Different points of view are inevitable, but they can be communicated in positive and helpful ways. When we disagree with our partner or feel upset by something they’ve done, we often resort to angry interactions. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. There are some practical things we can put in place to help us address issues well, and avoid creating an unsafe atmosphere for our kids. Here are 12 points to get you thinking.
1. Avoid reaction
When addressing an issue with your partner, it’s a good idea to pause and think before speaking. Ask yourself, “Is what I am about to say going to make the situation better or worse?” Also, avoid just ‘following suit’ with your partner’s emotion. You could ask yourself, “Who is setting my emotional agenda for me? Is it me, or am I just mimicking their emotion?”
2. Listen and learn
Listen fully to what your partner is trying to say, without interrupting. Try a little paraphrasing, repeating back to them what you believe you have heard them say. Once you have heard their perspective and have taken it on board, then you can speak your piece.
3. Be willing to compromise
A helpful thing to remember is that relationships are not a competition – you and your partner are on the same team. Commitment to your partner’s true well-being, and the well-being of your relationship, needs to have priority over winning an argument.
4. Choose a good time and place
Confronting your partner with an issue as they are rushing out the door is a great way to start a fight, but not a good way to actually resolve a problem. Pick a time when you are not too stressed or tired and when the children won’t be watching.
5. Use ‘I’ statements, rather than ‘you’ statements
Speak of how the issue impacts you, how it makes you feel and what you desire to happen, rather than attacking your partner’s actions and motives. As tricky as it may be, you need to accept responsibility for your own feelings – acknowledge they are not all your partner’s responsibility.
6. Come off the attack
In the heat of a fight, it’s easy to place all the blame on your partner. Instead of doing this, take a moment to consider your own faults. Vulnerability can be pretty uncomfortable, but it’s amazing how it defuses an angry interaction. If you resort to the old ‘you always’ or ‘you never’ put-downs, remember – ‘always’ always kills communication.
7. Your feelings might not be telling you the truth
Contrary to pop psychology, feelings are not a totally reliable guide to reality. You may feel afraid, but the threat might not be genuine. You might feel offended, but maybe no offence was intended. Emotional responses are largely formed by your interaction with your parents, and early childhood conclusions, and can often be quite misleading.
8. Don’t mind read
We usually know our partner well enough to pick up non-verbal cues and sense extra meaning behind what they are actually saying. That is a normal part of communication between people who know each other well. But if you keep second-guessing your partner’s motives, you are basically challenging their honesty. They will remain too defensive for real communication to occur.
9. Stay with the real issue
Don’t be side-tracked onto other issues. What is the heart of the matter for you? Try to avoid bringing up the past unless it’s obviously a critical factor. Finding ammunition to ‘prove’ your point is almost always counter-productive.
10. Don’t dump your anger on him/her
Where does your anger really belong? What are you protecting yourself from? Yelling and verbal abuse does have short-term gain, perhaps giving you the feeling of control or being heard, but costs long-term pain every time. Make a commitment to put all violence out of bounds in your personal code of conduct.
11. Encouragement trumps criticism
If you focus on praising and encouraging your partner, they will know they are loved and that you’re a safe person to have tough conversations with. Criticisms put people on the defensive, and defensive people make good communication very difficult.
12. Getting nowhere?
Acknowledge when the discussion is going nowhere and get some outside help. Sometimes tough conversations need to be worked through with the help of friends, family or a counsellor.
David Riddell is a counsellor, author and communicator and is the founder of the Living Wisdom Association of Counsellors. For more info, visit livingwisdom.co.nz