Part III: More on Effective Speaking
Last time we talked about the importance of communicating in a way that encourages an empathetic and cooperative response, which helps build your relationship instead of tearing it down.
So here are some more nuts and bolts on how to do that:
Directly state what you want, need, or feel – don’t hint at it or manipulate the other – just come out with it. Instead of, “Why do you spend so much time on the couch? Don’t you think that’s bad for your health?” say, “I feel like going for a walk. Would you like to join me?”
Keep it positive. Say what you want, not what you don’t want. The statement, “When we go to your parents’ place, I don’t want to be left completely on my own with the kids, ” elicits “I never leave you alone with the kids – you left me alone with them last time.” Instead, say, “I would like it if we could stick together with the kids when we go to your parents, and then maybe trade off watching them.” That elicits partnering in problem-solving.
Make requests, not complaints: Not “Why can’t you help out more with the housework?”, but “I would like to try to work out a way to divide the chores more evenly.”
Be specific rather than general; avoid “always” and “never”; avoid “should” statements.
Avoid criticizing and sarcasm. Your relationship simply doesn’t need, nor can it afford, statements and actions that tear it down.
I have had bosses who told me, “Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions.” We can apply that at home. Rather than accusations and blame, come to each other with a softer approach, and offer a solution to what’s bothering you. Instead of, “You forgot to put gas in my car and I was late for work,” make it, “I really appreciate it when you put gas in my car, but when you can’t do that, can you please let me know so I can plan to take care of it before I have to go to work.”
Stick to one issue at a time. If you ramble all over with a variety of complaints, then you are the prosecutor making the case that your partner is a terrible person. They’re not likely to say, “Yes, you’re so right, I’ll try to do better about everything in the future.” And the reality is that our attention spans go only so far, so a long drawn-out story will only lose your partner. Stick to the point, which should be about your own feelings.
If your partner has been offended by your approach, ask them, “What’s an easier way for you to hear that?” You do have a legitimate concern to bring to their attention, but you need to learn how they can best be open to receiving it and responding constructively, instead of shutting down.
When it comes to discussing bigger, more emotionally-charged issues, it’s helpful to set a time limit on the discussion. Speak to be heard, listen to understand. Keep the focus just on understanding how each other feels, rather than on persuading or building a case. You will be surprised at how quickly you can resolve an issue when you stop trying so hard to make your point.
End well: I have seen couples in my office have a heated discussion, and then satisfactorily resolve the issue. But they had built up so much tension that they immediately started arguing about something else. I knew a couples therapist who, because of that tension build-up, ended sessions with a joke. A good belly-laugh is a wonderful way to dispel tension built up in the heat of a discussion. A good brisk walk works as well. At the very least, acknowledge to each other that you have done a good piece of work, and now it’s time to close it up and go do something else.
These are nuts-and-bolts communication tools, but they are also exercises to build patience and mature self-control, which will help you to build a stronger, more satisfying relationship.