Thursday, June 16, 2016

Notes from Atlanta Poly Weekend 2016

Having experienced and written about the communication challenges couples can face, Claire and I decided to attend a conference for the polyamorous community -- Atlanta Poly Weekend 2016, in early June. We figured that we could learn a lot, as poly people have to navigate similar challenges to swingers, but with multiple ongoing relationships. The poly community also tends to be more organized around sharing resources for its participants, as opposed to simply offering opportunities to socialize or hook-up.

We were impressed with the conference, the speakers, and many of the people we met there. While we could not attend every seminar, due to scheduling conflicts, those that we did attend gave us a lot to think about.

Nonviolent Communication
Our favorite class was on nonviolent communication, given by Gregory and Melissa Avery-Weir. For anybody who has witnessed or experienced a total breakdown of the communication process, this class was a real eye-opener. Nonviolent communication (NVC), also called compassionate communication, refers primarily to emotional, as opposed to physical violence. This theory was developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s.

According to the Center for Nonviolent Communication, this approach “emphasizes compassion as the motivation for action rather than fear, guilt, shame, blame, coercion, threat or justification for punishment. In other words, it is about getting what you want for reasons you will not regret later. NVC is NOT about getting people to do what we want. It is about creating a quality of connection that gets everyone’s needs met through compassionate giving...The process of NVC encourages us to focus on what we and others are observing and to separate this from our interpretations and judgments; to connect our thoughts and feelings to underlying human needs/values (e.g. protection, support, love); and to be clear about what we would like to help meet those needs.”  https://www.cnvc.org/Training/NVC-Concepts


The authors like to think of themselves as thoughtful, educated individuals. However, we both recognized that we had made many of the mistakes that this process seeks to avoid. Somewhere along the line, we learned to talk about our feelings, as part of the process of negotiating conflicts with other people. However, we both noticed that this approach did not always produce the desired reaction, and did not understand why. The course on NVC brought to light specific pitfalls that interfere with effective communication.

One of the tenets of NVC is that it is more effective to communicate using “I” statements instead of “you” statements. Also, they instruct people to avoid the phrase “you made me feel.” Using “I” statements and avoiding “made me feel” statements encourages people to own their feelings and experiences instead of blaming others for them. Similarly, NVC instructs against “faux feelings,” which are interpretations masquerading as feelings. Some common faux feelings are “abandoned,” “betrayed,” “bullied,” “intimidated,” “manipulated,” “misunderstood,” “rejected,” “unappreciated,” and “used.” To illustrate this concept, instead of saying “I felt rejected,” you could say: “I felt anxious, hurt, and/or lonely.” Instead of saying “I felt betrayed,” you could say, “I felt confused, puzzled, frustrated, and/or upset.”

NVC then moves from a discussion of feelings and needs, to how to get both parties’ needs met. One of the most interesting distinctions the process makes is the difference between a request and a demand. Requests and demands can be distinguished by observing how willing the speaker is to accept “no” as an answer. When you make a request, you are asking for a specific behavior in a non-manipulative or coercive manner. A request is really a demand if it is prefaced with “If you were a good person, you would…” or ends with “If you don’t fulfill my request, I will impose a negative consequence.”

The Four Horsemen of Relationships
The Four Horsemen of Relationships is a concept from relationship experts John and Julie Gottman. It was explained in a class by Sarah Meng and Em Elliott called, “What is a Healthy Relationship, Anyway?” According to the Gottmans, the four leading behaviors that indicate an unhealthy relationship are contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Contempt refers to coming at your partner from a position of superiority. This also manifests as hostility, sneering, name-calling, condemnation, and eye-rolling. Criticism is a character attack, instead of focusing on the behavior. For example, “I can’t believe how selfish you were to not clean the car.” The preferred approach would be, “I felt stressed when you said you would clean the car and did not.” The Horseman of Criticism often leads to the Horseman of Defensiveness, which is a form of self-protection where you shift the responsibility for the action to another person or to external circumstances. Stonewalling is withdrawing from the interaction altogether, often as a protective mechanism. People do this when they get overwhelmed. When this happens, the Gottmans recommend that the overwhelmed person engage in self-soothing and then return to the conflict at an agreed-upon later time.


Other Tools
A class called “The Practical Poly Toolkit” by Bettie Bullet and her partner was centered on various strategies for better relationships. When a person is having a breakdown, the speakers suggested that their partner ask them whether they are looking for tactics to deal with the issue or emotional support. A person whose Myers-Briggs personality profile favors “Thinking” might be focused on tactical solutions to the problem, whereas a person on the “Feeling” axis may prioritize empathy and compassion.

The speakers also distinguished between “Fault” and “Fit” issues when there is a communication lapse. If it is a “Fit” issue, the partners may have different perceptions of what was meant. A “Fault” issue is a more intentional violation of an agreement. Many people falsely classify “Fits” as “Faults.” For example, if you asked a partner to text you back quickly when you message them, then you have a “Fit” issue if you define “quickly” as within 20 minutes and your partner defines it as within the hour.

In “Noel’s Rules of Relationships,” Ms. Noel focused on typical unhealthy communication patterns in relationships. One such pattern is assuming that what you said, or assumed (but did not verbalize), is what the other person heard, understood and/or agreed upon. Other common maladaptive strategies are defending by attacking; blaming other people for eliciting emotions, instead of recognizing that your emotions are about you and it is your responsibility to manage your emotions; and fighting as opposed to discussing how to work together to fix problems. When you fight, you fight with an enemy. For you to win, the other person has to lose, and what they will lose is probably something that is important to them.

Conclusion
Our discussion of Atlanta Poly Weekend touches on some of the highlights of the conference and the concepts we learned. In the future, we hope to speak more in-depth about these ideas at seminars or classes for the swinger community. We believe that sharing these resources within the LS will enhance healthy relationship dynamics and communication, and inspire new conversations about ethical non-monogamy.

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