Saturday, February 13, 2010


"Let us then pursue the things that make for peace and build up the common life." ~ Romans 14:19
"You can learn something from books." ~ Ringo Starr

Have you noticed the Emotional Anxiety Thermostat on the wall right there next to the furnace thermostat?

When our youngest daughter was in kindergarten our family schedule was such that it was my responsibility to see that she got up, had breakfast, and made it to the school bus on time. A pattern soon developed: I would enjoy my coffee and morning paper until the last minute, then I would go to the bottom of the stairs and shout, "Anna – time to wake up!" Of course she didn't respond quickly enough for me, so in a few minutes I was yelling louder, and the message became more urgent as the minutes ticked away: "Anna, you have to get up right now or you'll miss your bus!" (I want to emphasize that these were not angry yells, but yells nonetheless.) The morning would often end with both of us frazzled as Anna gulped down her cereal, I made a laughable attempt to fix her hair, and we rushed to meet her bus.

Then I was introduced to Edwin Friedman’s wonderful book, Generation To Generation and his concept of “the non-anxious presence,” which helped me to understand why my morning approach wasn’t working very well – for Anna or for me. I was making two common mistakes:  I was imposing my time agenda on my daughter (by waiting until I had finished the paper to rouse her, thereby producing the very time crunch that made me anxious), and my raised voice (and choice of words) was guaranteeing that our morning together was going to be a time of anxiety. Nudged by Friedman’s insights, I decided to take a different approach: I gave Anna her first wake up call five or ten minutes earlier than before, and instead of yelling from the bottom of the stairs, I went to her bedside and said, in a gentle tone, "Anna, I think if you get up now you'll have plenty of time to eat breakfast and catch your bus." If second or third calls were in order, I 'd say, "How's it going up there?”

Our mornings were transformed! Although there was little difference in the time spent getting ready for school, Anna and I were both much happier and more relaxed as we said good-bye at the bus stop. This new approach worked for Anna – but it worked for me, too!

Although the vignette I describe here was not an argument as such, the family-conflict principles Friedman suggests still apply: His common sense suggestion is that in situations of discord or tension someone needs to be the non-anxious one if emotional balance is to be maintained or restored. When anxiety is allowed to set the emotional tone, no real communication takes place, and – in  cases of argument – no conflict gets resolved. The result is an emotional "vicious cycle" that simply goes round and round within the family. It is never really resolved, although it may fade until the next cycle starts up. The "non-anxious" presence, on the other hand, provides the emotional context which allows for true conversation (as opposed to the proverbial shouting match), leading to understanding and healing.

Someone has said, “Remember, you are the one who makes the weather.” By what we say and by what we do we can raise or we can lower that Emotional Anxiety Thermostat. Hitting and yelling will always raise it, thus producing (always) non-communication.

Non-anxiousness is not just a favor one does for others – it is a favor to oneself. Try this mini-role-play drama on yourself (you might want to warn those around you). You are a parent waiting for your teen-age daughter to come downstairs to go to a family wedding. Go to the bottom of the stairs (or just stand anywhere), raise your voice and yell, “You get down here right now!” Even though this is an artificial drama that took about two seconds, your heart is racing just a bit and you’re kind of worked up. After you calm down, imagine the same scenario and say, loud enough to be heard, but in a conversational tone, “How’s it going up there, honey?” Now how do you feel? (And imagine the difference in the atmosphere in the car on the way to the wedding!) You can actually choose – even as you are opening your mouth – which of those two statements you will make (and which emotional climate you will create.)

About fifty per-cent of us are naturally non-anxious (to use a statistic I just made up), the other fifty per-cent are not. And we often marry each other! My wife is naturally non-anxious. Our grown daughters are not exaggerating when they say that they cannot remember a time – ever – when their mother raised her voice to them. (She says this is quite understandable because her father never once raised his voice to her .) Me? I’ve had to learn to be non-anxious (which is one of the points that Friedman makes – it can be done). However, even after my great insight, my daughters would often remind me, “Dad, you talk a good non-anxious game.” But, for everyone’s sake, it’s worth doing. Good luck to my fellow fifty per-centers.

This is the third of a four-part series on communications techniques that work. Next post: "Speak For Yourself"

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