The Traffic Light Method

Try this mindful communication technique, says Susan Gillis Chapman, when you’re experiencing stress in your relationships.

Susan Gillis Chapman
27 June 2012

Intimacy is a precious but fragile gift that’s easily damaged during difficult times. In times of stress or crisis, our survival instincts send us mixed messages. At some level we know that our partnership is a lifeline we need to protect. Nevertheless, it’s easy to start blaming each other, to pull up the drawbridge and hunker down in the fortress of “me.” Depending on which survival tactic we follow, stress can either make or break our most important relationships. Switching tactics can happen in a heartbeat, but the positive or destructive consequences of that choice can last a lifetime.

Meghan, a mindfulness student, tells a story about a turning point early in her marriage. “Josh and I were arguing. We stopped the car and walked out onto a beach, too angry to talk. I picked up a rock and held it clenched in my fist. When I opened my hand, I saw it was shaped like a heart. I glanced over at Josh, and without saying a word, I reconnected to him. The little kid part of me wanted to hold on to my anger, but I knew I had to let it go.”

In the middle of a painful argument with our partner, creating some space—creating a heart–rock moment— interrupts the momentum and allows us to listen to the wiser part of ourselves. To create space, here are three mindfulness techniques, using traffic signals as reminders.

Red: Stop

Stressful situations have built-in stoplights we can learn to recognize. Start by reconnecting with the physical environment, which Meghan and Josh did by stopping their car and walking onto the beach. Feel the bottoms of your feet, the weight of gravity holding you. Perhaps focus on a single sense perception, as Meghan did with the rock in her hand. Listening to our body can interrupt the domino effect of our reactions and bring us back to the here and now.

Yellow: Take Care

Ask yourself, “How am I feeling?” Take a deep breath and make room for any vulnerable emotions that surface. Unclenching the fist of blame enables us to hear the heart’s inner messages: I feel hurt, frustrated, sad, powerless. Listening deeply to feelings of disappointment can illuminate our blind spots, the unrealistic expectations we project on each other. Compassionately relating to our own pain softens us and builds an empathic bridge to our partner.

Green: Go

In the middle of a stressful situation, a single thought or act of gratitude or kindness can restore equanimity to our communication. The uncertainty of a crisis can inspire courage and curiosity or it can reinforce our barriers. When stress hits, claustrophobia sets in and we’re preoccupied by a mind-set of “not enough”: Not enough money, time, or exercise. Not enough energy, attention, or sleep. Buddhist psychology describes this state of mind as a “hungry ghost” realm. This refers to the beings of Buddhist cosmology that have tiny mouths and huge, starving stomachs; they try to consume but they can’t get enough down their throats to satisfy. The hungry ghosts are miserable but within their realm there is also a buddha, a moment of wakefulness, showing the way out. The buddha’s hand is open in a gesture of generosity, breaking the spell of “not enough.” We don’t have to shut down emotionally when tension is high with our partner. Instead, we can open fresh pathways for reconnecting by creating a gap of wakefulness. That gap is a miracle moment, like finding a buddha in the palm of your hand.

Susan Gillis Chapman

Susan Gillis Chapman is a marriage and family therapist and the author of The Five Keys to Mindful Communication.