It often catches me by surprise how two people that start their relationship so lovingly and full of hope and excitement end up in a place of discontent, anger, yelling, name calling, and ultimatums. Somewhere along their journey, the care and compassion that once was easy and seamless has dissipated and become something that at times, feels foreign and uncomfortable. This makes them wonder, “how did we get here?” Many of their attempts to fix the problems prove unsuccessful. They are unsure how they got to this place and equally unsure how to get out.
Couples often begin therapy due to communication difficulties and challenges and are peppered with resentment, anger, and sadness. They are looking for guidance and direction to help them determine if they can improve the way they communicate and manage disagreements all in the hope of salvaging their relationship. Many common traps that couples find themselves in that magnify problems in relationships and create a situation can quickly unravel in their relationship. Some of more common ineffective communication patterns are:
- Listening without hearing.
- Waiting for the person to finish speaking so the other can state their case and defend their position
- Interrupting the person when they feel they have been wronged. Often.
- Sticking their hand into the proverbial “grab bag” and bringing up a topic that is off topic yet remains unresolved.
- A desire to be right, so not to be wrong, regardless of the hurt or pain it might inflict.
Good and effective communication is not only a two-way process but the bedrock of a relationship. Without effective communication, a couple can find themselves in a deadlock, arguing over problems and issues that become circular in nature. Most people have not been taught effective communication skills so when couples attempt to have a conversation, without the right tools and strategies, it can often turn into an argument. They treat these conversations as debates and an argument soon ensues.
Because we all come from different backgrounds, our childhood experiences will shape how we view relationships and how we think people should communicate. Did your family yell? Were they quiet? Was there an undertow of tension? Was it ok to express how you felt about something? These answers often dictate how we communicate in our own personal relationships.
There is an inverse relationship between becoming more emotionally aroused and our ability to problem solve and reason. What does this mean? The more emotional we get the more difficult and challenging the conversation becomes. We become equally critical and this breaks down communication and any chance of understanding the person, let alone solution building. Yet, when the argument is over and cooler heads prevail, we can all admit to thinking and seeing things more clearly and in a different light — especially where the conversation took a nose dive and turned into an argument.
What are some common themes in arguments and what can we do at the beginning, being proactive, to prevent a conversation from becoming an argument, and less reactive? Read on for the six steps you need to take to have a healthy conversation with your partner.
1. Create The Conversation
Creating the conversation simply means having an effective communication process in place to prevent a conversation from escalating into a heated disagreement or argument because in the heat of the moment, its merely impossible to come up with strategies to communicate more effectively.
2. Stay On Topic
Staying on topic is one of the more challenging aspects of communication because in a flash, when we are arguing and feel we backed into a corner, are defenses up and we ready to fight. All unresolved issues quickly become fair game. Overwhelmed by the present, we have a knee jerk reaction to go back to the place we feel comfortable — the past! Here is what you can do:
- Develop a 5 minutes of "floor time" rule. This means each person gets to talk for 5 minutes.
- Develop and learn how to implement an agreed upon plan when either person starts to go off topic BEFORE you start the conversation. What would be a good word for each person to use when the other starts to do this? What are hot button issues? Decide this when you are not arguing and don't try to figure it out in the heat of the moment. One person has to be the voice of reason and rational if the other is being emotional. If this cannot happen, can you have a conversation after the argument is over and plan for the future?
- Go from an inappropriate reaction to an appropriate response. When we respond, it's that automatic response that often gets us into trouble. You will say and do something you will regret.
- Self regulate your emotions. When you are getting heated, step away, or say that you are getting heated. Work towards formulating a more rational appropriate response to the situation. This direction is more constructive and effective.
3. Stay In The Present Tense
It's so easy to refer to the past but it's important you stay on topic and the current issue. If staying in the present proves difficult, do the following to keep your partner on topic.
- Take a time out. I often suggest coming up with a plan before hand if possible or learning how to key in when a person becomes physiologically aroused. This is the time to take a time out or say I need a break. However, a break doesn't mean a permanent break it means a time out to cool down and then come back to start the conversation again.
- Make an agreement with your partner to either table the conversation or after a time out, come back to the conversation and that if it starts to heat up again, you both agree to stop.
- When the person brings up something from the past, instead of giving it energy, come up with an agreement to discuss that later. Agree upon a time to discuss it later and then honoring that time. No stonewalling.
- Stating, "I didn't know that was still bothering you" and askinf to talk about it at a later time will steer the conversation back on course. Keep reading...
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