Communication is vital in any relationship. While most of us are aware of this, the implementation of good communication can be difficult, especially with people we are closest to, and even more so when emotions are already heightened. Most of us can read through a communications book and get the theory of what is being said, but when we are feeling angry and hurt it’s easy to forget our communication skills and revert to bad behaviors.
What makes up good communication?
1. Using “I” sentences
Try phrasing things using “I” instead of “you”. Why is this important? The latter comes across as confrontational and accusatory. Therefore, the other person is likely to get defensive. However, when using sentences that start with “I” especially when tied to a feeling, such as “I felt really sad when ….” is more likely to invoke empathy. So whenever possible, instead of saying “You did ….”, try saying “I felt…”.
2. Avoid using words like “always” or “never”
When you use words like “always” or “never” you are pretty much guaranteed to have a negative response. These types of words tend to trigger the defense mechanism in the other person. After all, can it really be true that they “never” do anything to help around the house (for example). Perhaps not often, or rarely, but “never”? Speaking in such absolute terms encourages an argument about the accuracy of your statement rather than addressing the actual problem.
3. Avoid name-calling
Most people are hurt and feel disrespected when they are called names or insulted. Once hurt they may no longer be open to having a productive conversation. I read somewhere “Hurt people, hurt people.” Calling your partner a name will likely result in something hurtful being thrown back at you. This, over time, can erode your relationship and trust for one another. An environment of name-calling and disrespect does not feel safe.
4. Address the behavior that’s the problem rather than saying the person is the problem
It’s easy to say things like “You are so insensitive” or “You are so irresponsible”, but these are blanket statements about a person, that are likely not true about them in all situations. It is more effective to say, “It hurt my feelings when….” or “I’m worried about our financial well-being when…” Individual behaviors can be changed, but it’s difficult to know what to change when the whole person is under attack.
5. Reflect back what you heard
This one can feel a little strange, but it can be very effective to ensure you understood what the other person was saying. Sometimes what you thought you heard is not what was said or meant. You may also want to ask clarifying questions. Repeat this until both of you are clear on what the actual issue is.
6. Make sure everyone has equal opportunity to speak
This one can be tough, especially when you feel you’ve been wronged in some way. However, after you’ve confronted your partner about whatever behavior or action upset you, provide some space for your partner to give his/her view of the matter.
7. Work on a resolution that suits both
Make sure you are clear on what the resolution is. Try finding a compromise. I read you should view your relationship as a three-legged race. You don’t win by pushing your partner down, or running ahead, or tripping them. You will only finish the race if you work together. Try keeping that image in your mind next time you argue. Is it worth it to win the argument? Will that get you what you want long-term? What is a solution that would work for both?
8. Other things to avoid
Don’t respond with sarcasm, ridicule or invalidation. Also, don’t completely shut down or avoid the conversation. At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel heard, respected and loved. Make sure your words and actions reflect that, even if you don’t always understand where your partner is coming from. Respond with curiousity rather than judgement.
The above seem logical and easy enough, right? So how come we are not all master communicators? The truth is, the above are extremely difficult if you are already triggered, emotions are elevated, and/or if your partner isn’t also a “master communicator”. You may at times feel you have done a wonderful job communicating and then your partner snaps at you and with that all your fantastic communication skills go out the window too. Before you know it, you may be yelling and screaming at each other about anything and everything your partner has ever done wrong since the beginning of time.
If simply knowing how to be a better communicator is not enough, then how do we make our communication better?
1. Practice, practice, practice
Try practicing communication skills in everyday conversations when emotions are not elevated. It takes time to develop a new habit. So, if that new habit is better communication skills, you really should be practicing this daily. This way it becomes second nature and will come more naturally when put into an emotionally charged situation. Practice when you are having lunch with a friend, when your child had a rough day at school, or when your partner is sharing about their day. Listen, reflect, ask questions.
What are your personal triggers? What upsets you most? What do you think is behind that? Owning what is yours (your feelings, your beliefs, your thoughts) gives you control over your portion of the conversation. You have control over your feelings and how you react, even if you don’t have control over your partner’s actions or words.
3. Know when to take a break from a conversation
If you can feel yourself getting triggered, feeling anxious, angry, etc., it may be time to take a break. It’s important that you communicate this to the other person and not just walk away from a conversation. You might say “I’m feeling myself getting angry. I think I need to take a few minutes to gather my thoughts”. Take 20 minutes to breathe, take a walk, or whatever calms you. Ask yourself “What about what was said upset me?” “Why?” Be prepared to come back and discuss.
4. Wait to have the conversation
A friend of mine told me when she is mad at her husband, she waits 24 hours to address it. If she’s still upset after 24 hours then it’s important enough to bring up. If not she drops it. You may not necessarily need to wait 24 hours, but at a minimum make sure before you approach your partner that you know the following:
What am I upset about? What is the concrete action/situation?
Why am I upset? How did this make me feel?
What is my desired outcome?
Make sure you are clear and calm enough to allow your partner time and space to provide their point of view.
As you can see, great communication isn’t just knowing what makes up a healthy discussion. To communicate effectively, it takes a great deal of self-awareness. Knowing who you are, what matters to you, what upsets you, and why it upsets you. Having self-awareness can help you remain calm and focused in a discussion as it forces you to own what is yours rather than lash out at your partner.
If you are struggling having respectful and productive communication in your relationship, it is important you work on this. Ineffective and hurtful communication is one of the top relationship killers. There are many books on improving your conversation in relationships. Depending on the severity, you may also want to seek counseling or coaching. Breathe, you can do this!