On Going Vertical

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The other day while giving a talk on Compassionate Straight Talk, I kept noticing my hand. It drew a line in the air from my forehead down through my heart-center into my belly. Over and over again. If I were one of those football commentators who draw diagrams on the screen to illustrate a play, my play would have looked the same every time: one straight line, headed down.

That’s because I was discussing the importance of going vertical, not horizontal, if you want to create effective communication. If you want to offer feedback that won’t put the other on the defensive. If you want to be straight, and be heard. If you want to create emotional intimacy. You have to go inside yourself, and report from your own internal experience, versus telling the other person what they’re doing wrong. Versus diagnosing them. Versus going horizontal. (The play I drew repeatedly on my imaginary screen for going horizontal was simply pointing a finger. Creating the energetic specter from the tip of my index finger of a straight line aimed at the other.)

You can successfully broach a lot of uncharted territory—or perhaps previously charted, but perilously so—if you start out by going vertical.  By exploring what goes on inside yourself in the challenging interaction, when the triggering behavior of the other happens. How do I feel in this dynamic? What’s at stake for me?  What do I wish for? Long for? Need? Getting clear first, on the vertical experience, is step one. Step two is, from a place of internal understanding, reporting on it. The late pioneer of family systems theory Dr. Murray Bowen referred to this style of relational reportage as “representing self.”

We’ve all heard about “I statements,” and the importance of “I statements” over “You statements.” Ideally, “I statements” go vertical, allowing us to report on our own experience, to represent self. “You statements” point a horizontal line at the other—the exact line the other can use to zing one right back at you! “You statements” set up the back and forth volley of “Yeah, but you…” “Oh really?  You’re the one who…”   And that imaginary line denoting the horizontal play gets thicker and thicker, traversed back and forth ad infinitum. (The only problem I observe with “I statements” is when they are a “You statement” in disguise. The ultimate satirical version of this is: “I feel like you’re an asshole.”) Used genuinely to go vertical and represent self, “I statements” clear the air, create pathways for understanding, compassion, relational peace.   

In the workplace, a manager can tell her direct report, “I want you to succeed. But I’m finding myself at a loss as to how to get through to you in this particular area.”  That’s vertical. That’s representing self.  That’s compassionate. And it’s also real. And very likely effective – certainly more so than, “You never listen” or “You’re stubborn.”  

Same goes for communicating at home. With family members, “I worry when I don’t hear from you. It would really mean a lot to me if you checked in more,” is more likely to be received than, “You never check in,” or “You make promises you don’t keep.”  Another example of going vertical might be, “I shut down and stop listening when you raise your voice; it alienates me,” versus the horizontal, “You’re hysterical,” or, “You’re crazy, I’m outta here,” or, “Shut up!” With our younger children, when we really go vertical, what are we worried about? Their safety. Their ability to thrive as humans. We may not like their behavior, but if we go vertical and get in touch with why, we can communicate from a deeper, more compassionate place. “I care about you. I want to help you learn something really important here.”

That’s what I see with my clients when they go vertical and represent self, and what I experience repeatedly in my own relationships when I do it: space opens up for compassion. When we go vertical, we are communicating on a deeper level, beneath the surface blame game, where the capacity for compassion resides. Compassion for self. Compassion for the other. And the other’s compassion for you. Compassion begets compassion; it’s the soil of intimacy in which all things healing grow.

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