by Nathan Cobb, Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych
Some couples find it hard to communicate effectively when they disagree over things that they have strong feelings about. Sometimes couples keep having arguments that never get resolved. Here are my top three tips for handling conflict and getting over tough communication hurdles during stressful times.
Think Before You Speak.
When you find yourself reacting instead of thinking, it helps to slow down and take more time to let go of anger and think about what you are going to say that is going to help move the discussion forward. One of my clients once put it this way. I thought it was so profound that I’ve never forgotten it: “You are a conversation away from resolving an argument and feeling closer than you did before.”
If that’s true then it certainly takes a conscious effort and decision to override our anger, let go of judgmental thoughts, and reign in selfish demands and really think about what we are feeling and why we might be feeling that way, and what I want both for myself and for my spouse. Selfish demands and angry outbursts only cause more escalation of an argument and no one ends up feeling heard.
This communication skill is about building self-awareness and becoming reflective instead of reactive. Ask yourself, for example, if I wasn't so angry, what else would I be feeling right now? Are there feelings beneath the anger that I need to own and talk about? How did this situation affect me? What am I needing? Why is this situation a problem for me? When you are ready to talk to your spouse or partner in a more positive and respectful way, keeping in mind your spouse's feelings as well as your own, then its time to open up and express what you feel and why you feel that way in a calm manner.
Talk About Yourself, Not Your Partner
Avoid criticizing or blaming your partner. When you say things that are judgmental, you instantly decrease your chances that the other person will hear you. Instead of attacking or blaming your partner out of anger, let him or her know you feel hurt, afraid, sad, guilty, lonely, or unimportant. Describe why you feel that way.
Acting out your anger may protect you from feeling vulnerable, but it also dupes your partner into not realizing that you feel hurt or lonely, and usually breeds more anger in turn.
For example, instead of saying, "I can't believe you left me standing there. Why do you always do that! You never think of what it might be like for me!" something like this might open up more understanding, "I felt anxious not knowing anyone there. When you left, I felt abandoned. I guess I was expecting that we would stick together for a little while until I got to know people."
Truly listen and Seek to Understand
Most communication problems can be resolved by sincerely listening to each other. Often we think we are listening, when we are really listening to ourselves. In other words, we're listening to our thoughts about what to say next or we're busy formulating an opinion about the things that the other person is saying. Then we try to make our own point before acknowledging the other person's point. Sometimes we believe that if we do not immediately object to what we hear, we are implying that we agree with what is being said. Real listening, however, is not about agreeing with the other person - it is about trying to understand what they feel and think.
Being a good listener begins with listening calmly without interrupting. Remind yourself that what you are hearing is about the speaker and their experience, not a reflection of you.
Think of open-ended questions you could ask that will help you better understand your spouse. For example, "What did that mean to you?" or "How is that a problem for you?" or "What did you feel?" Instead of jumping to conclusions, ask the following question, "What did you mean when you said ...?" After asking, then listen calmly to the answer, without commenting on or judging what the person says. When they are finished, ask a follow-up question.
Then try to recap what you've heard to be sure that you have heard accurately. For example, "I am starting to see how important it is to you that we sit down together and make joint decisions about our finances. I need to appreciate more how much that debt really bothers you."
Applying and practicing these communication skills in your relationship can help you more effectively resolve the issues that come up from time to time. The more you think about what you want to say, talk about yourself rather than your spouse, and truly listen to each other, the more you will learn about yourselves and each other, and the more you will feel heard. If both of you feel heard and understood, it will be a natural step to find solutions.
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