What to do with a Friend in Need? Hold the Space, then Allow what Comes.


When we see people in need of help, we will want to help them. That’s natural, we have compassion built into us as social beings. But when we see people in need, especially when they start talking to us, what we think as helpful may not be helpful to them. The way we should deal with their upset is very different from the way we deal with our upset internally. For instance, when we experience trouble, we will try to find a way out, find solutions to match the problems. When it comes to other people’s issues, they first want to be understood, heard and seen, before any other process happen; rather than be problem-solved. I will detail a 2-step process to begin the helping relationship with a troubled friend.

Step One: Hold the Space

Be present, curious, understanding and compassionate. This is a skill we get drilled on repetitively in our training as therapists, counsellors or life coaches. We learn to hold the space for the other person to unfold. Think of the last time you were really interested in getting to know someone because that person intrigues you. You already know how to do this. These are some of the many strategies that we professionals use:

  1. Reflect the meaning – reflect the essence of what is being communicated as we experience the other person fully.
  2. Communicate empathy – let the other person know that we can relate to what he feels, because somehow we have encountered such feelings before. Contexts can be different, but feelings are universal.
  3. Be curious, don’t judge – ask questions to gather more about this issue and let the person tell the story.
  4. Show up and be real – be yourself skillfully, and disclose what you truly feel about the situation, but not to give any advice or judgments.

Through these strategies, the other person would know that we are genuinely concerned, and we understood them. And sometimes, this is all they need from us, just for one other person in this world to know that they are struggling – an immense therapeutic outlet.

Step Two: Let them Decide where to go from here

After holding the space for the other person, for more complex issues, the other person may need and will be receptive to a more involved conversation. Generally, these are the 3 ways the conversation could turn out:

  1. “I can handle it eventually” problems: For these problems, the other person just needs someone to talk to. If we hold the space well, that will clarify the person’s thoughts and give comfort to the person. We have done our helping role here. No advice needed, therapy done.
  2. “I’m lost, confused and torn” problems: In this context, the other person is probably torn between options or even have no idea how to move forward. But the problem is potentially manageable. In this context, advice may expected from us, before which we should always ask for permission to advice. Then, give your opinions and thoughts, some of which may be taken, others may not. Then disengage, while holding the space all the time.
  3. “This is totally hopeless” problems: Sometimes, people encounter problems that are too large to handle, and they give up hope. This is when people start showing self-defeating thoughts. Sometimes, we cannot see a way out for them too. In these situations, we help by shining positive light of hope, and trust that they have the internal resources to cope through. Highlight the good things they have been doing well in moving this problem and ask them what could they possibly explore from here (extracted from solution-focused therapy). Do positive reframe and highlight what positive outcomes they can perceive at this point, flip the problem to an asset (extracted from neurolinguistic programming).

Of course, there are a range of other problem types, which needs different strategies and some can be very complex to explain. Most importantly, bear in mind that in many conversations, if we are highly skillful in holding the space for the other, we can already see a shift in other person. That could be all they ask for.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.

How to Cultivate Emotional Intimacy? Correct the “4 Horsemen” in Relationships.


The positive signs of a consummate relationship are: intimacy, passion and commitment, as mentioned in our previous post. Also mentioned in the article:

Like the Circle of Security with a child, an intimate relationship should have the Secure Base where each can explore and venture the world, and come back at the end of the day into a Safe Haven to recharge and gather strength.

Emotional intimacy is the shared psychological experience most encountered by the couple on a daily basis. It is the space where the couple share how their days went, the troubles they had and their deepest hopes and dream. It is also the space where the couple talk about how they feel about each other and about the relationship in general. Emotional intimacy is the ground to hold such conversations, so it is important to ensure this ground is fertile for growth.


Key Notes:

  • Destruction vs. Construction
  • Criticism: Correction of blame placement.
  • Defensiveness: Correction of rejection and nonacceptance.
  • Contempt: Correction of overt judgment and condescension.
  • Stonewalling: Correction of escape.
  • Lean towards authenticity, vulnerability and solution-focused conversations.

