Do disagreements sometimes escalate into full-blown screaming matches, accompanied by the sound of doors slamming?
Often these kinds of arguments begin with one of you sharing your feelings about something… and end with one of you sleeping on the couch.
Here are 3 basic communication skills that will instantly stop a conversation from escalating into a full-blown war.
BASIC COMMUNICATION SKILL #1: ASKING VS. TELLING
Unless you’re intent on starting a fight, when you’re sharing something close to your heart with your partner, it’s best to stay away from any kind of communication that TELLS your partner how to be.
For example, any sentence beginning with “You should…”, “You really ought to…” or “You must…” is best being removed from your vocabulary, because it comes across as a covert attack and immediately puts your partner on the back foot in defensive mode.
Rather, ask questions beginning with WHAT or HOW.
For example, instead of saying, “Honey, you really ought to wash the dishes…”, you might say, “Honey, how can I support you with the dishes?”
See how the first statement is likely to get a defensive response and the second is likely to get a warm, positive response?
Here’s another. Instead of saying, “You never want to spend time with me!”, you could say, “What could we do to spend time together tonight?”
Asking HOW or WHAT questions can completely change the tone of a tense conversation because it forces you to be curious about your partner and step into their world.
TIP: Try to steer clear of WHY questions, because unless you’re genuinely interested, they can cause your partner to feel interrogated and lead to defensiveness e.g. Imagine how you’d feel if your partner said, “Why aren’t you ready to leave yet?”
If you are genuinely interested in your discovering the true motivations behind your partner’s thoughts, feelings or actions, try this: “Honey, what makes you feel that way?” or better still, “Honey, would you be willing to share (with me) why you feel that way?”
BASIC COMMUNICATION SKILL #2: OWNING VS. DIVERTING
When we’re fighting, our natural inclination is to want to divert blame from ourselves and place it on our partner, even if we know we’re in the wrong.
It’s not really our fault, because our brain is hard-wired to want to be right, so we divert attention off ourselves and onto our lover instead.
I call this diverting.
We divert when we use sentences starting with “You…” It’s the verbal equivalent of pointing a finger at someone.
For example, “You are impossible” or “You make me mad!”
When we do this, we avoid having to take responsibility for being upset and can divert the responsibility onto our partners. Of course, this is a sure way to start a fight.
The way to stop diverting and start connecting is to own your experience i.e. to take responsibility for your experience of what is happening for you at the moment.
For example, instead of saying “You make me mad!” you might say, “I feel so angry, I’m mad!”
This puts the ownership of feeling angry in your court…
When you stick to starting sentences with “I”, it’s very hard to blame your partner. Because you’re talking about yourself and not them, it becomes difficult to escalate an argument into a full-blown fight.
So, when it’s time to talk about yourself, do it by sharing your experience of this moment.
Stick to these 5 sentence stems and you’ll be off to a great start:
- I wonder…
- I notice…
- I feel…
- I fear…
- I hear…
Here are some more examples:
“Last year’s Christmas with your family was so stressful for me. I wonder if you and I can find a way to soothe each other when we’re at your family’s house this Christmas?”
“I hear you saying that you’re afraid that this year might go like last year and that you want it to go smoothly, right?”
“Yes, it started at dinner last night and you told me that your family didn’t think we were a good match. I felt really sad and am dreading Christmas. Secretly, I feel afraid that you’ll believe them.”
“Oh baby. I feel terrible that you’re afraid. I love you. I notice I’m hurting knowing that you’re worried about us. I wonder what I can do for you to show you that I love you and that we’re OK, no matter what my family thinks? You wanna brainstorm with me?”
TIP: When I teach “I” communication to couples in conflict, one of the first things that they do is that they find a way to blame each other using “I” statements.
For example, they’ll say “I feel like you’re being an asshole!” which is a passive way of saying “You are an asshole!”
You partner will feel attacked and then being defending and counter attacking with something like “I’m not an asshole, you’re the asshole!”
Obviously, this is not going to help things much and can only result in escalating the conflict.
Instead, you’ll be a lot better off sharing your experience of the moment like this, “I feel hurt right now.”
BASIC COMMUNICATION SKILL #3: “AND”ING VS. “BUT”ING
But is a small yet powerful word. It has the power to negate everything that precedes it.
How would you feel about your partner’s love for you if he/she said, “I love you, but I need some time alone”?
That wouldn’t feel very loving, would it? All you’d probably hear is, “I don’t love you.”
Here’s a simple communication tip that will change this.
Replace BUT with AND.
“I love you, and I need some time alone”
See how different that feels? The word AND is inclusive of both messages (“I love you” and “I need some time alone”) whereas the word BUT dismisses the first half of the communication.
Change your BUTs to ANDs and you’ll notice that previously awkward conversations get a whole lot easier.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
These basic communication skills aren’t going to magically fix a relationship that is in trouble, but using them in the middle of an argument can instantly put a stop to it escalating into a nuclear explosion and give you a chance of resolving it.
Like anything in life, repetition will embed these skills into your unconscious mind so that they become automatic for you.
Jot them down on a 3×5″ card and stick them on the fridge to remind you to practice them. Then teach them to your partner and ask your partner to point out when you TELL, DIVERT or BUT.
Obviously, there are a lot more communication skills than just these 3 basic skills.
If you need to learn more advanced communication skills, be sure to check out the Love At First Fight home study program.
If you feel that your relationship or marriage is suffering from an ailment that needs more that basic communication skills to heal (e.g. an affair), I can help. Get in touch with me about relationship coaching.