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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13 thoughts on “On Going Vertical”

  1. Hi Hilary. I loved this post. I plan to read it every day! It takes 30 days to change a habit, right? Thanks for new awareness. L C

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    1. I have read the stats that it takes 30 days to change a habit, but I have to say, I think there is variance–depending on the habit, how ingrained it is, what level of resistance you have, whether other obstacles are involved, etc…. Sometimes it just takes exercising a few days in a row to break the non-exercise habit. Some other habits, like relational dynamics, can take much longer, and require much more assiduous vigilance, to break or change. Is this the Negative Life Coach talking? It might be! But here’s something positive: 30 days of focusing on anything and trying to do it differently will DEFINITELY make a difference. A positive difference. But the change might be incremental. Just trying to promote realistic expectations… Thank you for your comment. Feel free to comment on my comment if I raised more questions than I answered…

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    1. Feeling so much gratitude for your comment this morning: thank you. Honestly, every time I share a post I wonder if it’s going to land with others, if I have exposed something that will make a difference in others’ lives or if I maybe should just keep the thoughts in my personal journal! So comments mean so much to me!! Thank you.

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  2. Once again Hilary, I’m appreciating your insight. I like your x’s and o’s as a clear reminder for speaking through self with compassion and, not presuming to know what’s up with another.

    Keep the insights coming!

    – Chris

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  3. You know I love your writing.. and I have a ‘yeah but’. People can go vertical and still give their power away and not be responsible for what’s going on internally and treat it like it’s the truth. ‘I feel this way when you do xyz.. and what I’m really saying is that I’m entitled to my reaction and I expect you to change your behavior to make me feel better’ (vs. dealing with what is the source of my feelings – because most of the time it isn’t you, it’s my thoughts about you).

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    1. I welcome and appreciate your “yeah but.” It’s a good one. It sounds like you might be describing a “vertical” comment that is a “horizontal” in disguise? That said, many vertical statements can be nuanced, and can have some horizontal activity in them. Sometimes, we ARE saying, when you do x I feel y, and y is uncomfortable and painful so I hope you’ll stop doing x. That is an okay request to make, owned as request. The other person may or may not be willing or able to stop doing x, but perhaps knowing about y can at least allow them to feel compassion and offer kindness.

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      1. Yes and yes. And.. out of your comment I just got something. The ‘Owned as a request’ piece. I think this is the third time that theme has come up in short time. Apparently the universe is trying to hammer me over the head with a message. First I made a request (so I thought), to the institution I was coaching for, requesting to take other coaching training – despite the rules I agreed to, and the response was ‘Iva are you requesting, or are you demanding/informing’? – totally blind how that was landing. Then,the guy I started seeing sent me a text, saying: ‘I understand your position’ (I was like huh? Yuck. I’m so not committed to having a position). Turns out, I have positions and make demands and can’t own requests. Maybe out of fear of being rejected, I back people into a corner. And then they resist me and say no, or say yes to me and resent me after. I think. I don’t know. More to discover. Well happy Sunday and thank you for your brilliance filled content.

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    1. Yes—and going horizontal is so natural. Most likely this was what was modeled for us in the relationship blueprints of our elders. The reason being that it can feel MUCH safer to go horizontal, to go “over there” and diagnose, describe, accuse, etc… and much more VULNERABLE to go vertical and expose what’s going on inside of us. The more we do it, the safer it feels because the more deeply we connect to ourselves, our truth, our experience, which in fact creates a deeper abiding sense of safety within ourselves. Thanks for commenting!

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