A Therapist On Communicating Smartly With A Partner
If we don't learn how to address our grievances directly, they will inevitably make themselves known indirectly in more toxic forms. When we aren't willing to speak up—whether out of fear, self-doubt, or an impulse to please—it's impossible to heal issues in our relationships. At the same time, it's unhelpful to blurt out our grievances and accusations. Part of mindful communication is considering how to speak skillfully.
The way we broach an issue with our partner has a lot to do with whether the conversation will go well or go poorly.
A conversation is an interactive process. This means that if you want to share something big, whether expressing what a great day you've had or sharing your irritation with your partner, you need to take care to be "timely and kindly." If your partner feels either attacked or invisible right off the bat, the response will be to fight, flee, or freeze rather than being open to what you have to say. Assume the best intentions before diving into a list of grievances.
Here are six rules of "smart speaking" to help you initiate a conversation that will ensure the best outcome for both of you:
1. Manage yourself first.
Before you speak, become aware of your emotions because they'll speak loudly and clearly through your facial expressions, body language, and the look in your eyes. If you're not aware of your own emotions, you won't be aware of the nonverbal messages you are sending to your partner. Always take a moment to take in a mindful breath before speaking. Pause.
2. Check in with your partner.
When you are going to talk about something that has a lot of "energy," whether sharing good news or feeling upset, you need to check in with where the other person is emotionally. Don't assume your partner is able to meet your need for a particular kind of conversation at any particular time. This begins by noticing the nonverbal cues, such as their facial expression, body language, and eye contact, and then actually checking in.
3. Invite your partner to any significant conversation.
Give your partner a chance to accept or decline your invitation to a significant discussion. If your partner says no, then wait for an appropriate time over the next day or so for an invitation to such a discussion. When your partner isn't receptive, don't push.
4. Be respectful.
Always begin a conversation with respect and a sense of goodwill, even if you're upset. If you begin with an interrogation, an angry expression, or a loud voice, the other person will automatically go into self-protection mode against whatever you go on to say. You might even say, "I'm feeling a lot of anger," but rather than add "because of you," you might follow up with a statement about yourself, such as, "I'm really angry right now, and I know some of it is more about me than you. Maybe I'll take a walk before we talk."
5. Understand the difference between a criticism and a complaint.
A criticism is an attack on a person's character, while a complaint is a request for change in a person's behavior. An example of a criticism: "You always forget my birthday. You're the most inconsiderate person I've ever known."
By contrast, a complaint is descriptive and specific, avoids words such as "always" or "never," and doesn't label the person's character. Ideally, it includes an invitation to brainstorm about alternatives. An example of a complaint: "This is the second year you have forgotten my birthday. Birthdays matter to me, and I wonder if we can talk about a way for you to remember it next year."
6. Wait for the right moment to speak—even if you want to express love.
Those of us who use words as our language of love can't get enough praise, affection, and appreciation. Others may find it annoying to hear how much their partner loves them when they're studying instructions on how to play a better game of pickleball, planting a tree, or watching a movie.
Even when you're speaking sweet words, remember the No. 1 rule of wholehearted loving: Your partner is not you. Your partner may have a different love language than you do. Spoken words of affection may be appreciated, but the preference may be for short and sweet. Offering that person a long, mushy declaration of love may set you up to feel rebuked, even when that's not your partner's intention.
Arming yourself with these skills before confronting someone you love can help ensure your needs are accounted for while still being sensitive to your partner's emotions.
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Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.