Thursday, July 17, 2014

Couples Communication - Sylvia's Story

A couple of years ago, as part of my Family and Marriage studies, we did some assignments dealing with couples communication. Psychologists have come up with a couple of models of what effective communication looks like for couples, calling them the Awareness Wheel and Listening Cycle.The previous links go to a couple of pages at Momentum Counseling Services that do a good job of explaining what those are, so I won't go into detail, here. What I do want to share is a portion of an interview I did for that class. It was as a way to practice using the principles behind the Awareness Wheel and Listening Cycle, and to demonstrate some competence. It was with a young woman I will call Sylvia. Her name was changed to protect her anonymity.

Just so you know, I think the principles involved go well beyond just couples. I think they are appropriate for any situation where more than casual communication is desired. Not all communications need to be deep. Some kinds of communications work best when superficial. This just doesn't apply as well to them, as it does more intimate sharing.

Awareness Wheel and Listening Cycle - Sylvia

Sylvia was concerned about her future. As an 18-year-old young woman, living in a rural area, she had been unable to find a regular job. She had done the occasional baby-sitting job for neighbors, but nothing regular, and nothing that paid well. The prospect of graduating from high school and attending college excited her, she wanted to study illustration, but not being able to get a job meant that she wouldn’t be able to pay for college or basic living expenses without taking out grants and costly loans.

Sylvia had learned from her teachers that, in the future, there will be less available jobs that didn’t need a college degree. She had also been warned against going into debt by various adults in her life. Her parent’s income was modest, bordering on the poverty level. She had seen them struggle to pay off their own debts, and pay the bills in general. She had also seen her older friends, who had moved away from home, struggle financially. Many of them had low paying jobs and some has lost their jobs.

Because of her own experience in trying to secure work, and the experiences of others in her life, she decided that she must start gaining work experience while still in high school, or she would be unable to secure a job as a college student. This would severely compromise her plans to study illustration. School costs money. While her parents had promised to help her in any way they could, paying her application fees and other fees as much as possible, they would be unable to pay her tuition costs.

The problem, she thought, was creating a reason for people to hire her. Her grades were good and she had basic skills most jobs require. She even had a food handlers permit, required for most work in the food service industry. What she lacked was the work experience that many employers were asking for. How could she get experience if she couldn’t get a job to get the experience with?

Sylvia was beginning to feel desperate. It made her frightened to think that she may have to give up her plans to go to school and get a degree. This compounded her fear and frustration because she knew that, as an adult, not having a degree would compromise her ability to make money as an adult. She was afraid of moving out on her own, and becoming a functioning adult, if she couldn’t find financial security.

Financial security and independence were important to Sylvia. She knew that she may qualify for various grants and scholarships, but she was afraid she would likely have to take out large student loans if she couldn’t find gainful employment while in college. She didn’t want to use her parents as a crutch in life, burdening them with undo costs. Living in poverty was unacceptable, as well. Instead, wanted a comfortable home, filled with the things she loved.

In spite of her previous failures at securing employment, to achieve her goals, Sylvia would continue to apply for work, even tasks that she wouldn’t normally enjoy doing, like working in fast food restaurants or housekeeping or cleaning jobs. She would also seek out and apply for grants and scholarships for school that she would not be required to pay back, both public and private. As a high school senior she had taken some classes in cosmetology and may take her first year in college to finish a cosmetology license. This would allow her to work as a cosmetologist while she pursues her studies in art. Because struggling as an artist did not appeal to her, she has decided to take a minor in business. This way, she will be able to better address the business side of art, increasing her chances of being more successful, financially.

Conducting the Interview

In conducting the interview with Sylvia (not her real name), I used a combination of explorative listening and attentive listening styles. I tried to use mostly open-ended questions, inviting her to give me details. Questions such as: “How are you feeling about moving away from home?” and “Where did you learn that you needed a degree to get a job?” helped her open up to me and think about details that went beyond her surface thoughts. I also used questions such as, “What do you think about that problem?,” “What do you want to get out of school?” and “What will you do about getting a job?” In some cases I simply said, “Tell me more about that.”

In order to make sure I was referencing all aspects of the awareness wheel, I kept a text document open on my computer with the different areas of the awareness wheel listed as headings. I was then able to keep track of her answers and direct my questions to make sure I was getting a full picture of the issue. She knew I was doing this for an assignment, and we had talked about this issue in more casual styles in the past, she said she was comfortable with me taking notes in this way.

As she would give me answers to my questions, adding details to her original answers, I would switch to an attentive listening style. I would summarize what she had said and ask her if that was what she meant. I also kept watch on her body language, tension in her eyes, shifts in her position or gaze. I would often ask a follow-up question about those shifts related to her feelings: “Does that make you feel scared?” She would often open up more as I acknowledged her emotional states and experience, showing her that I respected her and would not judge her actions or feelings about the issue. I never interrupted her.

My Own Experience

While I was certainly assigned to do this interview, Sylvia is someone I care deeply about. We had spoken before about her current problems surrounding her transition from high-school to college, and from late childhood to emerging adulthood. My goal, then, besides finishing the assignment, was to better understand her and what she was going through, as well as help her understand her problem better, herself. I believe that talking through a problem in this non-judgment way with someone you trust will often help you see he problem in a different light, and reveal solutions that you hadn’t previously thought of. Indeed, it may show that what you thought was the original issue, may not have been the source of anxiety at all, but a deeper desire for something else entirely. She was very willing to speak to me, and chose the subject herself, without any prompting on my behalf.

Because I wanted to help her find a solution, as well, it was difficult to not “butt in” with my own ideas. The point was to draw us closer together and increase understanding, not impose my own thoughts or desires for her into the mix. To my pleasant surprise, she brought up a few things I had thought about on her own. Although I have my own feelings of what should be a priority for these actions, I left it alone in favor of letting her solve the problem herself. She may decide to ask me about them later, she may not. I practiced holding my tongue and I hope it will get easier the more I do it. We both expressed thoughts and feelings of being happy about the way the interview went and I made sure to thank her for talking with me in such an open way, as well as helping me with my assignment.

As I practice these methods of communication, I hope they will become second nature to me. That way, my conversations will naturally be more effective, and more fulfilling.

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