PQ 7.7 — What do I do to make sure it’s safe for my partners to communicate with me, and to let them know it’s safe?

A painting on a sidewalk of a red circle. (drawn with a dotted line) The edges of the circle are studded with chest-up simplified silohuettes of people painted in below. In the center of the circle the words "safe zone" are painted in blue letters.
Image by Dennis Hill / CC BY

PQ 7.7 — What do I do to make sure it’s safe for my partners to communicate with me, and to let them know it’s safe?

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The issue at the heart of today’s question is near and dear to my heart. As I wrote in PQ 4.5, more than anything, I try to be someone that my partner can say anything to. I’m safe to talk to. To confide in. I do my best to understand and keep us moving forward. Even if I don’t like what a partner is saying, I keep my calm and give them the benefit of the doubt. No flying off the handle because something isn’t phrased well. Or I don’t like the sentiment.

And as covered in PQ 6.7 when actively listening, I restate what is said to me so that my partner knows that I’m listening  and understand what they have said.

I avoid the following:

  • Interrupting. Cues that people are done speaking can be unclear, so if you do interrupt, apologize and allow them to speak.
  • Asking “why?” questions. These often make people defensive.
  • Giving unsolicited advice. If you have something you’d like to give input on, bridge the gap by asking for their consent. “Could I make a suggestion?” (And be okay if with a “no” if they refuse.)
  • Reassuring them too quickly. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine” is usually said in a well-meaning way but will often come off as dismissive.
  • Using the time that they’re speaking to formulate your own response. You can do that after they are done speaking.

Aside from these things, a lot of what will make a person feel safe will be specific to who they are. And what their life experiences have been.

Using certain words, regardless of tone or context, is sometimes enough to set someone off. “Fine” and “whatever” spring directly to mind. Even if they’re said innocently, they often read passive-aggressive or dismissive, especially to people’s whose former partners engaged in indirect communication.

Or a poorly timed laugh. Even if it is a laugh of commiseration or of understanding, it can seem hostile or mocking, especially if your partner has a history of being bullied or being in abusive relationships.

For example, Skyspook has a habit of laughing every time I say or do something he finds really cute or really sexy. It took me ages to figure out that was why he was laughing. Especially because he, predictably, also laughs when I say something he thinks is funny.

I found it so confusing (and admittedly embarrassing and a bit discouraging) that he was laughing at my flirtation that it was a long time before it dawned on me that it was a different laugh. And okay, yeah, it was a little dense of me not to notice that his laughing often led to sex or at least sweet, sweet affection.

But for a while? I became reluctant to talk frankly about my fantasies with him. Especially since I’d had an ex who had explicitly made fun of them (and me) when I had.

The One Who Never Felt Safe Enough

The trouble, however, is that there’s only so much you can do. If people don’t do at least some work on themselves to become more secure, it can be impossible to make them feel safe.

It’s like trying to assist an ally who is defending against an enemy that’s already breached the castle wall. Several days after the initial invasion. The best you can do is damage control. Forget about singlehandedly stopping the war without any casualties.

When I first looked at today’s question, I thought of him: The One Who Never Felt Safe Enough.

The 10 years we were together, Seth never stopped fighting the boys who had picked on him in junior high. No matter what I did, Seth would still regularly snap at me, unpredictably, at the smallest things. He perceived criticism and attacks that frankly weren’t there. It wasn’t just with me. Seth had a sort of shadow enemy that went everywhere with him.

Yes, I’m a geek. And intellectual enjoyment was definitely a driving force in my decision to study social psychology and later manage organizational development for a psychological consulting firm. But my initial foray into formally studying Human Relations? Communication? The social science that governs interpersonal systems?

Well, it came about because I was trying to find ways to reach Seth. I threw myself headlong into something that was supposed to be an elective.

But the trouble was that anything can be viewed as a weapon by the right person. Even a set of tools that are meant to be helpful.

Diplomacy looks like manipulation when eyes wear fear as their filter.

If You Feel Like No One Is Safe to Talk to, It Could Be a Sign

Now, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to make the people close to us feel safe. That’s ludicrous. Being vulnerable with someone we love and having them accept that? It’s one of the best feelings in the world.

And there are some real jackasses out there, people who get a thrill out of kicking other people when they’re down.

But it’s also easy to get conditioned by a cruel world and the people who have disappointed us in the past so that we can’t recognize safe people when we eventually find them.

As I said in a previous post, it can be hard to be vulnerable when we’re used to protecting ourselves. Sometimes we can’t get our emotional armor off even when it’s working against us to wear it. Like cursed equipment that looked so good in the treasure chest.

Suddenly, we want to connect with others but are too practiced in camouflage to remember how to drop our shields. And once we figure out how, it’s still a terrifying matter to convince ourselves it’s safe to.

If you feel like no one is safe to talk to, sure, you could be right. But then again? It could be that your armor is stuck on.

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This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions & answers, please see this indexed list.

 

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