Wendy Bravo, LMFT
How many times have you begun talking to your partner and ended up feeling frustrated and misunderstood?
Are you so tired of fighting that you do not dare to talk about things that matter to you anymore, as a way to avoid more fights and arguing?
Many couples struggle with the same communication problem. Each partner tries to explain their point of view to each other with negative results: they misinterpret each other, become defensive and end up fighting. So they have one more problem besides the problems that are not being solved.
Misunderstandings are so common that many people settle for just avoiding talking about issues in the relationship and only try to improve their communication when their relationship is at risk or a crisis happens. Sometimes couples wait too long and when they try to improve things it is already too late.
You do not have to settle for this situation. The following six steps can help you improve your communication with your partner and help you enjoy a more satisfying and close relationship:
1. Make a date.
Agree to meet in a quiet place, free of distractions. Meet at a time when it is highly likely that both of you will be relaxed and not stressed out. For instance, if you have small children, meet after the kids have gone to bed and will not be interrupting you. If you typically feel irritable in the evening, just after coming home from work, do not try to talk then. Also turn off the TV, music and any other distractions. You will need to focus all your attention on your partner during your date.
2. Write things down.
Even though this may sound a bit unnatural, and almost business-like, this step will help you to have a successful dialogue in many ways. You can be prepared by writing what you want to talk about before your meeting. This can help you remain focused on what you want to address during your conversation. You can write down things during the meeting to make sure you understand your partner’s point of view. You can also write down anything you and your partner agree on during the meeting.
3. Take turns to speak.
One of you talks while the other one listens attentively. There are three basic rules that are important for this step to be successful:
a. Do not interrupt. The person who is listening should not interrupt and instead wait until it is their turn to speak. Each person will have five minutes to talk without interruptions. At the end of those five minutes, the listener will have a chance to speak.
b. Focus on what the speaker is saying. Frequently we become so distracted thinking about what we are going to say and how we are going to respond, that we do not truly listen to what our partner is saying. Your only job as the listener is to pay attention and make sure you understand what your partner is saying, without trying to think of ways to prove him/her wrong or disagree with him/her.
c. Take a time-out if needed. If things become heated and either of you become angry, it is best to take a time-out to calm down. Once calm you can resume your conversation. Do not try to keep talking while angry because you will have less control over what you say and you risk offending your partner and making things worse. It is extremely difficult to remain focused on understanding the other person when you are flooded with anger.
4. Tell each other what you understood.
After listening to your partner without interrupting, tell him/her what you understood and ask if you understood correctly. Ask questions to clarify things if needed. The goal is to understand your partner’s point of view. The goal is not to criticize or accuse your partner or to convince him/her that you are right and they are wrong. Later your partner will also have to do the same when it is his/her turn to be the listener.
5. Own your feelings to avoid accusations.
Use “I” statements to help you avoid criticizing, accusing or hurting your partner. Say “I feel _______ (feeling), when __________ (situation).” This type of sentence helps your partner be more open to listening to how you feel. In contrast, sentences like this “You did _____. You make me feel ______” that focus on your partner can make him/her become defensive. The reason is that when you start with “you” it becomes an accusation, you are blaming your partner for your feelings. The “I” statement focuses on yourself and shows you are assuming responsibility for your own feelings.
6. Mention the positive.
Finish your meeting talking about what you like about your partner. Let your partner know how much you appreciate what he/she does that is positive. Before your date, make a list of 3-5 things you really like about your partner so you are ready to mention them during the meeting. This will show your partner that his/her positive behaviors are being noticed and appreciated. Many people complain that their partners only see the negative and do not see the positive. If your partner thinks you are only noticing the negative they will feel less motivated to change and your conversation will only create more resentment. Just remember to be genuine and honest when talking about the positive things you like in your partner. Do not say apparently “positive” things in a sarcastic way. This would damage your relationship.
Start practicing these steps this week. Choose a problem that is not too big to start practicing. The more you practice the better you will become at following these steps. Once you feel more comfortable you can try the steps with bigger problems that you have been afraid to address in the past for fear that the dialogue would end up in a fight.
One last thing, be patient with yourself and your partner. It may take some time for you and your partner to practice this new way of talking; especially if you have been used to doing things differently for several years.