This question is particularly relevant now. Your friend, partner or spouse should not be texting, emailing or tweeting midconversation. A few years ago, when I was living in Los Angeles, I spent a lot of time with a movie producer friend whose fingers were flying across his BlackBerry keys each time we met for a meal. "I'm listening," he'd say, eyes lowered. But I decided that his refusal to put down his phone and converse was a clear signal that he valued his cellular goings-on above our friendship, and I quit making plans with him. "In every conversation, a person needs to stop and make eye contact and focus," says Hendrix. This approach may, in the long run, save you time: "It takes two or three minutes," says Hendrix, "but if you don't listen, you're going to have a fight, and it's two or three hours."
Is this person willing to be vulnerable?
"Vulnerability means a person's feelings are available in the conversation," says Hendrix. It also means having the ability (and the willingness) to fess up to guilt, anxiety or confusion. We've all known the friend who can't admit she made a mistake or that she doesn't have all the answers. "Most people," says Hendrix, "live in what is called a 'defended relationship.' They're afraid to be vulnerable. They're afraid to say, 'I'm scared,' or, 'I feel needy,' or, 'I have horrible memories.'" But the silence of someone who's disinclined to lower his defenses can speak quite loudly, telegraphing a fear of intimacy or a desire to remain emotionally in control.
How does this person fight?
Someone who is unable to communicate or be vulnerable often lacks the ability to resolve conflicts—what Jette Simon, a clinical therapist who runs the Washington D.C. Training Institute for Couples Therapy, calls "the capacity to repair." This trait is crucial, of course, because there's not a strife-free relationship on the planet. "It's not so much having conflicts that's going to determine the quality of your relationship," says Simon, "but can you each take responsibility for what you did and then go back and share?" In other words, does this person have the ability to admit that what he or she said at the dinner party or in the board meeting was hurtful? Or, if you're the contrite party, does your apology reach open, forgiving ears? As Gottman says, "You need to be able to talk about a regrettable incident or a fight you've had, to figure out what went wrong and how to make it better, without getting back into it." People who fight to win are showing you that making a point, proving they're right or asserting their own ego is ultimately more important to them than the relationship.
As helpful as these questions are, the experts agree that when you have a gnawing feeling that someone's behavior isn't right, trust that information, subtle though it may be. Believe the person, yes, but above all, believe yourself.
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