't mean they don't like you. It doesn't mean they didn't feel that connection, but they might just happen to not do it. And so I think it's worth just being proactive and just end up with more deep connections that way,
JOSH: When it comes to maintaining contact with people, especially if they're farther away, is Facebook or Twitter your primary tool? Do you email with people? Do you call them? What is your favorite way to stay in contact regularly?
SPENCER: With acquaintances, I find Facebook and Twitter really, really good. If I meet someone, I think they're interesting, very often, I'll suggest, “Hey, why don't we get each other on Facebook or Twitter?” What's really good about that is then, you know there is a way to reach that person, if you should think to, in the future. And also, with someone like myself (I do a lot of writing), there's a decent chance they'll end up seeing something I wrote and then that will remind them I exist. So maybe I'll bump into them three years later and they’ll say, “Oh, I read that essay you wrote” or whatever. So that's really powerful, I find, and they will be much more likely to remember who I am, which is really helpful when I connect with them again and we’re not starting from zero. With people that I feel a deeper connection with, where I feel it might be mutual, where we like each other, then I'll usually suggest we meet in person if possible, or if they live far away, maybe do a Zoom call.
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