Why is “Huhh” a million dollar word?
Believe it or not, “Huhh” is a million dollar word when it comes to building intimacy and connection between people.
It is essential to create a space for there to be permission to have negative feelings in a relationship. We all have feelings, both positive and negative. It is part of being human. When we tell our partners that we want to see their positive feelings and want to have nothing to do with their negative feelings, we are in essence telling them that we do not care about them as a person. We are conveying that our sense of wonder, curiosity, and openness towards exploring their experience is conditioned on them hiding, repressing, or eliminating a large part of their human experience. We are in essence saying, I do NOT love you. Or, I love you, but only when it is pleasant for me. When we do that, we show our partner that they need to perform for our love and our love does not yet have the capacity to tolerate their actual experiences.
In working with couples, I have found that it is helpful for couples to “mirror” each other in conversations. That is, to repeat or reword what the person just said to show them that you actually hear what they are saying (whether you agree or disagree with it). The “hearer” is actively engaged in being genuinely curious about what the other person is experiencing.
After the speaker is content that the “hearer” cognitively understands what the “speaker” is saying, then the hearer’s job shifts to listening and reflecting “emotional content”. The hearer’s focuses again on being genuinely curious about the emotional content of their partner. The purpose of the curiosity is NOT to gather information that will be used to disprove the partner at a later stage. The purpose is to give your partner an emotional space where their experience in the world is seen, taken seriously, and there is a sense of permission for their emotions to be seen. When successful, this allows the speaker to feel seen and feel safe. When this happens on a regular basis, emotional wounds that we’ve inherited from our loving but imperfect parents can be healed in small increments.
I have found that with many of my couples, this kind of listening is very new to them. So, while they are trying really hard to identify and try to create an accepting space for their partner to just be who they are, it often does not work. The hearer might say, “I can tell that you are disappointed about that.” And the person who is disappointed intellectually understands that their partner cognitively understands that they are disappointed, but on the gut feeling level, they still feel like their partner still doesn’t get it.
Often times when this breakdown happens it is because the hearer gets caught up in using the left side of their brain (where their rational part is). They accurately assess the emotion and announce it to their partner. Their partner comprehends that they get the data accurately. What is missing is communication between the right brain of the hearer and the right brain of the speaker. For this to happen, the hearer needs to convey a quality of curiosity, genuine concern, and openness. Getting the emotional data is not sufficient. I have found that by tweaking the hearer’s language from language that announces cognitive function to language that creates a sense of space and wonder does the trick. And the word that does this the best, I’ve found, is “huhh.” With genuine body language, eye contact, and speaking slow enough for the emotional brain to have plenty of space to digest, the hearer says, “You feel disappointed, huhh.” Or, “You feel disappointed, is that it? “ What the speaker hears is a sense of openness towards their experience. They are allowed to agree or disagree. They are allowed to have the space to continue to reflect, feel, and think about how they really feel. Perhaps they will say, “Actually, I don’t feel disappointed when that happens, it is more of a lonely feeling. I feel alone.”
When this happens, the hearer stays with the speaker, continues to take in the new data, absorb it into their own nervous system by thinking of times that they’ve felt alone, and identifying how that felt for them. Without changing the topic to being about themselves, using their own experience of aloneness as an opportunity to check in with their partner and allow their partner the space to deepen their experience of describing their aloneness, they can say, “When I feel alone, I feel needy and desperate, and sad. Is that what it’s like for you?” Again, curious and open tone and body language are essential. The purpose of the hearer announcing what their experience of aloneness is like is to create even more room for the speaker to have their experience heard.
The speaker might answer, “It’s not so much needy and desperate for me, but more sad, and empty.”
The hearer’s job is to continue to stay with the speaker and identify and be with and create a sense of permission around the feelings. When my couples start out, they often say something like, “I can tell that you feel sad when I do that.” And often-enough, that works, but many times, trigger words, like “I can tell”, or “when I do that” totally distract the speaker from being heard. When they hear the “I can tell”, they often get pulled back into their left brain and start assessing their partner’s cognitive functions (of being able to tell) rather than let the experience of their partner being with them digest into their heart. And when they hear their partner add the “when I do that”, often the get robbed of being able to bask in being seen by their partner. Often times, the speaker feels a tug within herself to have to take care of her partner. Too many times, the “when I do that” was used in arguments or is used to send a signal of ‘I don’t want you to have your feelings because it triggers me feeling responsible for you.’ So, often times, even if that is not what the hearer means; even if they are genuinely trying to create a place of curiosity and wonder for their partner to bask in, their partner can get side-tracked.
I have found that the amazing solution to this problem is to use the magical word, “huhh”. Yep, you heard me right.
A magical response could simply be, (with inviting body language, speaking very slowly, and making eye contact), “More sad and empty, huhh?” This response, while seeming overly simplistic and uninteresting to the left brain can convey a sense of curiosity, permission, longing, and connection to the right brain. The speaker hears that their partner is genuinely curious, cares about them, and is creating even more space for them to have their experience seen. The hearer has just through experience (rather than merely announcing it) proven to the speaker that the speaker’s internal experience can be tolerated and held. Even if the content of the dialogue has to do with being lonely, sad, and disappointed, the fact that their lover curiously and genuinely created a place for their partner to be seen is meaningful. When this is done successfully, I’ve yet to see a couple that did not sense positive shift in their desire to be closer, more intimate, and connected with their partner.
We all want to be seen, and “huhh”, if used appropriately is the best word in the English language that creates intimacy and love.