Conflict is a normal part of being in a relationship. However, couples often struggle to figure out how to talk to one another about relationship concerns and areas of disagreement. It can be hard to determine how to bring up these areas and easy to let related emotions guide you towards expressions that may be hurtful to the relationship. Here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind when having these conversation. Not only will they help you to express feelings in a way that protects the relationship, but they also may help you to be heard, as they are less likely to push your partner to be defensive.
- Pick the Right Time and Place: Avoid bringing up concerns when there is little time or if you know your partner is tired or stressed.
- Avoid the Blame Game: Take the blaming and criticism out of what you wish to discuss by talking about your feelings and experience but presenting these as your perceptions not absolute truth.
- Use I Statements: When you use statements about how you feel or your reactions rather than accusations, people can empathize with you rather than feeling they have to defend themselves. “I feel anxious and worried about you when you come home late and don’t give me a heads up,” is heard a lot better than “You are so selfish! You never think about my feelings and that I might be worried!”
- Don’t Label Your Partner: When you talk to your partner keep it specific to the action that bothers you rather than labeling them with a characteristic. Say, “I feel frustrated when the dishes are left for me to do,” not “You are lazy.”
- Stay in the Present: As much as it is tempting to bring out a laundry list of offenses to back up your point of view, this often leads the listener to shut down and feel defensive. Try to keep the conversation focused on the specific events that you are trying to address instead. Avoid saying, “you always…” or “you never…” Instead talk about the current situation and your reaction to it.
- Empathize: Remember that the person you are speaking to has feelings and reactions to what you are saying and try to recognize their perspective while expressing your own.
- Compliment: Don’t forget to give your partner credit for the things they do right and that you appreciate.
- Express Needs: Instead of stating things that require your partner to infer what you need, state it explicitly. Instead of “The dining room is a total mess,” say “I’d appreciate it if you could clean off the table.”
Utilizing these guidelines will not necessarily make every conversation go smoothly, but they are a first step in finding healthy ways to communicate with a partner. Another important part is learning how to listen to your partner and to show them that you are listening (which can be two different skills). Stay tuned for Couples Communication Part II, where we will look at these kinds of listening skills.