When the winds of change blow, partners often respond to the situation differently. One may see a specific problem and want something in the relationship to change, while the other seems blissfully ignorant, irritatingly inattentive, and maybe even downright obstinate. So what happens from there? One partner wants to initiate change and opens up communication. While this has great potential, problems tend to arise unless the communicator has thoroughly considered their motives.
Why does communication in couples so often fall flat? I think we too often misuse communication to attack or control another person or a situation. Our communication tactics become a tool to dominate and a means for us to force change. Think about it: How many times have we yelled, nagged, remained silent, interrupted, or shamed a partner or child, all in the name of "growth" or "change"? Now let's pause to ask ourselves, "How well did that communication style actually work?" and "How effectively did it resolve the problem and enhance our connection?" My humble and honest answer to both questions is "Not well". I imagine yours is similar. So how about we consciously change our negative communication styles and start getting some real results?
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What would happen if communication became a tool to cultivate change in our relationships, rather than a means to place blame and criticize? Rather than scold our partners, James E. Sheridan encourages us to "recognize the moment as an opportunity to strengthen [our relationship], not undermine it." He cites research that spans almost a century, and consistently shows that praising a partner's positive behaviors generates more change mileage that criticizing their mistakes. And all those negative comments we make do more harm to our relationships than our positive remarks contribute. Yikes!
So here's my take on how to transform communication from a weapon (think "control and attack") into a tool of cultivation (think "real change").
Tip 1: Identify the purpose of the communication you seek.
Maybe you need to vent about something you can't change, like a difficult relative. Perhaps you want to understand something about your partner and their behavior, like their spending or drinking patterns. Maybe you want your partner to see how something in their behavior bothers you, like ignoring you at parties or staying glued to the iPhone.
Tip 2: Now run your purpose through a filter and identify your intention.
Are you preparing to dominate or to cultivate? If you're donning full commando gear, who is your identified enemy? Your partner? Pause, and consider that the real enemy is likely an unhealthy process that affects the two of you. Treating your partner as the enemy won't bring you closer together. Instead, ditch the war paint and imagine how you can talk to the one you love about the problem that bothers you. Decide how you intend to truly show up in this conversation: Do you want to be truthful and respectful or truthful and disrespectful? Imagine yourself as one whose goal is to cultivate the relationship. (Otherwise your communication style could seriously damage your bond).
Tip 3: With a filtered purpose in place, check your timing.
You're not planning a surprise attack because you want to discuss change in a way that brings you together. So take a look at your motives and check with your partner to see if they are ready and willing to talk to you; be upfront about the problem you want to discuss, as well as your intention — whether you want to vent about an issue or troubleshoot a problem. Your partner deserves and needs to know what's coming, in order to assess whether or not they are prepared. Timing is important because it can make or break effective communication. Ever tried to logically discuss something vitally important with someone who's three sheets to the wind, battling a raging hangover, or livid with anger? Pointless. Wait until their wise brain is back online.
Tip 4: When you get the green light that your partner is willing to talk, proceed with a wise and balanced approach.
Discuss the problem from your perspective, using I-statements, and acknowledge your partner's good points. It's more effective to say, "I feel _____ when you _______", rather than, "You make me feel _____ when ____". The first statement reveals something about you, while the second sounds like a judgment. What happens when you feel judged? Walls go up, right? So to keep effective communication flowing, choose a speaking style that removes blatant judgment. Talk about the problem as a process that affects both of you.
Tip 5: Attempt to sell change to your partner.
Rather than demand change, describe the benefits and advantages they will experience if the change occurs. How will their life be better, or the family's life improve? Perhaps demonstrate how a negative effect can be removed or reduced. Maybe children withdraw when parents constantly argue. So reduced arguing will bring the family together. Maybe alcohol abuse alienates you and its control will open opportunity for more together time and shared fun activities. Don't demand change with the force of a despot. Be sure to describe its benefits if you hope for real change that lasts.
I think that the curious paradox of relationships is that the greatest change often occurs when we begin to ask, "What needs to change in me?" I'd say that if you want real communication for real change in your relationship, let it start with you. Focus on a personal communication style that cultivates — not dominates. You'll be making leaps forward as a couple in no time!
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