Category Archives: People

Communication Détente

Communication is a complicated process.  For one thing, we do it even when we don’t mean to do so.  It is impossible to not communicate.  We all like positive communication and we generally respond positively to it.  On the other hand, we tend to dislike negative communication and often choose to respond negatively to it.

CoupleOnRocksSometimes things can get overwhelmingly negative, permeating every aspect of our conversations so that it becomes increasingly difficult to have positive communication.  When this happens the signs are predictable: escalation, devaluation, negative interpretation and assumptions, and more.  In any mutual interaction, if these elements continue long enough, the relationship will fail.

Détente is one of those words that emerged from the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union based upon the MAD doctrine of military strategy.  MAD is an acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction which is the assumption that there are enough nuclear weapons on each side that, in the event of a nuclear war, both sides could be assured that they would both cease to exist.  In other words, to use nuclear weapons is to commit national suicide.  It is that fear of their use coupled with the need to communicate and do business together in a global economy that led to the détente doctrine.

When communication begins to break down in destructive arguments, innuendo and insinuations things are said that would never be said in calmer times.  The spiral of current insults piles on top of heaps of cutting comments from months and years before.  In military terms, ammunition lies everywhere just waiting for someone to pick up and lob at the other person in order to win the hopeless battle to nowhere resulting in incredible pain and anguish.

One of the first challenges of helping couples move out of these destructive patterns is working to develop a safe place.  Among the most powerful tools is the time-out or stop-action rule.  Simply stated, when the warning signs indicate that a couple is heading into a destructive pattern of communication three things must happen immediately.

First, one of the partners must declare a time out before things get out of control.  Second, the other partner who has received the time out request must respect it immediately and cease the conversation.  Finally, the partner that called the time out must set up a time to re-engage the issue at hand with cooler minds, careful wording and thoughtful consideration for their partner.  This is a promise that must be kept so that the other partner knows that the topic will not evaporate into denial.  In essence, the couple agrees to a détente agreement to conduct business as usual in the midst of great tensions, knowing that they will return to the negotiating table to work out their differences in a respectful but honest atmosphere.

This one intervention can go a long way towards creating the safe environment within which useful…even therapeutic…conversations can begin to emerge that will rebuild the bridges of trust and mutual respect that are so critical to successful relationships.  The key ingredients are trust and safety.  Once those are in place the issues that need to be addressed can be discussed with some other basic tools that will open the door to intimacy and maturity in a relationship.

Need help?

This is an arena in which Marriage and Family Therapists can be the most helpful because they perceive problems differently than most conventional approaches.  We begin with the assumption that people really do desire healthy relationships.  Therapy helps people through the obstacles and transitions that often get us sidetracked.  The goal is to help everyone get on with living life and reaching out for their potential.  Email Steve to set up a free first appointment.


Impulse Control and Insomnia

Face of Great Horned Owl

Ok. i admit. I knew that jet lag would be a problem.  I’ve only been coming over here 1-3 times each year for…well…next year will make 20 years!  I knew better.

But the pizza that Sarah made tonight at Reijo and Hanna’s was so good and the 2 litre bottle of Coke was calling my name.  It hadn’t had time to go flat yet.  It was only opened this evening; nice and bubbly.

Now I look at the clock and it is 1:36 a.m. and I am not in the least bit sleepy.  i probably shouldn’t have had the can of Coke at the Bible study earlier in the evening, either.

Like Harry Callahan said, “A man has got to know his limitations.”

It seems to me that I have been doing a lot more of that lately: i.e., getting better acquainted with my own limitations.  In a few months I will be 56 years old and I still struggle with that extra helping, just a minute more, one more thing to do and, tonight, one more glass of Coke.

Impulse control.

Paul said it well in Romans 7:14-25 when he talked about the person who knows what is right to do and he even wants to do it.  However, when it comes down to it, he ends up not doing what he knows is right to do.  Conversely, he also describes the person who knows what not to do but, in the end, winds up doing it after all.

It’s no surprise that one of the gifts of the spirit is self control. (Galatians 5:22-24) because this is a mark of someone who has brought his or her body under subjection, refusing to give in to impulses to overindulge.

Perhaps my focus of attention needs to emphasize this fruit of the Spirit’s work in my life rather than the symptoms of someone who has some spiritual work to do.  In other words, rather than focusing on the symptom of my problems like weight control, being on time and trying to do too much I would profit more from focusing upon disciplining my urges and growing up spiritually….?