Cultivating emotional intimacy is largely a communication process – verbal and non-verbal. In the discussion of the following destructive behaviours of relationship breakdowns, bear in mind these behaviours involve what is said, observed and felt by each person.

Classic relationship research has shown that relationship/marital dissatisfaction and separation/divorce can be predicted by the presence of these “4 Horsemen of Relationships”: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling. These destructive processes have the tendency to degrade the quality of the relationship, restricting authenticity and personal vulnerability from showing up – leading to emotional withdrawal. Nonetheless, these behaviours are commonly observed in relationships because their negative effects are seldom thought upon. Effective couples promptly deescalate such processes, while ineffective ones feed on each other and involve furthermore of the other listed behaviours.

Each of these processes are explained and suggestions for more functional reactions are provided to cultivate emotional intimacy.


Criticism is about blame placement. Blame in a relationship can be placed on the problem or the person. Criticism is when the blame is placed on the character of the person, such that the person can feel devalued and rejected. When the core of a person is judged, the person will naturally feel the need to defend and protect the sanctity of one’s character, which leads to the next destructive process: defensiveness.

Solution: Refocus any blame on the problem, not the person. If there is a problem, comment on the problem and how the problem affected you, and describe what could be done better to help you in the relationship next time. And check-in.

Do this, “When you arrived late for dinner just now (problem), I felt worried and scared that something could happen to you, and I also waited for a long time (effect on me). I’m thinking if next time you can inform me that you’re coming late so at least I can have a peace of mind (suggested solution & effect). Do you think that is possible? (check-in)

This is a constructive process to create space for empathy and ideas for improvement. Both can work on the problem, and the receiver is less likely to take it personally. Eventually, the relationship will function better for both.

Rather than, “You are late again, same as last week. I wish you can be less inconsiderate.”

Steer away from character judgements, such as “you are inconsiderate/ illogical/ unreasonable”, and absolutes, such as “you always…” and “I’ve never…”. Such usage will only attack the other and close the conversation down.


Defensiveness is about nonacceptance and rejection. Defensiveness can occur for legitimate reasons, such as when unfair comments are made about us, or non-legitimate reasons, such as not willing to take ownership for our contribution towards a problem. But the issue here is not whether it is legitimate or not, it is whether defensiveness is destructive or constructive.

Defensive actions imply “don’t put all this on me”, telling the other person “you might want to take a look at yourself”, and “I’m not listening to you now”. You can imagine how easily criticism can spawn defensiveness. The process of mutual understanding and constructive conversations will cease. Resolution to this conflict is to depersonalise the comment and refocus the issue from person to problem.

Solution: Explore the rejection and nonacceptance, instead of rejecting at the outset upon making assumptions about the other. When you feel the need to defend, comment on how you are affected by the comment, check with the other is that what was meant. Then, refocus the comment on the problem, and discuss what could be done better.

Do this, “When you said that I was inconsiderate (criticism), I felt that all that I have done for you were discounted, and I felt devalued in this relationship (effect on me). Is that what you meant? (Check-in). I know that you’re unhappy with me being late (refocus comment on problem), what would work for you next time if I’m late again? (discuss solutions)?

The receiver redirects the conversation from person to problem, and begins the constructive process by offering understanding and empathy for both.

Rather than, “You know that the traffic is always heavy after work. After going through all that, now I’m being blamed. If you can just be a little less demanding…”

Steer away from reacting to the emotional trigger to defend, and express the feeling underlying that defense, before the trigger (e.g., hurt, devalued).


Contempt is about overt judgment and condescension. It carries heavy judgment on the disliked qualities of the other, and shows up as disrespectful behaviours, such as name-calling, ridicule, sneering and eye-rolling. It also connotes a “I am better than you” message, forming a distance of higher-up of self and lower-down of the other. Contempt immediately breaks the equality and trust in the relationship, whereby one attempts to degrade the other, by imbuing verbal and non-verbal judgments.

