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  • D.J. McKay

The "OPS" Communication Process

Today I’d like to share another communication process, this one called the “OPS”, which stands for “Observation/Projection/Suggestion”. Before I do, however, I wish to insert a word of caution.

It is helpful to have structures that guide us towards clear and compassionate communication, but a structure can only do so much. There is no substitute for disidentification. Just like everything else in life, any communication tool can be used by conditioned mind to promulgate confusion and separation, and to inflict emotional violence on people. Please do not rely on these structures to keep you and your friend/partner safe. Real safety within relationship in only available when there is a willingness to show conditioned mind the door. Just a heads up as you experiment with these processes I’m offering.

Forgive me, but I am going to indulge an aside here before we get on to the main topic of the day, just because I think it’s fascinating. There is a lot of talk these days about various forms of “open” relationship. I have many opinions on the subject which I will, with great restraint, omit from this blog with the exception of one. Nearly all couples, I would say, are in an open relationship, whether they are aware of that or no. The third partner is conditioned mind. Just something to ponder if you want to.

And now on to the “OPS” process. This is a good tool to have when you wish for a change in behavior on the part of your partner and are looking for a skillful way to present it. It goes like this:

Step 1: Observation

Your observation is just that: what you see happening, without any interpretation. Present it in this way: “My observation is….” For example: “My observation is that you left your tools out when you finished with your project yesterday.” Just the facts, and nothing more.

It is necessary to avoid interpretation at this point in order to keep things clean. If you are presenting someone with a fact then they are pretty much required to accept it. Someone who is not willing to accept a fact is also unwilling to have a genuine relationship, at least in that moment. If you present someone with an interpretation, however, then there is a lot that can be argued with, for conditioned mind can object to. Consider the difference, for example, between “You left your tools out” and “You made a mess”. If we have an agreement that we put away tools and supplies after finishing a project, then it’s hard to dispute the first statement. The second, however, is an interpretation that leaves a lot of wiggle-room. What constitutes a “mess”? How do we know what our agreement is with that? To say I left my tools out is utterly neutral, but to tell me I made a mess—well, I may be excused if I’m inclined to wonder what you have going about that!

Step 2: Projection

This is a bit tricky, and it heads towards dangerous territory. At the monastery where I trained we (the monks) were strictly prohibited from expressing our projections of each other. The understanding was that we all unavoidably project our internal world onto the world of our senses, and so cannot truly experience an objective reality. All we can ever experience is ourselves. To project onto another person is to assume that we can know something true about what is happening “out there”, and that cannot be done. At the monastery this was considered to be a form of violence. I have found, however, that when used skillfully within the “OPS” structure another person’s projections can be helpful to me. It’s a form of feedback. It’s important that I look for myself to see what is true, but it is also good to be required to look.

To continue with the example from the previous step, see what you think of this:

My observation is that you left your tools out when you finished with your project yesterday.

My projection is that you cared more about watching the ball game than keeping our agreements.

The thing I like about this is that it remains neutral despite that fact that it is adding an interpretation to the facts. The person offering the feedback, by saying “My projection is….”, owns the fact that they are making an interpretation, which maintains the safety of the exchange. In the OPS process as I originally ran across it the “P” stood for “Perception”, and that doesn’t work at all. There is no such thing as a “perception” of another person. We can only project. If I say to you that I perceived that you cared more about the ball game than our agreements, I’m assuming I know something about what was going on with you, and that is impossible. Allowing such assumptions undermines the safety of the relationship environment, which environment needs to be maintained above all other things. If I acknowledge that I am projecting, however, then there is implied permission for to look for yourself to see what your experience is, and there is safety in that.

Be careful here. Conditioning would love to get its grubby little hands on this step and turn it into an avenue for hurt and misunderstanding. Notice where the stuff is coming from that you want to say. Is it coming from a clean place? Are you offering this out of love, or out of revenge? If the former, great! If the latter, it might be good to cool down a bit before you attempt to offer feedback.

Step 3: Suggestion

This one is pretty simple: what do you want to suggest in terms of a change in behavior?

I like the word “suggest” because it leaves it to the other person to decide what is best to do, and in this way maintains the equality of the relationship. What would be a good suggestion around the issue of having left my tools out? How about to put them away before going on to other things? As with Step 1, it’s important to avoid throwing in little zingers, as alluring as that may be. There’s a big difference between “My suggestion is that you put your tools away before going on to other things” and the equivalent of “My suggestion is you put your tools away, you bozo.” It’s equally important to stick to the facts brought to light in the first step. If you throw in something new that bothers you at this point (all the other things left in your way in the past, for example), the other person will feel picked on. Again, the best strategy is to offer the feedback and trust the person to apply it, or not. If your partner is willing to hear and apply feedback you are a lucky human. If not, you might consider finding someone with a deeper desire for genuine relationship.

Step 4: Reflection

As with the simple feedback process from the previous blog, it’s good for the person receiving the OPS to reflect back what s/he heard. This communicates that you have listened to and received the feedback and that you’re in the game. At the end of the reflection ask, “Have I got that right?” If the answer is yes, then you’re done. If no, ask for clarification and continue to reflect until the other person feels heard. For more information on this step, see the previous blog and the one on reflective listening.

Here’s another example in case it’s helpful. This one is a bit more complex.

Person A:

  • My observation is that you no longer ask to spend time with me. You do not suggest that we do things together, that we talk, that we eat together, and so on. You no longer ask me to go out with you on a date-night.

  • My projection is that you have abdicated this responsibility to me. I do not project that you don’t want to spend time with me, only that you have given up responsibility for making it happen.

  • My suggestion is that you initiate our time together sometimes. When you do I feel loved and I feel wanted, and I feel more connect to you. Thank you for listening.

Person B:

Thank you for sharing that with me. What I hear you saying is that you have noticed that I no longer ask to spend time with you in various ways, and that I’ve stopped asking you to go out with me for date-night. Your projection is that I’ve abdicated that responsibility to you. And your suggestion is that I resume taking responsibility for our time together, especially since it helps you to feel loved and wanted, and more connected with me. Have I got that right?

When you are finished with the OPS process, if it feels like everybody is stable enough to have a conversation about the content, go for it. If not—if one or both of you are identified—then it’s best to wait until another time.