S1E9 Communication

Have you tried to talk to someone who does not share your world views, like wearing a mask or not? In this episode, Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin discuss ways to communicate effectively with loved ones who you disagree with in some way. We often avoid these tough conversations because they’re uncomfortable—the WEMW docs talk about why it’s important to consider choosing to start them any way. Tune in to hear how to begin these difficult dialogues.




Pete: I was on Fox recently, and we were talking about how to communicate with people, when they don't share your same values. So specifically, in this time they were looking at what if someone's wearing a mask or not wearing a mask, and you disagree with that in light of a pandemic? So, Nikki, I'm wondering, can we talk about how to communicate most effectively with families or people that we love today?

Nikki: Absolutely, and of course, I'm sure it comes up in your practice a lot, very large topic in my sessions with patients, inside or outside of the pandemic, it's a central focus a lot of times.

Pete: Is that because we just all struggle to communicate from time to time, we don't know how, or we avoid conversations?

Nikki: I think the answer is both honestly.

Pete: We say that we would be good politicians, because we never actually answer a question.

Nikki: Well, funny you should say that, because when I'm talking about how to communicate with loved ones, family members, friends that people are stuck with, I often talk about validation, which we could talk a little bit about in a moment. But I always say to people, “Look, if people in Congress knew how to validate, oh, man, they would get so much work done.”

Pete: They would actually getting stuff done. But this is not a political podcast. And what I will say is in this Fox five, New York segment, they were looking at what if someone within your family doesn't believe in wearing masks, but you are really adamant about wearing a mask right now in a pandemic? And I thought it was a really, obviously timely conversation, and I want us to also think about how this will also apply afterwards.

Nikki: Like outside, yeah.

Pete: But in the pandemic, I think it is a challenging thing, because as scientists, we recognize the medical literature, so we're not reading political literature.

Nikki: No.

Pete: And I think masks decrease spreading about 70% or something like that.

Nikki: Yeah, it's pretty high. I also read today in the LA Times, saying that they actually think it also… we keep talking about it not spreading, but that they do think it also protects you, which makes logical sense. Because, you've got to bring your nose or mouth if someone cough or sneeze near you.

Pet: Hopefully, but I've noticed where sometimes people have the mask over their mouth but nit their nose.

Nikki: I know, that bums me out. I’m always like, “Oh, come on!”

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: Well, what was it that you were suggesting in that segment? I'm curious, I'm assuming probably something I would also recommend, but I'd love to hear how you say it.

Pete: Key for me in any of these challenging conversations is asking open ended questions and listening. I think that that's going to be a theme behaviorally across any kind of psychological cognitive flexibility is, ‘am I asking questions? Am I being curious?’ So as a skill, what are the open-ended questions to ask? You might say something like, ‘Oh, so what are your beliefs around the masks?’ or, ‘what have you learned about the utilization of masks as it relates in your life or in your area?’ I think that's one example of an open-ended question.

Nikki: I think the word curiosity is really important that you're bringing in, I love me some curiosity.

Pete: I do love that.

Nikki: Yes, I do love me some curiosity, and curiosity is really an integral part of a mindfulness practice. I was thinking of the phrase in Buddhism, ‘come to the practice with a beginner's mind’, which for our listeners, basically means coming to the practice, as if it's the first time.

Pete: To find beginner's mind, there it is everything, as if it's the first time.

Nikki: As if it's the first time, like how a kid interacts with things. Children are very skilled at beginner's mind, as are dogs, I would say, love our dogs.

Pete: My brother always comes and it's like, “It's like they've never seen me before. It's the first time they see me. They're so happy.”

Nikki: You're like, “Yeah, beginner's mind”. There we go, every time. So curiosity is correlated with openness and willingness. If we're trying to understand someone's point of view or experience, we absolutely have to access that. I really am always interested in how the brain works, obviously, because when we're feeling very emotionally dysregulated, which that basically means very intense emotion, it shuts down our curiosity, we get very narrow in our perspective, and it actually activates a lot of judgments. So if somebody is doing something that you disagree with, or that you don't like, it's very actually difficult to, to be open to their point of view.

Pete: Yes, you can, I think. You're not open to it, actually.

