Last month, I discussed the value of effective listening and offered some tips for listening for the sake of understanding, versus listening for the sake of generating a response. This month, we’ll focus on the inverse of that: how to present your thoughts, feelings and overall experience to your partner in a way that is conducive to being understood.
There are many ways to turn a discussion into a disagreement and perhaps even more ways to turn a disagreement into an argument. One common and very simple way to escalate a disagreement is by keeping your focus on being correct. It’s a completely typical and even normal desire — “I’m right, you’re wrong” — yet it almost never leads anywhere productive. While there is often a great deal of satisfaction that comes from being right, let’s be honest, where does it really leave you and your partner? Chances are, you get to sit with your feelings of validation but your relationship gets very little.
This leads me to the first DIY tip for decreasing arguing and increasing the productivity of an argument when it does occur: Focus on what will bring you and your partner as a couple to a resolution instead of on proving your correctness. If after the argument is resolved, you feel unresolved personally and perhaps like you haven’t been fully heard or understood by your partner, there is time to re-explore the conversation later. The height of an argument is absolutely no time to try to get someone to calmly and rationally understand your point.
Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way suggesting that your personal needs are meant to be abandoned for the greater good of the couple. In fact, that will promptly lead to the relationship’s demise. The goal is to deescalate an argument as fast as possible because the bulk of productive communication in a relationship does not occur in the midst of a fight. Productive, healthy communication occurs through talking, not yelling, and it relies heavily on your ability to express your wants, needs, feelings and experiences clearly and without alienating your partner. The first way to ensure you can do this is through self-awareness. You must know yourself — your needs, your wants, your true feelings. You must also not be afraid to be honest with yourself. If you aren’t in a place of self-honesty and self-awareness, you can’t expect your partner to satisfy your needs because neither of you knows what they actually are.
In knowing yourself, you must also know how to relay this self-knowledge to your partner. Here are some things you should not do in conveying your thoughts and feelings: Do not tell your partner how he or she is feeling; do not give an extended monologue; do not be an absolutist (i.e., “You always do that”). Alternately, here are some practices you should do in conveying your points: Talk only about your feelings and observe any statements about your partner’s thoughts and feelings as your perception (you can’t possibly know their inner reality); keep your partner engaged in what you’re saying and hopefully not frustrated by allowing him or her time to respond; use words like “often” or “sometimes” instead of “always” or “all the time.” Lastly, and possibly most importantly, talk about what you do want instead of what you don’t want. Negative yields negative; telling someone all of the things he or she is doing wrong is generally frustrating, angering and fruitless. On the other hand, discussing a preferred alternative behavior or way of talking about something gives your partner direction and avoids making him or her feel lousy or angry or any other variety of possible negative reactions.
Healthy and effective communication skills take development. We are not born with them and, more often than not, we didn’t have the opportunity to learn them in our own households growing up (sorry, Mom and Dad). I’ve seen many ailing relationships come close to failing because of issues that do not extend far beyond communication. The good news is, I’ve seen more of these relationships than not improve drastically as effective communication skills were learned, practiced and implemented long-term.
Just remember to be patient with yourself as well as your partner in creating these sorts of changes because, while old habits do die hard, they can in fact die.