Applying the Blanket
(a talk strategy for couple & group change)
I've got this theory about how effective conversation for couple or group change best unfolds as a two-tiered process. When two people or a group of people need to look at something that’s not working and set terms for how to do things differently going forward, these conversations can happen in two ways or perhaps on two levels. Some people have them one way and others have them the other way and, the thing is, they really need to happen both ways.
The first tier is the blanket conversation—that is, the initial talk in which you look at the issue and make some decisions. You lay out a plan or simply set a clear intention for the new way to do it. You make an agreement. It could be as simple as this:
Agnes: Sweet one, I need silence first thing in the morning so I can be the nice person you fell in love with. Are you willing not to talk to me till 8:30?
Buster: You've got it, Tulip. Let's start tomorrow.
It could, of course, be much more complex and involve some brainstorming and calculating to reach your terms. However it goes, the end result is that some whole thing has been considered, something’s been decided, the new era has been launched: the blanket conversation about how you're going to proceed into the future is complete.
The second tier involves application in the moment--kind of like grabbing the blanket when it's needed and wrapping it around you. What good is the blanket in the other room? Even if it's a pain to get up and go get it, a hypothetical blanket is useless. You've got to apply it, and the time to do that is in the moment when it's actually needed. This second aspect of conversation is about right now.
Here's an example:
Buster: I had this really cool dream—what was it? There was an otter, and there was this long ribbon of road, and I can’t remember whether I was on a pogo stick or--
Agnes: Sweet one? Not to quibble but it’s 8:22 and I’m just one centimeter into my second cup of coffee, and I really, really want that quiet time till 8:30, so … please? I’d love to hear about the otter-on-a-pogo-stick thing in just a little bit, okay?
Buster (hearing the faint ring of distant bells): Oh, right. Okay, sure.
Now you’ve brought the blanket conversation to the discomfort of the moment, here and now. This specific situation, happening now, is exactly why you had the blanket around in the first place. But it couldn't serve its function until it got applied.
You can see that this in-the-moment application does a number of things. It interrupts the old default (Buster's just gotta talk and Agnes can only feel this as intrusive). It consciously brings in the new intention. It makes concrete and relevant—nothing more relevant than here and now—what was abstract and general in the blanket conversation. And because you'll keep doing it as each new scenario presents itself, it systematically brings the larger intention to each of the many smaller moments in which it will come to life and find its application. It allows you to walk your talk; to do—as a group, as a couple—what you say you’re going to do. Finally, because it’s a conversation, it allows more than one person to give voice to a process and together bring a new intention into being.
When people have only the blanket conversation, there’s a very good chance all involved will lose track of the new intention, or the new era. Like when you and your partner decided to spend less money on eating out but then, come Friday night, you were tired and just wanted something really good cooked by someone else, and that was that. Then you thought about not getting any prepared food at the Farmers’ Market on Saturday but one of you really needed something quick and easy, and munching on a carrot still ringed with earth didn’t seem that appealing. By the next weekend, you forgot all about it or just stopped trying.
It’s trickier when, as in our example of Agnes's need for morning silence, the new intention involves something one person wants that the other is accommodating. In that case, the accommodator (however willing) is most likely to be the one with sudden-onset topic-specific amnesia. When all you have is the blanket conversation, and the application doesn't just magically happen (it never does), then all kinds of ugly little mental mongrels can creep in. The one who put forth the request (as Agnes asked for silence) is prone to have a list of thoughts that could include any or all of the following, and then some, depending on his or her tendencies:
In other words, it sets up a sort of petri dish for cultivating resentments. The blanket conversation, however it went originally, becomes some cynical memory of a moment you tried for the impossible. (I've noticed people often decide change is impossible, especially in a couple.)
It’s important to note that shared intentions, in couples or groups, are a bit more problematic than individual intentions. Because even when you make a new intention for yourself personally, just between you and you, it’s easy enough to lose track of it. People make resolutions all the time and dabble at them for a while or now and again and eventually just drop them, usually not too consciously. So why would anyone expect something new to stick for two people, even after a really great talk? The blanket conversation is a necessary one-time event, but it seldom stands on its own to create true change.
That second tier of conversation, the application in the moment, can also wreak all kinds of havoc if it’s done alone—that is, not preceded by a solid blanket conversation that lays out clear parameters. Without that first tier, no agreement has been made. No clarity has been brought to the issue, no new, shared intention pinned down to address it. If Agnes just asks Buster day in and day out to leave her alone in the morning, this will almost certainly create some ongoing feelings neither enjoys: Buster may feel needy or obnoxious or rejected; Agnes may feel cold or bristly or invaded.
If you're applying a concept you never had a blanket conversation about, you'll feel and come across as nagging or nit-picking. Or you'll use sighs and looks and body language to convey indirectly what was never directly stated, even if you think you've let your preferences be known all along the way—and the other should remember that, right, they should tune in?
Wrong. Only a clear conversation about the new intention (or the new era) is truly fair and truly effective to pave the way for change—but only if applied with ongoing conversations as the topic spirals around in day-to-day life. Then, in the moment, the one who remembers can invite the other to something known and shared, the thing that was established in the blanket conversation. Look, here it is: this is just the kind of moment we got that new blanket for; let's get it right now and try it out.
The good news that lies beyond my metaphor is that, if you miss the moment in any given now, you can always go back and do the application part retroactively. (Real blankets just don't take care of that chill you remember you felt watching the movie last night.) As quickly as you tune in and find the words, you can say to the other, that thing that happened this morning was an opportunity to apply what we said we were going to do differently, and we missed it in the moment. Here's what I see about how we might have applied it. What do you see? Do we both want to stay with the program? Will you help me catch the next moment and do it better? Then you're allies, still holding a shared intention together, and clear that it hasn't disappeared just because of a lapse (or any number of lapses) in bringing it into being.
Let me offer here my formula for how change happens, which applies equally to new intentions between you and you. It bears stating, because people tend to imagine that they'll change by thinking up something new, then doing that. In real life, change happens by setting a new intention, then catching yourself doing it the old way, then shifting toward the new way. It's really just not that likely you'll catch yourself doing it the new way just because you've set a new intention.
There can be great relief in knowing this, because it means you don't have to be dismayed or thrown off when you catch yourself in the old way. It's to be expected; it's the next right step. So you can celebrate catching yourself instead of beating yourself up. Having caught yourself, you then simply step toward the new intention. Right here, right now, ask yourself, How can I do it the new way, or even do any one thing that looks like it points me in the right direction, toward that new intention? And gradually, often in less time than you expect, you get to the new way more and more quickly, then more and more often just do it the new way first—until it becomes the new default.
The two tiers of a conversation toward change—that blanket setting of intention plus the application in the moment as each new relevant moment presents itself—allow two or more people to create change together. Together they set the new intention; together they catch themselves in the old way and redirect their combined efforts toward the new.
I gave this concept to a couple I've had the privilege to work with, and one of them asked me whose model this is. Well, it's mine. I'm still not sure how well I'm articulating it. Let me know if you find it useful, and send any questions or comments you've got to steer me toward greater clarity. I'd love for you to be able to use this in your world.
Love and blessings, Jaya
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