Nikki: No, well your initial response is not open. It's like immediate reaction is to shut down, so again, if curiosity is part of mindfulness, what we've been talking a lot about in this podcast is how that's a behavior that you can cultivate, that you can learn. If you are prioritizing wearing a mask because of the data out there and the facts, also very important to us as behaviorists, we're very, very into facts. And someone else doesn't believe in them, because of…

Pete: Well, let me just say, I think people find their own facts, we're not going into that this episode. But I know the person who's not wearing the mask is also presenting their own set of facts.

Nikki: Well, maybe we need to find facts. So facts from behavioral point of view would just be in data, like something that, ‘if the sky is a sunny day, the sky is blue’.

Pete: It's measurable.

Nikki: It's measurable, correct. People often confuse beliefs with the facts, and we all do that. That's a human brain problem.

Pete:  Yeah. What I'm thinking about, I'm sure there's at least a listener that has seen a video where someone's like, “Well, God didn't give me a mask so I don't have to wear a mask”, or there was one that was like, “You can't make me wear underwear either”. So those are beliefs, not facts, and that's a distinction there.

Nikki: A distinction yes. So that's important to be clear about that, I guess in the name of behaviorism and science here. If somebody has a belief that you disagree with your immediate reaction is going to be to shut down and activate a lot of judgment. So if you want to ask open ended questions, it's going to require a practice of cultivating and growing curiosity which we can we can learn to do.

Pete: We can learn to do and sometimes I even say that with partners you can pretend too, so I think I'm not always super curious about something and I can engage in that process mindfully, I'm not judging myself for it. You see it a lot in couples where one person likes racecars, and the other person likes to play volleyball. Not that one of them is better than the other, and it's not that one has to choose one or the other. It's a matter of engaging curiosity, and they're just into those things. And accepting that, “you go do your racecars, and I'm going to go do my volleyball.”

Nikki: That's exactly right, and when I think what you're really highlighting is, the pretending is like, we say in behavioral therapies ‘act as if’.

Pete: Yes, right.

Nikki: I don't know if you have this experience, but sometimes patients say to me, “Oh, so I’m supposed to fake it, like I'm faking it?” And I'm like, “Well, I mean, kind of, I guess.” However, I like to frame it as it's learning a skill that if you're nobody, we could say that with any behavior that you've never done before. You're just trying.

Pete: And I know you'll hear this because then the clients we work with, say, “Well, why do I have to be the skillful one?”

Nikki: Oh, yeah. I hear that on the regs. Yeah.

Pete: On the regs, and I'm like, “Well, because you're here, you're doing the work.” Sometimes I wish I didn't have to be the skillful one of my family. I mean, it's just life, and I just accept that this is my role in this moment, and in this life. So that's like some of the behavioral science stuff. I'll be curious, well, before I jumped to the Zen stuff, tell me if there's any other behavioral techniques that you suggest for people that are trying to communicate with a family member or with someone who doesn't agree with what they're saying?

Nikki: I think we absolutely got to come back to validation.

Pete: Yes. Amen.

Nikki: Yeah, so I would say and again, Pete, curious if this is your experience as well, most people actually misunderstand the definition of validation, they go, “I want to feel validated”. And then what they mean is they want to be agreed with. So I would say that's like a misunderstanding of the definition out in the world.

Pete: Yeah, because sometimes initial counselors will be like, their validation is like, “Oh, sure, so keep cutting yourself all the time. That's great.”

Nikki: That's not.

Pete: That's actually reinforcement, and you don't want to do that. So let's help highlight what validation could look like.

Nikki: Yeah, totally. So I'm going to borrow from the famous Dr. Marsha Linehan, here who is the creator of dialectical behavioral therapy, which is known as DBT. And the third wave behavioral therapy family and validation. She does some great worksheets, if you're looking for something more concrete here, you can Google it. Get her books.

Pete: Buy her book, yeah.

Nikki: Validation, she defines it is as it's finding the kernel of truth, and in a basically opposite perspective. That's the first part, and then the second part which really resonates with me is, understanding that a behavior, a thought, a situation, an emotion makes sense given the context. And a better way to say that it's just, it's not saying, ‘oh that's cool that someone did something that you don't like or agree with,’ it's just, can you understand how that happened or why it's happening? So the example I always try with patients is, let's say I'm working with somebody who is struggling with anger and they come in and they tell me that they got so angry they punched a hole in the wall, I can validate that person, validating that person doesn't mean ‘hey that's totally okay that you punched a hole in the wall’, that's not okay, that's not appropriate, that's not safe, but what makes sense to me if the person struggling with anger is that their anger got so dysregulated, they got to a point where they lost behavioral control so I might say, “look I can understand how that happened, when you get that angry you lose your…”

Pete: And that’s the validation, I understand how that happened you got angry.