Naw…maybe I’ll start tomorrow.  Right now I need to get some sleep!

By the way, I think I’ll put another piece of pizza in the microwave.

Warm pizza helps you sleep better, you know….



I Forgot The Most Important Ingredient!

“I forgot the rice!”

There you are, on national television with the chance of a lifetime to ask the pros for advice, to take your time selecting your specific ingredients and to launch out with huge advantage, ready to go, and you forget the most important ingredient!  To make a stellar rice pudding it is important to remember the rice!  Add to that the fact that you cannot go back to correct your mistake; you are stuck with your choices.

In considering the embarrassment and self-loathing that David Martinez must have felt he still got up and did what he had to do to remain active in the competition.  The fact that he was almost voted out became moot to me as I began to  sense a resonance deep down that started me thinking about how this one little episode encapsulated so much of life.

Forgetting the main ingredient comes when you show up for that all important meeting and you realize that your notes are still on your desk so you would not forget to pick them up on your way out of the door.  Forgetting the main ingredient happens when those words came out of your mouth and you see the hurt they cause in someone you love.  Forgetting the main ingredient slays us when we get lost in chasing an internet rabbit, a mindless tv show or ‘hanging out’ when we suddenly realize that we lost track of time and missed an appointment.

Steven Covey in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People refers to the elegant principle of “beginning with the end in mind.”  What a tragedy to move through the stages of the typical family life cycle and to realize, in the end, we forgot the most important ingredient.

What is your main ingredient?


Mistakes, Learning Opportunities & Life Coaching

Learning opportunities come to us in many ways.  Close to the top of the list of powerful learning opportunities comes with making mistakes.  Indeed, it is often through our failures that we learn both the techniques needed for success and the effort that will be required. A marriage and family therapist may provide just the life coaching needed to help turn failures into possibilities.

The newly appointed president of the bank was young at 32 years of age.  Daunted by the challenges of the position he sat down with a former president of the bank who was now elderly and a man of few words.

“What is the most important thing for me to do as a new president,” he asked the older man.

“Right decisions,” was his terse reply.

“Thank you, sir. That is very helpful,” the young banker replied.  “But how do I make  right decisions?”

The wise old man replied: “Experience.”

Somewhat exasperated the young president said, “This is why I came to see you!  How do I get the experience to help me make right decisions?”

“Wrong decisions,” was the gentleman’s reply.

Maturity does not necessarily come with age; but, it rarely occurs without it.  Most of living our lives is done spontaneously, often with little or no training or education.*

Much of what we do know has come from our experience.  For example, for child rearing we find that how we were raised has a significant impact upon how we raise our children.  Most of us can point to things we appreciated in the people who raised us that we hope to duplicate.  On the other hand, we can also point to wrong actions we wish to avoid in our childrearing because of the painful example of our caregivers.

Outside of those experiences, we may pick up a book or two on parenting, compare notes about childrearing issues with friends and co-workers, or attend a workshop or two.  The fact is that most of what we learn would be best characterized by familiar expressions such as ‘flying by the seat of your pants,’ ‘trail and error,’ ‘hunt and peck,’ and ‘going with your gut.’  You do the best you can under the circumstances and while we often make good choices and right decisions, the ones that we tend to remember the most vividly are the mistakes, the wrong decisions.  We remember them, often, because they did not produce the desired result.  At other times we remember them because the results of our choices had bad results that we never wish to see happen again.

In wartime and other extreme circumstances the mistakes can have injurious or even fatal consequences. A brother volunteers for a scouting mission in France at the end of World War II because another soldier–a friend–had backed down at the last minute out of fear.  The volunteer was killed by a land mine during that mission while his soldier friend lived with the guilt of his choice for the rest of his life.  Thankfully, most of our mistakes do not have those kinds of extreme consequences.

In the day-to-day fabric of life we make good choices and we make bad choices.  Indeed, it is the bad choices that help us learn to make good choices more often.  The bummer is that it takes time and suffering through the consequences to help us learn most effectively for future choices.  We also have to weigh again and again our experience against our best judgement and acquired information to address new situations that the manuals didn’t mention, the seminar speaker didn’t address and our friends and co-workers had no clue about how to help.