Solution: Resolve the core of such strong judgments. The opposite of judgment is curiosity. Usually, in a relationship, each person presents some qualities that can be challenging for the other. Be very aware of this list of qualities that gets to you. When they show up, be curious about how it is showing up in the other and let the other know how it affects you. It will begin the process for you to come to terms with it, or to effect some positive changes. Heavy judgments to degrade is unlikely to shift such behavioural patterns.

Do this, “You know I have a problem with you being late in the past and it shows up repeatedly these days (negative quality), I would like to understand what you’re struggling with recently, it must be straining for you (curiosity & empathy). This consistent pattern just makes me feel like you’re not interested in how it affects me (consequence of quality). Can we talk about how to make this better?

Rather than, “Well the traffic is apparently more important than me (eye-roll). Seriously, not even a text message? I would have done better if I’m late.”

Steer away from acting on the judgment triggers. Reduce any behaviour to widen the relationship gap. Stay with curiosity and explore the internal judgment.


Stonewalling is about escape. It is about withdrawing any further physical and/or emotional interaction from the other. Stonewalling is usually one of the last resort when the interaction is spiraling downwards for too long, and there is no hope in further discussion. While its intention could be to prevent further damage or resistant to change, stonewalling cuts the relationship metaphorically into two – neither one is able to communicate with the other. Stonewalling places the relationship on eggshells because neither party can hold the space for constructive problem-solving.

Solution: Stonewalling is about escape and experiential avoidance of the negative processes. For certain, the previous three processes would have been showing up repeatedly unaddressed. To resolve stonewalling, both parties have to stop, cool down emotionally, and re-address the damages they have done to each other. Use the above-mentioned solutions to go through each of them. Both parties were hurt, and each party has to be given the time and space to clarify and explore the hurt.

Do this, “We have been hurting each other with no end in sight. What I am feeling right now is to end this conversation and leave. But I know it will hurt us even more. Nobody wins here. Can we take some time to cool down and talk about how hurt each other all this time? I think we need to work this out.”

Rather than, “There’s no point talking further. Just go away.”

Final notes

These 4 processes are known as the “4 horsemen of relationship apocalypse” because they have huge destruction value. To correct each of these processes, the common thread is to lean towards authenticity, vulnerability and solution-focused conversations. Showing up as being real creates the space for both to empathise and care genuinely, while having solution-focused talks help to progress the relationship, rather than dwelling on the negatives. Working through these processes may not be straightforward, it is almost a new skill to acquire. I strongly believe these processes apply to any relationship and not just intimate ones. Come back to this post to be reminded, and keep practicing to cultivate emotional intimacy.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.

The Hidden Value of “Us”: 1+1 = 3


When two people come together in an intimate relationship, a psychological enmeshment process occurs, which not many people are aware of. A third entity is formed: “Us”. This idea of “Us” is often forgotten, as one thinks of how one is interacting with the other person. The relationship is personalised into the other person, how Person A is giving and loving to Person B, how Person A has disagreements with Person B, how Person A forgives Person B. While this is a very logical way to perceive the relationship, since it is the person who attracts us at the start of the relationship, it is slowly gaining importance to recognise the combined entity of “Us” as the relationship matures.

“Us” is the medium each person derives the meaning of the relationship.

What is “Us”?

Every relationship is dynamic. It is the combination of what each person brings into the relationship, from stable trait factors, such as personality, beliefs and morals, to more fluid experiences, such as the tiredness after work, a positive state of mind, a distracted mind, and energy in general. All these factors interact, with each reacting and responding to what the other brings to the table. This dynamic psychological space is “Us”. In long-term relationships, immersing in this dynamic flow of states and traits in the couple relationship becomes an everyday occurrence. We have to be aware of its workings.

“Us” is the medium each person derives the meaning of the relationship. It is a third entity that almost resembles a bank account, as relationship expert Dr. Gottman explains. This “bank account” contains the deposits (positive traits & states) and withdrawals (negatives traits & states) of the relationship. The state of this account would give each person the perceived relationship satisfaction, the health status of the relationship.

The meaning of “Us” for the couple.