Nikki: And then that's the second part, and then the word ‘and’ it's a big one we'll talk about ‘and’s in future episodes as well.

Pete: Throughout this entire podcast, well people probably picked up on that, because if you're a psychologist you've picked up on it because we have that language and if you're not a psychologist you’re like “why did they keep saying ‘and’, and ‘but’?”

Nikki: And a little hint it's called a dialectic, all my best friends from college who are not psychologists I have shaped them into dialectics. So anyway, the ‘and’ functions to say that equally in addition to understanding you can then give feedback about what's not working or what's working, so that's how I would coach people in terms of validation.

Pete: Absolutely, I mean validation, and I see it as like bookends; it's a skillful way where you're acknowledging that you hear in the beginning and then coming in with like what the behavioral change could look like in the end. Frankly, I often use this with people across all different types of disciplines, so especially with some kind of executive coaching you don't ever need to say ‘but’, again that shuts people down, that's a co-relational frame theory. Also, you mentioned the ‘how’ and ‘why’, I think I focus more on the ‘how’ because ‘why’ automatically assumes judgment and so what we're trying to do is not answer why in the way that I would teach this.

Nikki: Well I'll be clear here, when I say ‘why’, I'll get really geeky behavioral here, I mean the function of exactly behavior, so in behaviorism we basically say that behaviors happen for a reason, that they serve a function, that we don't do behaviors for no reason, so trying to understand that is what I mean with the ‘why’.

Pete: Awareness insight, exactly.

Nikki: And I just want to add one other dorky research thing about validation is that there's actually quite a bit of research that when we feel validated, so another way of saying that is like feeling understood or heard, actually regulates emotion.

Pete: It does.

Nikki: So, we can validate ourselves, we can validate others so when we feel understood, guess what? We're more open to hearing feedback from somebody.

Pete: And the key there is feeling understood, not agreed with. And I think that that's a big distinction there, because again, we all want to be agreed with, I think. I don't know. Often times I don't because I want to be challenged.

Nikki: Of course you're like, “bring it on!”

Pete: “Bring it on, challenge me!” I think that's all in my opinion, that's why I think I don't work with children. Not to say that, I just don't feel challenged in that intellectual kind of way that I do with working with executives and high performers. Because I think it is challenging at times when you're stuck in your ways, things that you've done already work, and so I think with younger folk you just need a different skill set that I just don't have.

Nikki: I was just thinking, I don't work with kids because I find it so challenging, but in different ways, but I think a lot of people do.

Pete: By the way, I'm sorry, I have to just put this out there, so I don't know what it's like in California, but we’re bringing this to this moment but gyms are still closed here in New Jersey.

Nikki: They just shut them down, yesterday.

Pete: Oh, again. We haven't been open yet since the closure, but my one gym is doing outdoor workouts and it's wonderful and now it's slowly gotten busier and busier so it feels wonderful, because I have to remind like, “we're still in a pandemic, so we don't want to be sweating and spitting on top of each other.” That's my belief based on some facts and some data, but one person had a child there the other day and I was like, “I get it,” but I was also thinking there was probably 50 people in this class, only one mom brought her child, how many of their moms were there with children that could have brought them or had some other parenting issue? Anyway, I felt like Samantha on… oh my god why am I forgetting…

Nikki: Oh, ‘Sex and the City’?

Pete: ‘Sex and the City’, thank you. There was this episode where she says, “What do you mean you can't have your cell phone on? There should be a sign that says no children allowed in restaurants!” Because I think I don't have children, and so I love children and children love me but there was this moment where I was just like, “why is this kid?” and the kid of course, was trying to play with me because I'm there trying to really get a good workout on. I think doing this podcast is helpful because some of this stuff is so frame of mind, it is anyway, because of the work we do. I was just so much more mindful with this kid and the mom, where I was trying to just accept that there's something… and compassion, that there's something about this mom that made her have to bring her son on that day in that moment. So speaking of children, sorry this is a whole…

Nikki: No, I was just thinking, and I'm sure you were running through some communication skills in your mind that you may have needed to use.

