Take Out the Trash

Lisa May Executive Director, Live the Life South Florida

One of our most provocative communication tools is Taking Out the Trash. I’ve hesitated to share it in this format because it is also one of the most emotional tools. The Dialogue Guide was designed to facilitate disagreement. It comes with relational intensity, but it doesn’t necessarily generate the same level of emotional depth that the Trash Can tool elicits.


Swimming Laps versus Scuba Diving

My reason for swimming toward deep waters is due to several evaluations we received from our recent RECL(AIM) marriage workshop. Several couples, with tears, shared that they wished we had started with the Trash Can tool first. They said when they arrived at the seminar, they were too angry to hear or participate in the other communication tools, but if they had experienced the Trash Can exercise first, they would have been more receptive to the others. The Dialogue Guide is like swimming laps. You swim, take a breath and continue until you get to a destination, and it’s finished. The Trash Can tool is learning to deep dive, still in a controlled environment for more extended periods, and slowly coming to the surface. The destination is to explore, understand, appreciate, ponder the statements and slowly swim to the surface so you can safely decompress.


Five Simple Enlightening Questions

First, this isn’t a dialogue; one speaks and the other listens. The listener is fully present with empathy, no judgment, defensiveness, no need to “fix it” or interject opinions or experiences. The speaker expresses their thoughts. There’s no right nor wrong.

The posture is seated, knee to knee, eye to eye. The listener asks the questions.

1.What are you mad about?

The speaker shares everything they are mad about. Most often, the speaker is mad about things other than the spousal relationship. They may be mad about work, a childhood happening, etc. Allow the speaker some time to ruminate on the question. As the speaker responds, the listener uses nonverbal cues to show engagement and empathy. Allow the speaker time to reflect. When the speaker stops, the listener asks the question: What else are you mad about? You continue this sequence until the speaker assures you there’s nothing else they are mad about. Then you move to the second question.

  1. What are you sad about?

Sadness is not the same as being mad. Sadness is marked by feelings of loss and helplessness. Depression and sadness are not the same. The ability to feel sadness is a mark of emotional health and may convey that you need support. You continue the same sequence of the listener asking, “What else are you sad about?” until the speaker has nothing else they can recall and move to the next question. 

  1. What are you scared about?

Being scared isn’t necessarily the same as fear. Fear may motivate us to act in self- preservation. I’m afraid of snakes and spiders, but I’m scared I may not have enough in retirement funds for old age. Allow the speaker to define “scared.” Again, continue the cycle of listener and speaker response until the speaker can’t think of anything else they are scared about. Move to the fourth question.

  1. What do you want to be different? 
  2. What are you glad about?


TrashAfter completing the exercise, show appreciation to each other for listening, sharing and making room for positive feelings. Generally, these simple questions are enlightening to the listener and the speakers’ emotional load has been lightened. Over the years, we’ve found that men in particular value this tool because they can give voice to things in a safe environment. The listener doesn’t have to agree with anything the speaker says, and just because it’s been said doesn’t mean it’s correct. We can’t help how we feel, and very often, we can rationalize that how we feel isn’t right, but it’s still how we feel. However, we do have control over how we behave.


The Dance between Body and Mind

Experiencing negative emotions too frequently or for prolonged periods is tied to poor health outcomes. Our emotions impact our body in a variety of ways, and physical pain can sometimes result from emotional distress. When we use the Trash Can tool, we give our body a decompression outlet for negative emotions.

Anger tends to impact our heart and head and is felt in the arms, hands, chest and head. Some of the short- and long-term health problems linked to unmanaged anger include headaches, heart attack, high blood pressure, elevated heart rate and a stroke. 

Anxiety can be linked to stomach problems such as heartburn and abdominal cramps. The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotions, the feelings of butterflies, or nausea. The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines, and the distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression.

Choking back the tears of sadness takes a lot of energy, leaving our body feeling drained, burdened and sometimes achy or sore. Some short and long-term health problems linked to sadness include a weakened immune system, decreased interest in sex and sleep deprivation. Sadness also affects the hormone known as cortisol, which controls blood sugar and blood pressure levels. Experts who have researched distressing emotions theorize that when people accept negative emotions rather than suppressing them, they may experience greater physical and psychological well-being. Again, research eventually supports the scriptures, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22).

Strong relationships may be a predictor of happiness and health; however, it isn’t the number of connections but the quality of the relationships that matter. Take the plunge and give your loved ones the freedom to empty the emotional trash can and still be beautifully broken, fully known and unconditionally loved. 


Lisa May is the Executive Director of Live the Life South Florida etc. She can be reached at [email protected] or by mail at 5110 N. Federal Hwy. Suite 102, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33308

For more articles by Lisa May, visit goodnewsfl.org/author/lisa-may/

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