10 Ideas for Communicating Effectively with your Partner
By Brian Milliken, LPCC, LMFT
1) “I” statements
“I” Statements work well when one or both partners tend to get defensive during exchanges. Effective communication stays away from blaming, criticizing, and punishing your partner. Thus, “You did this to me.” is replaced with “I feel this way due to what has happened.” For example, “I am feeling very frustrated because the house is a wreck.” The "I" statements enable each person's experience to be expressed. The “I” statement is a good way to start conversing with each other, however, it needs to be followed up with the second idea of “We” talk.
2) “We” talk
“We” talk helps the connection of your relationship . Connection is the most important aspect of having a very solid and stable relationship. The possibility of divorce, breakups, infidelity, and addictions are increased when the connection of your relationship is severed. Switching “What are you going to do about it” to a genuine “What can we do about it” is very important in bringing back that sense of connection and finding real solutions that work for both partners. “We” talk works very well when you combine it with the “I” statements. For example, “I am feeling very frustrated because the house is a wreck. What can we do about this? Any ideas?”
3) Engage in dialogue (processing) instead of monologue (lecturing)
Let’s face it, we live in a culture of debate and lectures. Many of us seem to have a point and we want to convince others to see it our way. These monologues can be very dangerous when we are wanting to get along with our partner and can lead into some pretty serious arguments. There are no winners when we argue and monologue with our partner. Resentment can grow when one of the partners finally gives in. We need to replace a monologue with having a dialogue. We begin to feel a connection to something more than ourselves when having a dialogue with our partner. A dialogue is a two way communication in which you feel that you are on the same team.
4) Talking “with” instead of “at”
Arguments usually involve the couple talking “at” each other to make a point. We need to replace talking “at” each other to talking “with” each other. It may feel uncomfortable when we begin to talk “with” our partner. We are letting go to build a stronger connection that is greater than our own personal ego. There usually is better decision making due to it being a collaborative process and both partners feel heard and satisfied. Additionally, new solutions may appear that were never considered before.
5) Beware of internal dialogue
Internal dialogue is when we are having an imaginary conversation with our partner without their participation. At times, this internal dialogue can get us into an adversarial position in relation to our partner. It is good that we think about how we are going to talk with our partner using all the ideas in this article. We also need to be fully present in the actual conversation, and careful with how we think that our partner is going to respond.
6) Externalize the problem
It is important that we do not blame, criticize, or punish our partners when we are talking about the problems we are facing. One way of doing this is to externalize the problem. This is making the problem the issue, rather than our partner. When we feel that our partner is engaging in problematic behavior such as anger, addiction, laziness etc., we can make the issue about correcting the problem, rather than our partner. For example, our partner is struggling with his/her anger, then we can ask the following questions, during “we” talk: “How can we not let the anger get the best of our relationship? What do we need to do differently so the anger does not have the upper hand?” We might say something like, “Wow, we really did not let the anger push us around this time. I like how we did that.”
7) Native American Talking Stick
You can use this idea when one or both partners tend to interrupt the other while trying to have a conversation. We all have a different pace when we talk. We can seem to get interrupted when we talk at a different pace than our partners. The Talking Stick is a good way to physically show when you are finished talking and feel understood by your partner. Try using the other ideas while using the Talking Stick to help with the process. The Talking Stick is used in the following way:
No one talks unless they have the stick.
The person with the talking stick talks while the partner listens. When the person is done talking the stick is put down, leaving it there. The partner then paraphrases what was said. If the partner doesn’t accurately or satisfactorily reflect what was said, then the 1st person starts over, picking up the stick and talking again, reiterating what was said and puts the stick down. Once the partner accurately paraphrases what was said, and the 1st person agrees, then the partner picks up the stick and the process repeats: the Partner, now with the stick, talks while the 1st person listens. When the Partner is done, the stick is put down and the 1st person paraphrases what was said. Once it is satisfactorily paraphrased, the 1st person picks up the stick and the process continues. Repeat as many times necessary until the conversation has been completed and/or both partners feel understood.
8) Limit conversations about relationship problems with friends and family.
Sometimes when we go to our close friends and family with relationship problems, it can create a bigger problem. It introduces more people to the problem and can start to make it more complicated. Rumors can start and get out of control. Also, others may hold grudges with one partner even after you resolved your problem with each other.
9) Shared (Mutual) Timeout
Shared timeouts can be used when either partner feels that a conversation is getting out of control and a timeout is needed. It is important that the timeout is shared, as it keeps your connection intact through the conflict.
On a physiological level, people’s ability to listen shuts down when their heartbeat reaches over 100 beats per minute. When a conflict, argument or fight is underway, any kind of meaningful resolution is highly unlikely during the time of conflict. Adrenalin levels need to be lowered for at least 30 minutes, to be able to start listening and move toward having a repairing conversation. One party calls for a shared timeout, and you both agree to come back together after an agreed amount of time to either talk or schedule a time (within 24 hours) to do so.
Shared timeouts are done through self soothing activities which calm the body and mind.
Self-soothing activities can be anything that gets the heart rate down and your mind off of the conflict, so it is a good idea to replace thoughts toward something else or engage in mindfulness (being in the moment) while taking the timeout. Some good activities would be:
Taking a gentle walk (stroll)
Listening to enjoyable, calming music
Doing relaxation activities such as stretching, yoga, tai chi, meditation
Artistic expression, drawing, mindfulness coloring
Enjoying healthy foods such as soups, bread, tea
Things to stay away from during the shared timeout would be:
Watching/listening/doing adrenalin provoking activities or media
Following the shared timeout, a repairing conversation needs to happen within 30 minutes to 24 hours after the conflict. The next idea gives the Steps for having a Repairing Conversation.
10) Having a Repairing Conversation
Conflicts in relationships are inevitable. They are a marker of a healthy, engaged relationship and are bound to happen from time to time. Engaging in a repairing conversation after a conflict helps make needed adjustments toward resolutions, feeling satisfied and moving forward.
Step 1: Using an “I” Statement. “I feel…….” when “this” is happening.
Step 2: Externalize. Identify the problem. The problem is the problem, the person is not the problem.
Step 3: Acknowledgement: I hear you, I understand. This does not necessarily mean agreement, but acknowledging the other's experience. Acknowledgement might also contain an apology if anything regrettable was said or done (hurtful/blaming/criticizing).
Step 4: “We” talk. Look what happened to us. This is our problem. What can we do differently?
Step 5: Pragmatic conversation: Focusing on what is working or not working. This conversation is not about who or what is right/wrong, but what is going to work for us.
The theme of a repairing conversation is “When my partner is in pain, the world stops and I listen.” - John Gottman
Below are worksheets to put these ideas to practice.