You are on your own.

You make a decision.

You take action.

You learn from the consequences.

You are now better informed and prepared for the next decision with no guarantees; just a better probability that you will make a better choice next time.

Mistakes are terrible things to waste.  Learn from them!


*Ben Patterson, Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent, 1990.


Understanding Versus Being Understood

“What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate”

So much of human communication hinges upon understanding one another. We usually are safe to make the assumption  that the other person is listening well enough to understand what we are saying.  Yet, when two people are focused on making the other one understand what they are saying, this speaking past each other can lead to real challenges.  It is not always safe to assume that the other person is actually listening to understand.  At times like this “we have a failure to communicate.”

The way to break the impasse is for either party to begin the process of listening to the other person in hopes of understanding what they are actually saying.  When each person is mutually invested in this process the results can be astounding.  When neither person is invested in this process of listening the results can be devastating.

When one person is willing to stop and listen change begins to occur.  What is more, with active listening using tools like paraphrasing or reflecting questions the process of listening enters a new dimension that introduces empathy.  The goal of the listener is for the other person (i.e., the one seeking to be understood) to agree that, indeed, the listener does understand.  When that moment occurs, then the energy is diminished from the struggle to be understood and a genuine conversation can begin.  When the speaker senses that he/she is being understood they are empowered to return the favor and begin the process of active listening while the original listener now shares his or her perspective.

This process of active listening can be learned.  Once mastered it can become a powerful tool for strengthening and deepening relationships from the basic level of one-on-one conversation to the macro level of communication between nation states.


Texting Vs. Face-To-Face

There are many advantages to texting: simple communications, tracking exchanges of information, privacy in public places and more.  Texting is pretty cool for many things.  So, I have grudgingly learned to text.  But it still is not face-to-face!

At the same time, texting can be a negative thing.  Among the things of which texting has limited or no value is conflict resolution.  Sure, it is possible to text about differences of opinion when discussing where to eat or what shirt to wear.

Then there are those times when texting is the preferred way of delivering bad news without having to see the disappointment on someone else’s face or to hear it in their voice.  Even worse is when hard words are said without the careful filtering that usually takes place when we are looking into each other’s eyes.

Like so many things, texting can be very helpful and it can be very hurtful and even destructive.  If you see a series of texts heating up with intense emotion it may be worthwhile to call a time out and recommend a meeting to talk about the issue the old fashioned way:  face-to-face.


Trust: Regular, Predictable Behaviors Over A Long Period of Time

My mornings are pretty predictable.  I’ll spare you the details but it involves going to the gym at 4:30 a.m. and coming home to have morning coffee with Pamela before launching each day.  I’ve always prided myself as a person who thinks outside of the box, and eschews mindless, repetitive activity.  But then I evaluated my morning routines…

… and I find that every single morning I follow the same behaviors from the moment I arise until I engage in my workout (I try to keep the variety going here) and return home.  I even put the stool that I sit on to put on my shoes in exactly the same place!  I often think about changing up my routines but then slip right into the predictable behaviors.

Predictable behaviors in the daily routines of life help me avoid some things.

For one, I don’t forget stuff.  There are reasons I so things in a certain way because they help me build in behaviors that assure me that I have not forgotten something.  Now I can mindlessly go through my morning routines without having to double-check myself.  Change the routine and I’m likely to start forgetting stuff like, for example, my towel.

Another thing I avoid is wasting time.  By not allowing myself to get side-tracked on tangential activities that distract me from my main objective I stay on-task and get the job done.  When I get side-tracked I have to double-check myself because one change in routine may mean I forget to execute another important routine.

On the other hand, predictable behaviors in my daily routines help me make sure some things get done.

Many of those behaviors are the culmination of looking for the most efficient way to do these repetitive behaviors because I want to move through them quickly without having to think about them.  I chose those ways of doing things in order to be efficient in the use of my time.  If I change the routine it is because I have found a more efficient way to do the same task with less time or effort.

Another benefit is for those around me.  When I am predictable in my routines, others with whom I interact in the day can plan their time accordingly.  If Pam wakes up at 5:30 a.m. she doesn’t have to wonder where I might be found if she needs me for an emergency.  When she puts on the coffee at 6:30 in the morning she knows that I will be pulling up within 5 to 10 minutes to unload my bag, pour a cup of coffee and sit with her on the couch to plan out our day.

