Blog: insights from Dr. Keren Sofer

Order of Operations: Getting It Right With Your Loved One

I have been using the phrase ‘order of operations’ lately with the couples and relationships I treat.  If you recall, order of operations refers to a set of rules regarding which math procedure to apply to a math problem and in what order to complete each procedure.  You may not have used the concept ‘order of operations’ since your grade school math classes. But it’s a concept worth resurrecting when it comes to becoming more attuned and compassionate in your relationships.  

It’s not obvious on the surface, but expressing love and support requires attention to how you order your responses.  

Here’s a classic example:  

Your partner is feeling down and upset about a recent conflict with a co-worker who was critical of her work product. She starts telling you about the situation, and shares that she feels continually picked on by this colleague and believes sexism is at play.  

Your response:  I know, you’ve said that before…maybe it’s time to file an HR complaint and get some documentation going.  What’s the HR process? Have you looked into it yet?

Partner’s reaction:  No…I haven’t looked into it.  But did you hear what I was saying?  Can you believe this is happening again?  I can’t take it anymore (getting more animated and angrier).

In this scenario, it’s clear that your problem-solving approach – file an HR complaint – led to your partner questioning if you were listening to her and then intensified her sense of injustice.  Your intention, of course, was to show caring and concern…but your impact was that you stirred her up more and even had her feel not listened to. 

I call this a ‘classic example’ because so many of us fall into this trap: we hear our loved one’s distress and we want to fix it and make them feel better.  So we use our logic and come up with a technical solution.  

Here’s where the miss is:  the most important problem in these scenarios is not the content of what your loved one is communicating, in this case, the work situation itself.  The most important problem is that she feels picked on.  Her interpretation of why she is being picked on is significant, of course, and needs to be addressed at some point, but what matters most is that she is feeling unfairly targeted and as a result is upset and hurt.

If you do not address her emotional experience, even the most brilliant intervention or solution is bound to fall flat.  How do I know?  The proof is right there – your solution-oriented response resulted in her feeling more upset, not less. It also did not launch her into action regarding your idea.  

Why does the solution-oriented response fall flat at that particular juncture?  Because when we are in distress, and feel any combination of rejected, alone, unheard, unappreciated, misunderstood, afraid, or ashamed, the only truly effective antidote is to experience reassurance from someone we trust.  To be clear, that does not mean that trusted other provides us with false hope.  Rather, that person reassures us that they see and hear our cry for love and support and they are there with us.  

That validation and empathy soothes us. We are then much better able to consider addressing the technical aspects of the problem at hand. 

To be clear: it is not that what you are saying and doing is wrong, but rather how you are ordering your responses means it doesn’t get through.

The next time someone you love is struggling, try this concept out.  Instead of becoming instructive and giving advice and suggestions, address their feelings more directly.  Tell them you hear them and are sorry they are feeling so badly. Make eye contact, give them a hug if that is something that would feel comforting for them.  And once you feel them relax and regain composure, ask them if it would be helpful for them to hear some ideas you have about how to address the issue.

To learn more about this concept, check out this NY Times article: When Someone You Love Is Upset, Ask This One Question