Find the Truth
Of course, such epiphanies are usually the result of concerted effort, especially for adults with deeply entrenched behaviors. For Anne Symens-Bucher, a mother of five and personal assistant in Berkeley, Calif., the breakthrough with her husband, Terry, came a year and a half into their practice of NVC—and almost 20 years into their marriage. During one heated exchange, she had a thought she'd been recycling for ages: He just doesn't care. "Suddenly I recognized it for a story—not the truth, but a story I'd been telling myself and to him. And I saw how it was actually keeping me from being able to receive his care."
Though their fights are fewer now, and briefer, there are still conflicts. The night before a recent holiday dinner, they both got riled. "The usual pattern is that Terry is overwhelmed and withdraws and I'm overwhelmed and get angry," says Symens-Bucher. "The angrier I get, the more he withdraws." This time, the observation that Terry was sitting on the couch while she was still working on dinner preparations led her to make a judgment: There's more to do. He should be helping out. Aware that her husband's blame radar is highly attuned ("As soon as he'd pick up that I was judging him—which I was—he'd be even less likely to get up and help me"), she paused to ask herself what she needed and felt right then.
"I realized that I was desperate for support," she recalls. "I was exhausted and in need of connection." After considering this, she did her best to reach out to Terry by imagining that he needed rest, too. "In the heat of the moment I'm now better able to make empathy guesses even when my heart isn't open—in fact, it's a way to get my heart open," she adds.
Still, the communication that builds the most trust tends to occur at more cool-headed times, says Symens- Bucher. When she shares good news with Terry, instead of launching into his own news or changing the subject, he'll empathy-guess, "So you really feel excited? Are you celebrating?" This allows her a satisfying end to her tale and sustains a steady flow of conversation, support, and enthusiasm between them.
"I have a lot more work to do," Symens-Bucher says of her communication journey, "but I'm elated when I think about how much my life has been transformed." As for that holiday dinner, she was able to remember her priorities. "What's most important to me is that we love each other, that we're living the values we're trying to teach our kids," she observes. "If we're screaming and yelling at each other and all stressed out just so the house looks good and the food is fixed, it's completely meaningless. The process—the way we arrive there—is what really matters."