Pete: Well, I thought about it, but then I also thought, I chose compassion instead of communicate, because I felt like let me do this, this is my work area. The kid was adorable and again of course the kid wanted to play with me but it was just so funny that inevitably there's this energy that when you don't necessarily want to engage kids, are just so open to that energy, like it's suffocating.

Nikki: Yeah, totally.

Pete: Compared to the grandma who's like, “let me pinch her too,” but let me take our tangent…

Nikki: I was just going to say it, just like in mindfulness, our minds wander and now you're going to pull it back here.

Pete: I wanted to bring in some of the eastern stuff, so in the Zen world, in terms of communication, the one thing that I think is important to highlight is what they call the eightfold path. So the eightfold path in Zen is the fourth noble truth. That's a lot of the academic stuff of it, but really what I was so linked with when I learned that sort of reading and studying this stuff was it tells you what to do, because I found historically religion or spirituality tells you what not to do.

Nikki: It's much more proactive.

Pete: It's so proactive, so right speech, right mind, right action, right mindfulness, so there's all these things and so in terms of communication it's right speech. The teaching really goes into gossip, where it's really trying to say, ‘gossip doesn't serve anything, it's holding on to some negative things about the person from the past or the future’, and so the right speech I was thinking in this communication piece is about really connect. I connected it with right mindfulness so that you're aware of how you're feeling when you're interacting with this person and then you're committing to this speech that's for the health, ultimately this eightfold path is for the health of all beings.

Nikki: Right

Pete: It's not just for me and you as we're talking, but it's for the universe.

Nikki: Yeah, it’s for the universe. I think that's absolutely beautiful and I really like that idea of right speech, even though it's so funny because in a CBT lens, we always stay away from language like right and wrong though, I'm just saying that only because I think, tell me if I'm wrong Pete, that term ‘right speech’, if we were to translate that into modern behaviors, and we would say ‘effective’ or ‘workable speech’.

Pete: 100%. I also wonder, now that you're saying that we say translate, who knows what the actual translation.

Nikki: That's such a great point.

Pete: Literally thinking, because you can read two or three different translations from Japanese, Chinese, Hindu, it's going to be different.

Nikki: Yeah, it's going to be different. I really like what you're saying too, in terms of why it's linked to right mindfulness because it sounds like you're saying that there's a sort of intention and how you're talking, and so to mindfulness we always talk about slowing down. So we go back to what you're saying in the beginning of the podcasts, that when we disagree with somebody, our attention narrows, we get really stuck in our own viewpoint or judgment, it's not mindful frankly, it’s reactive. So it sounds like from the Zen perspective it's actually saying, ‘slow down, act with purpose, get curious before you say something’.

Pete: Yeah, because a lot of times I think most social issues are because everyone's trying to be heard or agreed with.

Nikki: Yeah.

Pete: Versus this idea of ‘I'm trying to listen and understand’, I don't think anyone actually tries to take the effort, because it's a lot of effort.

Nikki: It’s so much effort, yeah.

Pete: There have been several times in my life where, I've had conversations where I feel angry speaking with somebody.

Nikki: Of course, same. We all have our buttons, we all have the things, based on our learning history or our current experiences, even our wiring honestly, where we're more likely to get really activated. And a lot of times, to your point, I think sometimes we get really angry around things that are actually really important to us, at least that's true for me, like make me mad, or I feel really passionate about. Yeah. Or injustice or things aren't fair, that's where most of us tend to sort of dig our heels in, frankly. And then it's really hard to hear that somebody disagrees or sees it a different way.

Pete: Yeah. And a lot of times in that moment, what you're describing there is because it's at my core. It could be a core belief, it could be vulnerability around sort of emotional exposure to somebody not totally understanding. I do think it could even relate back to childhood experiences where you feel like you were just pushed over and not heard. And so, these are all sorts of variables, and for me, that's the art of what we do. Clearly, you and I could keep talking about this probably for a lot longer, but believe it or not, we're already out of time.

Nikki: I cannot believe it.

Pete: Where does the time go, time flies when you're having fun, but I think just leaving thinking about being understood, but not having to agree. This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Pete Economou.

Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin, be present. Be brief.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.