Learning effective ways to dialogue with your partner can help you feel closer to each other, be better problem solvers, and keep conflicts from escalating out of control. I often start my couples off learning these tools.
1. Say Yes to 'I Statements':
'I statements' are the first communication tool I learned as a counselor. It's still the most effective tool I know. I've used it to help five year olds negotiate recess conflicts. It works equally well with forty year olds arguing about money, sex, or how to load the dishwasher. If you want to immediately increase your chances of being heard, express you concerns with an 'I statement':
“I Feel ____ When ____Because ____”
"I feel sad when you pull away from me because I want us to be closer.
I feel mad when you criticize me because it makes me feel like you don't value me."
By focusing first on our own experience, 'I statements' keep us from attacking, blaming, and criticizing our partner. This is a good thing because when we feel attacked, blamed, and criticized we close our ears and harden our hearts. 'I statements' help us talk about what we have control of -- our own thoughts, feelings, reactions -- and keep us from attempting to control what we can't -- our partner. 'I statements' increase opportunities for dialogue and decrease the likelihood of defensiveness. 'I statements' help us identify our unique reactions to a particular behavior of our partner. This tends to reduce defensiveness by making things less personal and emotionally charged.
2. Say No to 'You Statements' and to Over-generalizations:
When we are upset it's easy to get caught up in our emotions. In an effort to be heard, we can feel the need to escalate the situation to get our partner's attention. "He's not getting it! He'll only listen if I turn up the volume," we think to ourselves. Increasing our volume usually has the opposite effect, though. Strong and emotionally charged statements filled with blame, accusation, and exaggeration can take over. These statements often start with 'you' and rely on words like 'always' and 'never'.
"You always make excuses..."
"You never listen to me..."
"You do that all the time!"
The problem with 'you statements' is that even if you're right, you won't be heard. 'You statements' make others defensive. They're likely to pull away, protect, or attack in return. Next time you want to get your partner's attention, use an 'I statement' instead.
Don't overgeneralize. Try being specific and cite concrete examples addressing how a behavior has impacted you. Talk about one thing at a time, don’t pile on. Less is more, be succinct; when we go on and on, our partners start to drift away or become increasingly defensive. Our point gets lost.
3. Lead with LOVE, positivity, and curiosity
If you begin a conversation with your partner with a list of complaints and disappointments, you're likely to lose out on any chance to connect before you've even begun. Focus on the positive ways you want your relationship to be. Focus on what you hope for in the future. Be aspirational about the relationship itself instead of only looking at the negative behaviors of your partner.
"I love it when we ______"
"I remember us being so happy when we spent more time ______"
"I want a relationship we can feel good about, one where we have fun, trust each other, and are really connected."
If you do need to address behaviors, focus on what you've appreciated in the past, focus on what you do want, not on the behavior you don't want. 'Relationship talks' can be really scary for people. Leading with empathy, kindness, and understanding can help set the right tone. Bring that with you alongside your frustration and desire for change.
"I remember that time when you _______, that made me feel so safe, I felt so close to you"
"I like it when you _______"
"You are so good at _______, when you do that it helps me ________"
"Conversations like this are hard, it's difficult for me too..."
"I want to have this talk because you are so important to me. I believe that if we work together we can work through these difficult feelings..."
Instead of demands, ultimatums, and critical statements, use questions. Bring an attitude of curiosity and openness when looking at your relationship together.
"I wonder what gets in our way of _______?"
"What are some things we could do together that would help us?"
"What do you think is happening when we have arguments like that?"
"How can we do it differently?"
4. Speak for Yourself, Not for Your Partner
Talk about your experience, your feelings, your thoughts, your behaviors. Don't speak for your partner or make assumptions about what they think or feel. If you want to know how your partner feels, ask. Don't analyze, mind read, or play therapist (that's my job!). Share who you are with your partner and allow your partner to share who they are with you. Many communication problems begin with the assumptions we make about the inner world of the person we care about. Be aware of the tendency to project your own feelings onto your partner. Be patient, receptive, and curious.
5. Safety and trust are a must
Close, healthy, and secure attachments are founded on safety and trust. While there are lots of things we can do positively that can enhance that, there are behaviors that can quickly erode it was well.
No finger pointing (literally)
Don't encroach on the physical space of your partner when angry
No swear words
Be careful with sarcasm
No aggressive physical contact
No violent behavior (throwing things, breaking things, slamming doors, fist pounding)
6. Time Outs Aren't Just for Kids
Dialogue is impossible when we are over-stimulated. Know your own boiling point, the point when your emotions are so strong you can't constructively dialogue with your partner anymore. Have a prearranged agreement to take breaks when either one of you have reached your boiling point. Have an agreed upon ‘time out word’ to use to indicate you need a break. Come back when blood pressures are down. Time out strategies must include an agreed upon length of time after which you return to continue dialogue and repair. Repeat as necessary.
7. Listen for Understanding
Listen responsively with body language: eye contact, body turned to partner, head nods. Mirror what you heard, literally word for word if you have to. Focus on naming the feeling your partner identified. You can repeat back to them the 'I statement' they used (you statements are ok here!). Ask your partner if you got it right.
Try to check the need to respond to, defend, or explain each point your partner brings up. This will prevent you from really listening. Your turn will come and your partner will be more present if they feel listened to, validated, and understood first.
"this just isn't me..."
When practicing these communication tools with clients a frustration I ofter hear is, "This doesn't sound like me, I don't talk like this. This is therapy-speak..." While it may be true that these suggested 'techniques' go against your natural way of speaking, I remind couples who are struggling that the way they currently talk to each other isn't working. Trying something new (even if it feels foreign) might well be worth the risk. Over time and with practice, I find that couples learn to use these tools as guidelines that help shape how they interact more than robotic lines they repeat to each other.
Tools are Just the Beginning
In the end, communication tools are just that, tools. They work to enable opportunities for intimacy and connection, but they aren't the intimacy and connection themselves. Real intimacy in a relationship happens in time through patience, vulnerability, and commitment. Real intimacy happens as we better understand ourselves and our partner and the negative cycles we get into. Behind these negative cycles there are just two desperate and emotionally clumsy human beings, longing to love and be loved, unsure how to to get there.
surprised by intimacy
Intimacy is mysterious; it can sneak up on us. I've seen the look of surprise on a couples' face as they seemingly bump into a beautiful moment of closeness together almost as if by accident. These moments are fragile, though. They're drowned out through the noise of arguing. They're starved by the silence of emotional distance. These moments are best cultivated when we're able to communicate with each other with more acceptance and compassion, less criticism and control.
I encourage you to use these tools so you can change the kind of dialogue you have in your relationship and increase opportunities for intimacy and connection. Conversation between you and your partner can move from something you dread and avoid to something you long for and enjoy.