CIA to 5 A’s

7.5 min read

As partners, we engage in many different types of conversations in a day. 

  • Informal or Transactional: Hey, did you get the mail? Dinner will be ready in 5 mins. We need to get groceries this weekend.
  • Informal yet Important: Today was a tough day at work (a bid for connection). I don’t feel motivated to go to the gym (an opportunity to get creative and work out together)
  • Formal and Important: Hey, lemme know when you have a few mins, I wanna talk to you about something. We’ve been putting off this conversation for a while, I really want to talk this out with you.

It’s the Formal and Important category of conversations that we want to discuss, and more specifically the role that creating a Safer Space plays. A conversation that takes place in a Safer Space aims to communicate our emotions without the fear of judgment and triggering defensiveness. However, if we are not intentional in cultivating a Safer Space to speak, we naturally default to the CIA method: Criticize, Interpret, and Advise the other.

  • We default to criticizing when we refute the other person’s reality: No! That’s not how it happened. You’re remembering wrong. Let me tell you what really happened.
  • We default to interpreting when we assume: So what you’re saying is that I’m wrong? So you’re saying you can’t do this anymore? 
  • We default to advising when we believe we have the answer: If that’s so hard, why not try this instead? Babe! Don’t worry it’s gonna be alright, you’ve just gotta keep swimming.

When we CIA – we think we are being helpful, but in reality, we are creating an unSafe Space. Instead of having our partner open up, we may find them avoiding the subject, getting frustrated, or perhaps pretending things are alright when they aren’t. Overall, what could have been an opportunity for connection has now become a source of trouble.

To create a Safer Space where the person sharing their story feels psychologically safe, we need to disengage from the CIA method and re-engage using the 5 A’s: Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection, and Allowance.

Attention: Notice them

Love is attention. We give attention by noticing their body language, the words that they are saying, the feelings they are talking about, etc. These are all little pieces of information about what is happening in the internal world of this person. Picking up on these queues enables you to ask better questions, and to pick up on these queues you have to be present in the conversation with all of your attention.

When we give someone attention, they feel respected and understood. They feel like what they have to say really matters. They feel loved.

Acceptance: Understanding differences without judgment

When listening to someone sharing their truth, we must accept what we hear as TRUE for them. What they are sharing is their truth. Whether you agree, understand, believe, or support the story isn’t the main point. Before anything else, first, acknowledge that this is the way they see life and accept that this story is true for them. Accepting their story as true doesn’t mean that you have to agree or it has to be true for you too.

When we accept someone for who they are, we create deeper intimacy because it demonstrates that each person can be themselves and share their thoughts & feelings without fear of rejection. Acceptance leads to self-confidence and a sense of security within the relationship.

Appreciation: Express gratitude

When listening to someone share their story, it is important to thank them for sharing. Opening up is hard, being vulnerable is even harder. A little bit of appreciation and positive reinforcement can go a long way in showing your partner that you know it wasn’t easy for them to open up and you’re grateful that they trusted you with their story.

When we appreciate specific actions that someone is taking, we build collective goodwill. This good credit acts as a buoy when the relationship goes through rough patches, reminding both people that it’s going to be alright.

Affection: Reinforce your words with your action

Following appreciation with acts of kindness is a crucial step to reinforcing your love when someone is being vulnerable. Getting a napkin, a tender touch on the arm, a hug, a joke to lighten the mood, and removing distractions (like phones) – small acts of physical and emotional kindness – go a long way to show that you are present to this moment and here for your partner. 

When we show affection we signal that we are committed and available for each other – wholeheartedly.

Allowance: Accept people for who they are

When listening to another person’s truth, it’s easy to assume control of the narrative and start defending the story from your perspective. But the intention of Safer Space is to accept people for who they are, and by extension allow them to share their truth free from shame and blame. 

When we allow people to be who they are, we give them permission to be themselves and acknowledge that they are loved for exactly who they are.

When you transition from CIA to 5 A’s in your Safer Space, you create the perfect recipe for your partner to feel heard, seen, and understood – the core ingredients of validation. Once someone has been validated externally, they often receive the inner permission needed to let go and move on from whatever it is that might be holding them back. This practice brings partners closer and it creates an environment for the individual sharing to experience personal growth.

Inspiration for this post came from David Richo’s book The Five Things We Cannot Change. In the book, he talks about the CIA and 5 A’s method in more depth. Additional resources used include this article and this framework.

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