“Can’t We Stop Fighting?” (Part 2 of 2)

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How to Improve Your Communication Skills
and Your Relationship

In Part 1 of this article I discussed some of the basics of dealing effectively with conflicts and disagreements in relationships, and some common traps as well as ways to avoid these traps. In this part, I will now describe how to develop strong communication skills along with practical suggestions on how these skills can be used to significantly enhance your ability to resolve conflicts.

Based on my many years of experience in this kind of work, the most important element for couples in resolving conflicts is to have the desire to learn how to improve their ability to resolve issues. What I mean is that they need to have the willingness to keep working at it until they develop the skill set they need to resolve the conflicts in their relationship. It is not about finding a resolution to a particular conflict that is the key, but rather about having both partners develop the skills needed to be able to resolve their current conflicts and any issues that might come their way. My job is to help them learn the skills they need so they can handle their own conflicts without my help.

A key aspect of the desire couples need is to want to truly understand your partner. I mentioned in Part 1 that both partners need to be able to understand where each other are coming from in order to effectively resolve their most difficult conflicts. The trick is to initially put aside our own desire for to be understood in order to truly understand our partner’s feelings and point of view. When he/she feels well understood then he/she will more likely be able to understand our own point of view.
With this foundation, following is a list of practical suggestions that, when properly applied, can make a huge difference in improving the communication patterns in any relationship:

  • Focus on understanding your partner’s point of view before asking him/her to understand your own;
  • Be sure to listen carefully to the content of your partner’s communication, but also be sure to listen to the emotional content, without judging it or trying to change it;
  • For particularly troublesome topics, it is often helpful to repeat back to your partner what has just been said using your own words (paraphrasing), in order to make sure that you completely understand the communication;
  • Remind yourself that understanding someone else’s perspective does not in any way indicate that you are in agreement with either that perspective or what he/she wants you to do (this mindset often makes it easier to understand and accept your partner’s perspective);
  • Avoid responding to your partner in a defensive manner, rather be sure to respond respectfully even if you disagree;
  • When it is time for your partner to hear your response, be sure to communicate your own point of view with ‘I-statements’ rather than blaming statements (see below);
  • And most importantly, keep the discussion focused on the current issue at hand rather than re-arguing unresolved issues from the past.

Let me elaborate on what I mean by the term ‘I-statements’ in case you are not familiar with the term or the concept. It is very typical for couples to discuss their conflicts by beginning with “You…” as in these examples: “You never take out the trash”, or “You will never get that room painted, and you always leave it up to me to finish the work.”, etc. What may not be recognized is that such statements are usually heard as accusing or blaming statements, even if that was not what you meant. Think of it as having someone wag a finger at you in a scolding manner and telling you how you have messed up. The usual outcome of this type of communication is increased defensiveness from your partner and an increased likelihood of escalation into an argument.

I encourage couples to get into the habit of starting their communication with “I feel/felt [blank] when [such and such happened]…” This takes away the “wagging finger” and more easily taps into the problem-solving mode for both partners: Did I perceive it wrong? Am I missing some important piece of information? Does this issue resurrect one of my old hurts? Can something be done differently by either or both of us in the future?…etc.

If we take the examples I mentioned previously and use the ‘I-statements’ approach, they might look like this: “I feel frustrated that it is up to me to take the trash out again. I thought we agreed that you would do it.” This statement captures the operative emotion of frustration, focuses on the current instance rather than using ‘always/never’ terms, and points to a previous agreement on separation of labor. The second example might be approached this way: “I feel angry that the painting of the room wasn’t completed when I expected. I am even wondering if you avoided doing it so that I would do it instead.” Again, the operative emotion is stated up front without being accusing. The second sentence in this example raises the issue of whether there was an intention to avoid the work, but it is not presented as a foregone conclusion and opens the point for further discussion. Difficult issues can be addressed this way which will be more productive then the defensive arguments couples get into when one or both partners feel like they are being accused of causing problems.

By using the above suggestions in a consistent way, and focusing on using ‘I-statements’, couples are often amazed at how effective their communication can become, and how they are much more able to resolve their conflicts. My hope is that you will find these ideas and suggestions helpful in your own relationships. Please remember that there are many ways of resolving seemingly insurmountable conflict utilizing effective communication skills. If you would like more information, or would like to meet with a therapist to help you put these skills in practice, please contact us at 313-359-1977, or use our contact form.

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