Monday, April 2, 2012

Reflective Listening (Literal Edition)

Yesterday, I invented a new technique for communication in our marriage: the hand-held mirror.

The need for a mirror arises from the fact that people are not always aware of what their facial expressions look like. We may not even be aware that our facial expressions have deviated from neutral and relaxed. In these moments, it may be helpful to literally reflect the face to the face-maker. Enter the hand-held mirror.

O. and I are both guilty of making daunting faces without realizing it. For instance, I sometimes make faces that seem condemning or judgmental to O., and scare him. But it's more common for O. to inadvertently scare me with his face. I believe this is due to O.'s expressive Mediterranean features: eyebrows that like to spend a lot of quality time snuggled together, nostrils that take in all the scents of the world. Strong jaw. Any tension draws O.'s eyebrows together, flares his nostrils, and tenses his jaw. From his innocent inner perspective, he is making Stone Face, which is stiff but not threatening. But the outward reality is that this facial expression would be, for anyone else, an Angry Face. And actually, since O. tries not to scare me by making Turkish Angry Face ("I kill you now!") when he is angry, the face he makes when he is angry is typically the so-called Stone Face. In other words, Stone Face is Angry Face, even if that's not how O. intends it.

O. found it hard to believe that Stone Face was scary looking. So I whipped out the hand-mirror. Hilarity ensued as O. tried to construct his typical tense face. I was focused on the eyebrows, which can be quite terrifying by themselves, but O., perceptive man that he is, remembered the contribution of his nose. "Do I usually flare my nostrils at you?" Adding the flared nostrils, O.'s countenance became truly fearsome to behold. Up came the mirror, and O. beheld Angry Face.

"Wow, that is scary!" he said.

Then Angry Face collapsed and was reborn into Laughing Face, and we burst into giggles together.

Thank God for mirrors. We're going to keep this one by the couch now, and in scary parts of the conversation, when I am choking for words because my body has gotten too tense to think anything except shhh-- be very quiet-- don't move-- maybe he won't see you-- (a reaction which only makes O. more upset), I won't have to think of words. I will grab the mirror and let it reflect O.'s face to him, and then I'll just listen for the moment when he realizes how scary his face has gotten, and laughter replaces tears.

We'll see how this goes.

[p.s. The Angry Face is compounded by way O.'s voice drops an octave when he gets angry or defensive. Unfortunately it also drops when he is nervous or concentrating hard, giving my Anger Detector a lot of false positives.]

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