It is through “Us”, we are influenced by the relationship. When relationship questionnaires are designed, the items are phrased in terms of “how are you perceiving the relationship?”, and less of  “how are you perceiving your partner?”. The idea behind this is because we derive our relationship meaning from the interaction with this psychological space, less of the person because we will also consider our personal input.

What we think we are doing to each other, is actually what we are doing to the relationship that impacts the other. For instance, a negative experience, when Person A accidentally criticises Person B “you could be a little more involved when I’m at work.” What is actually happening is that Person A has withdrawn value from “Us”, which in turn affects how Person B perceives the relationship as blaming. Person B will feel hurt, not because the self-worth, self-concept or self-esteem of Person B is impacted, which some people may think so, but the hurt comes from the evaluation that now the relationship is not as supportive as before. The same occurs for positive experiences as well.

Think of relationship as “Us”.

This post highlights that each person in the relationship has the control and power to influence “Us”. The more deposits made, the higher the quality of relationship. Keep it in mind that any withdrawal made to the relationship will not just impact the other person, but it will eventually come back to its originator. A relationship is always dynamic, a standard rule is that positivity breeds positivity, and negativity breeds negativity. In a future post, I will share how knowing “Us” well enough can solve many relationship problems in an amicable way.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.

Position your Relationship. And how to make it better.


“Relationships” is always a buzz word in coaching, more so the relationship with our other half. Many of us have a set of wants of how our ideal partner should be like. However, when examining our wants pertaining to the depth of a relationship, people begin to ask questions. Some of us may be facing these unfathomable questions “which of these criteria are more important than the rest?”, “what are the warning signs?” and “is it really about me or the other, or us when we come together?”. We talk about “being on the same page”, but what is on this page? This post will take on the traditional theory of love, added with an eclectic perspective, shedding light on the structure of love and how to improve our relationships.


  • Positive signs of a consummate relationship: Intimacy, Passion and Commitment
  • Intimacy – emotional closeness and connectedness, as a Secure Base and Safe Haven
  • Passion – beyond romance and sex into the energy and drive of the relationship
  • Commitment – a shared promise of a future and the vow to contribute consistently

Sternberg postulated that a “consummate” (ideal) love should consists of three components. I will expand each of these facets into factors with my thoughts that has a more encompassing meaning.

1. Intimacy is about emotional closeness and connectedness (emotional factor). As we displace our emotional attachment across age from parents, to friends, to an other half, the common thread is about displacing the target of this emotional space. From a broader view, an intimate relationship is also about other emotional derivatives such as emotional trust, respect and interdependency, which without will come with feelings of taken for granted, abuse and unfairness.

Like the Circle of Security with a child, an intimate relationship should have the Secure Base where each can explore and venture the world, and come back at the end of the day into a Safe Haven to recharge and gather strength.

2. Passion is not only about the romantic attraction and sexual drive (energetic factor). The idea that an ideal love relationship should be defined in terms of romance and sex is myopic and superficial. Albeit they are a driving component at the start of the relationship, it is not feasible to keep them at the same levels all the time. Do we then say the relationship has lost its passion?

In more general psychology terms, passion is about strong interests, energy and drives, associating with “thirst”, “hunger” and “empty if without”. Hence, to place passion in the context of love, it is about maintaining the strong interest being with the other, the energy in the mutual endeavours (e.g., dates, shared goals), driving the relationship with anticipated, exciting and desired experiences for both; rather than going into stagnation and holding at status quo.

3. Commitment (longevity factor). Commitment brings out the idea that both parties express mutual promise of a shared future. However, I will add that it is not just an expression of a long-term interest, it is also about the commitment of being able to work on the relationship at every step of the way. One can express long-term interest but not committed to contribute, that will make a huge difference to the longevity (long-term quality) of the relationship.

So where are you at? If you are in a relationship, use these criteria to evaluate where you are at. Knowing where you are at, use these factors to highlight the areas you would like to work with your partner. Have a meaningful conversation about how both of you would like to revitalise the relationship. If you are not in a relationship, use these criteria as feelers to evaluate whether these qualities will show up when both of you come together. Know that it is ideal for both of you to have some awareness and expression of these qualities at the initial period, in order to be “on the same page”.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.