Good communication is of fundamental importance in intimate
relationships. The ability to accurately differentiate between
the internal experiences of feeling, thought and sensation is
basic to this process.
The astonishing diversity of the English language allows many
opportunities for misunderstanding. One example of this lack of
precision is how the word "feel" can be used to express a number
of quite different internal experiences.
It can refer to emotion -- "I feel upset about what just
happened." It is often used colloquially to refer to a thought
or belief: "I feel that the world would be a better place if..."
It can also be used to refer to physical touch or bodily
sensation: "I feel feverish." "This tabletop feels smooth."
Since "feelings" are central in intimate relationships, it is
vital that we have a workable approach to speaking plainly, if we are to be understood by those who are important to us.
Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, based his approach
to clear and accurate communication on precise reporting of
in-the-moment awareness. He believed that sharing one's
present-tense awareness was the quickest route to self-knowledge
and true intimate communication.
He stated that all internal experience could be categorized as
arising from sensation, emotion, or thought. Clear communication requires that the person speaking about his experience accurately denote which category of information is being transmitted.
A way to practice these distinctions is to make statements
beginning with variations of one of three phrases: "I see..."; "I feel..."; or "I imagine...". Perls called this exercise the Awareness Continuum.
"I see..." refers to information taken in by the senses -- sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell. "I feel..." communicates internal states of emotion -- anger, hurt, sadness, joy. "I imagine..." describes mental acts -- thinking, believing, or imagining.
The person practicing the Awareness Continuum simply speaks aloud (or writes) his or her awareness of the moment-by-moment internal experiences that come to the forefront of conscious attention.
As an example of the Awareness Continuum, here is my current
internal experience as I am writing these words:
I see the computer monitor on which these words are appearing; I feel the computer keys under my fingertips; I hear the clicking sound as I type. (Sensory Awareness)
I'm enjoying the process of describing the awareness continuum; I'm happy it's Friday afternoon; I'm worried that my son's birthday card won't reach him in time for his birthday. (Emotional Awareness)
I'm thinking about what to write next; I'm thinking that this writing needs to be particularly clear and understandable. (Awareness of Thoughts)
Although this exercise is artificial -- we don't usually speak
this way to our loved ones! -- it is a useful way to practice
the skill of speaking about our internal experience with
In an intimate relationship accurate communication about emotions is of the utmost importance. We often make guesses about what our partner's mood or emotional state is -- based on observing minute non-verbal cues like a raised eyebrow, a certain look, a gesture or their tone of voice.
When these guesses are inaccurate (as they often are), elaborate
chains of misunderstanding may develop as our incorrect
inferences lead to responses which only amplify the confusion.
One way to sidestep this potential dilemma: when in doubt as to
what your partner's mood or feeling is -- ask! And hopefully,
they will share what's going on with them so that it is
understandable and clear.
Experiment with the Awareness Continuum -- use it as a template
to become more precise in your communication about your internal
experience. I think you will reap the benefits of having fewer
misunderstandings and more clear communication in your primary
David Yarian, Ph.D. is the creator of The Guide to Self-Help
Books, http://www.Books4SelfHelp.com and co-author of Self-Help
Central, an ezine to help you build a better life with self-help
resources. He is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Certified
Sex Therapist in private practice in Nashville, TN. His professional website is http://www.DavidYarian.com.