By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
I think it’s fair to say that the most common reason people argue is due to poor communication skills. While we were all taught many different subjects in school, healthy communicating generally wasn’t one of them. There are many styles of communication, but for the sake of simplicity, I will break it down into two general categories: closed and open. Or, speaking a little more clinically: defended and undefended.
Here’s an example of open, undefended communication, hot off the press: I recently shared some feelings of upset with my husband. Having been around the relational block a time or two, I know there are a lot of ways he could have responded. But what he did say completely melted my heart. He spoke six little words that had a very big impact. It was a simple sentence and I could tell it was sincere. He said, “I totally understand how you feel.” Wow, I thought, keep that one in your back pocket — it’s quite the crowd pleaser!
Most of us have not been taught how to speak or listen in effective and healthy ways. (There are no bad guys here. Our parents and their parents were not taught either so we are all in this communication boat together!)
If you would like some help with your communication skills, here are some tips to stop an argument in its tracks:
Tips for the speaker:
Say what you mean, but don’t say it mean. No matter what you are feeling (including anger), there is always a way to say it with respect. Speaking respectfully means making a decision to speak from your heart, rather than speaking from anger, fear, shame or whatever you happen to be feeling at the time. It means you don’t verbally attack, criticize or judge the other person. Instead, you speak with kindness, love and respect. Speaking from the heart does not guarantee that the listener will follow suit but it sure increases the chances that they might. And, even if the listener does not respond respectfully, by speaking kindly, from your heart, you are improving your own healthy communication skills and preventing an escalation of the conflict on your end. (The only end we are in charge of!)
When you have some intense feelings and thoughts to share with someone, try asking them first if it’s a good time to talk.
If you are really angry, and it’s possible to hold off, wait till you have calmed down a bit before you attempt to talk about it.
Speak from your heart in a respectful and non-judgmental manner and try not to assume you already know their motives.
Do your best to stay current in your relationships by addressing problems as they arise so that resentments don’t pile up.
When voicing your complaints, stick to one subject rather than bringing in a history of unresolved issues.
If you say or do something you regret, try to genuinely apologize and ask for a do-over. Then try it again in a more loving and respectful manner.
Make reasonable, specific requests for change. Be clear on what you are asking for. For example, “I’d like it if you made more of an effort to be on time.” Or, “I’m wondering if you can turn the computer off while we talk about this?”
After you respectfully speak your truth, make room to hear the other person’s side as well. (More on this one in a minute!)
Remind yourself that even healthy relationships have bumps in the road and that getting through conflicts can make a relationship stronger.
Remember that there is more to this relationship than this difficult time and try not to let one incident color your love and view of the other person.
Tips as a listener:
Try this CURE to improve your listening skills- Use the following acronym to assist you when someone speaks to you about their thoughts and feelings.
Curious — be open to additional understanding of what caused the conflict.
Undefended — accept the other person’s feelings and don’t blame them or defend yourself.
Respectful — speak kindly, even if you are very upset.
Empathic — stay sensitive to the other person’s feelings and really try to understand them.
As the listener, when someone shares their unpleasant feelings, it’s easy to become defensive, closed and stuck in our own point of view. The healthy alternative is to stay open to hearing their side and understanding their perspective. It’s about getting into the empathic position of wanting to understand what someone else is going through rather than the defensive position of explaining what we are going through. And the good news is that when both people are practicing healthy, respectful communication then they both end up feeling heard and understood! Talk about a win/win!
When someone shares their feelings with you, do your best to fully listen to them and try to understand their position until they really feel heard.
Remember that what they are sharing is really about their beliefs, feelings and experiences.
Try to keep the spotlight on the speaker and really stick to the subject they are talking about until it is complete. Don’t use this as a time to bring up your complaints about them. If you have unresolved issues, make a promise to yourself to bring them up at a later date.
Ask questions and inquire more about their experience, feelings and needs rather than rushing to get to your side of the story. (This can be challenging but can really increase the chances of a productive outcome.)
Give the speaker your undivided attention with good eye contact and respectful facial expressions.
Give others time to fully express themselves, including pauses and time for them to have their emotions and gather their thoughts.
Ask them what they are wanting and needing from you. Then let them know if you can do what they are requesting. If not, be kind in your explanation of why you can’t and consider a compromise or counter-proposal.
Do your very best to stay open to looking at your part in the problem. (This one is hard but it really helps melt resentments when we can honestly understand, apologize or own our part in a conflict.)
Once the speaker feels heard, focus on negotiating solutions and finding a common ground that you can both agree on. (Sometimes the resolution itself comes from fully hearing someone out and no further solution is needed!)
So the next time you have an urge to say something in a rude or caustic manner, try stating your feelings in a kind and respectful way and see what happens. (And, for bonus points, try keeping it up no matter how the other person responds!) Then, the next time someone tells you something that is difficult to hear, try responding in an open, non-defensive manner. Consider sentences like: “I will take a look at that,” “Thank you for letting me know,” or “It makes sense that you feel that way.”
If you are someone who finds yourself in too many argumentative conversations, give some of these tips a try. You will be amazed at how easy it is to stop an argument in its tracks.