Predictable routines make us predictable.  Being predictable makes us dependable.  Being dependable breeds trust.  Trust is a good thing.

Conversely, unpredictable routines make us unpredictable.  Being unpredictable makes undependable.  Being undependable breeds distrust.  Distrust is a bad thing.

There are times when we need to build trust for the first time.  The way we do that is by behaving in predictable, dependable, trustworthy ways.  These qualities have serendipitous spin-offs that go right to the core values of who we are.  They are among the building blocks for things like integrity, honesty and personal responsibility.

There are times when trust is destroyed and has to be rebuilt.  This is true when a marriage has been threatened by an extra-marital affair, a hidden vice or secret past.  When these are exposed the building blocks for trust are blown apart and require reconstruction.  Many elements may go into the rebuilding of trust; but, among them will be regular, predictable behaviors practiced over a long period of time.

One of the most challenging environments in which children are often raised is the unpredictable environments where parents are unreliable, random and illogical.  Trust never has an object or person by which to stabilize and take root.  Daily life is in constant flux with fluid rules, permeable boundaries, and irregular behavior and schedules.

Regular, predictable routines in a home, on the other hand, breed stability, confidence and a sense of assurance and safety in children.  When life throws its challenges in the child’s pathway they know that there is one place where they will find rules, boundaries and regular, predictable behaviors that contribute to a sense of acceptance, love and appreciation.

The fruit often found in such stable families is helpful for inculcating a sense of adventure, openness to new ideas and a willingness to be challenged.  Arising from the security of knowing that you can always go home children learn that failure does not have to be fatal and that, no matter what, love and acceptance will rule the day.

Unfortunately, these values do not cure everything.  In the last month I have lost two very nice pairs of gloves because I have yet to establish a routine for keeping them on my person when I don’t need them.  I’m experimenting with several alternatives like tucking them inside of my coat instead of in my pockets.  I’ve also researched these little clips like I used to have as a kid that you attached to the sleeves of your coat…Naw, not really.  I’ll figure it out eventually and then establish a routine so that I don’t have to think about losing them any more.  The reason will be that I will have established a regular, predictable behavior that I can mindlessly execute so that I don’t have to retrace my steps looking for the gloves that I set down…somewhere…like I have been doing for the last few weeks.



Persistence in Life

On a biking trip Pamela and I noted the large number of caterpillars crossing the bike trail.  Several did not escape the speeding wheel of an earlier bike while we did our best to avoid them.  Fuzzy little orange and brown caterpillars were making their way to who-knows-where.  There has to be a joke somewhere about the caterpillar who crossed the road!  Maybe something about persistence or life or ‘getting to the other side.’

As I saw these little miracles of God’s creation I was overwhelmed by the immensity of their task and paused to grab a picture.  As I got on the ground to take the picture I was impressed about how quickly I had to move to stay ahead of the little bugger while I tried to figure out how the camera feature on Pam’s phone worked.

There has to be a lesson somewhere.  A few examples come to mind:

Persistence: Progress is made one foot at a time.

Longevity: The road may be daunting but sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.

All I know is that I discovered a new appreciation for the realization that much of life is made up of goals and objectives that often require persistent, consistent effort over a long period of time.  In fact, it would seem that the things that are of most value in this world require a seasoning of time.

Lord, help me to avoid the temptation of the quick fixes in life and to take a lesson from this little caterpillar and your word as you continue to transform me from one degree of understanding to another.



The Rising Fog

There are times when just being alone on the river in the peace and serenity of the evening can be mesmerizing.  I especially appreciate those times when there is a light rain and the fog rises gently off of the surface of the water.  Warm and cold come together to envelope me in the peace and quiet of nature’s simple wonders.  Serenity.

Times like this have been important to me as I have contemplated the failing health of my father and my mother’s efforts to love and care for him as he prepares to move through the veil.  It is a time to pray, to weep quietly and, through the tears, to observe God’s loving embrace through His creation.

I’m thankful for the hour or two that I get now and then to dress to stay warm and dry so that I can stand on the banks of the river and marvel at the wonder of God’s love and providence.   Lying behind it all is a quiet fantasy that maybe–just maybe–a fish will find my little nymph at the bottom of the stream and give me a few moments of intensity and joy.