We have all had it in our relationships – you start discussing point A, your partner hears you say B and before you know it you are arguing about Z (having worked your way right through the alphabet!). A small issue about wet towels becomes a huge argument about in-laws and everything in between so that you no longer remember what the point of all this was and you’re left feeling much angrier than when you started! This miscommunication when discussing issues in relationships is universal. Everyone has experienced it and no one knows why it happens! But ladies, lets admit it – half the time we also expect our men to just know what we mean, to intuit the fact that right now we need them to hug us, or for them to have psychically understood that the dishes were supposed to have been done already and that is why we are irritated. 😉
Why is it, in our closest relationships, we just don’t come out and ask for what we need? I mean, lets face it, most arguments are born from an unmet need. Usually a need to be loved, or a need for closeness. All relationships have these issues, and the longer you’re in that relationship, the more you come to realise that there are some issues that, no matter how many times they are revisited, they just never really get solved. Some couples begin to feel frustrated – begin to believe that their relationship is faulty, that their partner just doesn’t want to change, or hear them.
Well, the news here folks is that all relationships have problems and, whats more, all relationships have perpetual problems. After all, some wise person did say that “marriage is choosing a set of problems that you are willing to work through for the rest of your life”. The “faultiness” comes in when those problems become stuck and you are no longer able to discuss them.
So today we are going to look at some techniques that keep arguments on course (instead of wafting through a number of issues that are not relevant to the point). Techniques that keep arguments fair and respectful, and lastly, some techniques that will help both partners feel like the issue has been resolved (if only for a short while).
The first thing to keep in mind is your approach. If you are the one carrying around an issue that needs discussing, keep your approach gentle. Bulldozing in there with arms flailing, raised voice and a whole sack load of accusations is only going to make your partner cower in fear, or throw up the armour – either way you would have lost him/her. Your approach needs to be gentle.
- Instead of an accusation, rather make the statement about you – Crouching issues in criticisms is simply not O.K. So instead of “you’re a horrible husband – you always ignore me” try saying “I feel really alone when you seem to ignore me”.
- Keep it concise – no one is going to want to listen to a whole barrage of issues and evidence for their faults being slung at them. Its really hard to hear a complaint that goes on and on…Deal with one issue at a time and try not to hoard all your partner’s ‘wrong doings’ as proof of what a ‘terrible person’ they are.
- If you can, try start with something positive. so instead of starting with “you always watch TV and never talk to me anymore” try “It was so nice when you sat chatting with me last week, I wish we could do more of that”. This isn’t always an easy point to remember – especially when you’re feeling angry. But try it folks – it works wonders! Sometimes it even sidesteps an argument altogether!
- Talk clearly about what you need. Instead of “this kitchen is a mess!” (and then stomping around a little), try saying “I’d like some help cleaning the kitchen”. Your partner is not psychic and cannot always intuit your deepest needs – using subtle hints is bound to leave you disappointed.
- Be polite – you don’t need to be nasty when complaining or requesting something. Using words like “please” and “I’d appreciate it..” makes your requests/complaints much easier to swallow.
Once you’ve made your approach, give your partner time to respond. The response should always include a little empathy. Try to find at least one thing that you can agree with. Accepting some of what your partner is saying allows you to remain connected during the issue. Remember you dont have to agree with his/her point in total, just a small part of what is being said. How about an example?:
Rob says (with a gentle approach because he read this blog beforehand :)) “Sue, I loved it when you came to watch my rugby match last week. It is a little disappointing that you refuse to come along ever again” Now Sue says “Mmm, it was nice being with you (see how she accepts this), but its really boring for me to just sit there on my own – you never come to my functions”. Now its Rob’s turn: “Maybe it is boring (see how he accepts this) but its only for an hour and then we are all together afterwards having fun, your functions go on for hours!”
I’m sure you get the point, The discussion may very well turn into an argument about a perpetual issue – namely that Sue is always supporting Rob, but isn’t feeling very supported herself. Maintaining some acceptance of your partner’s viewpoint will assist in both partner’s feeling heard and understood. Should things get a little heated, however, the next point is super important.
Watch out for becoming emotionally overwhelmed. Basically if you start to feel tense, holding your breath, clenching fists, raising your voice, stopping eye contact, or feeling really angry – you are getting overwhelmed. Research shows that when your pulse reaches 100bpm you are actually no longer capable of being rational (Gottman,1999). This is as good a time as any to call “time out” and cool off. Take a 30 minute breather, go for a walk and calm down. Make sure, though, that you are thinking about what your partner is trying to say, rather than self righteously reiterating your point to yourself. When you get back – start from the top with a gentle approach and see if you cant work things out this time.
Lastly – compromise. Make sure you have accepted some of what your partner is telling you and that you communicate what you intend to do differently next time. They should do the same. Make sure that neither of you are compromising too much – a compromise that amounts to a sacrifice will often end in resentment. So for example, if Rob were to give up his rugby for Sue – that would be a sacrifice. However, if he were to play rugby twice a month instead of every week so he could attend some of her functions – that would be a compromise.
The goal of any discussion / argument is to reach a compromise where both feel heard, understood and are willing to try meet the other one’s needs.
So there we have it friends – 4 steps to conflict resolution:
- Gentle approach
- Acceptance / empathy
- Avoid becoming emotionally overwhelmed and take time out
Till the next time:
“The biggest mistake is believing there is one right way to listen, to talk, to have a conversation — or a relationship.” – Deborah Tannen