By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
You’ve very likely heard these two words from your parents when you were growing up. If you’re a parent now, you may even say them to your own kids. They’re about as sensible as basic hygiene and car tune-ups.
I remember finishing up a particularly heated therapy session with a couple. My clients were getting ready to head out the door when the husband turned to me and said, “Can you give me a few words to keep in mind this week?” I said, “You bet I can: Be nice!”
It sounds so simple. How hard should it be to be nice, particularly to the people we love the most?
Unfortunately, many people are plagued with unresolved resentments and wounds which can make the simple notion of respectful communication anything but simple.
Additionally, many of us didn’t witness or receive respectful communication role-modeling as children, leaving us to fend for ourselves with the most important language skill that exists.
How do we stop the painful patterns of fighting and feuding? The first step is wanting to change. We have to be willing to look at our own part instead of consistently pointing out our partner’s part. We have to stay conscious during challenging communications instead of going on autopilot. We have to be humble enough to ask for do-over’s when we pounce instead of pause. We have to listen and try to understand instead of just wanting to be heard and understood. We have to want to make peace instead of only wanting to make our point.
Over the last few decades I’ve received a lot of questions from clients regarding the topic of kind communication so I thought I’d share a few of them with you. May these dialogues help you find more peace in your partnership, fewer disputes in your day, and more carefronting in your confronting.
Q: Are you saying I’m not supposed to get angry with my partner? It’s not realistic for me to be sweet and nice all the time.
A: Of course it’s not realistic for you to be sweet and nice all the time. The weather isn’t always sunny with a light breeze and neither are we. However, you can always be respectful, even if you’re angry. Not only will this help you be a better communicator in general, it will also help you get more of what I assume you want— a loving relationship.
So, even if you’re really angry with your partner, if you communicate in a kind, non-defensive manner, you’re much more likely to be heard and come to a resolution which will then give you less to be angry about and give your partner less to react to.
Q: I ask my husband all the time to do stuff around the house and he says he will but then he doesn’t. It seems like the only way he does things is if I yell at him. I do everything he asks me to do and he still can’t manage to do a few simple chores.
A: While it might seem like yelling is an effective form of communication, what it’s likely doing is undermining the tenderness and trust between the two of you. Yelling may even be contributing to some passive/aggressive behaviors on your husband’s part that could lead him to say “yes” but not follow through on his word.
How about sitting down with your husband at a time that works for you both and saying something like this: “I’m not sure what to do. You’ve agreed to (fill in the blank with the chore du jour) and yet you haven’t done it. I really don’t want to fight or repeatedly remind you, but I’m not sure what to do when you agree to do something and then you don’t do it. Do you have any ideas?”
Then, see if a respectful and mature dialogue ensues.
Also, you say that you do everything your husband asks you to do, but my guess is that what he would want most would be for you to be nice to him. So, in addition to the household chores and other practical things you’re doing for him, can you set an intention to be kind and respectful?
Q: Sometimes my wife and I are in the middle of a really important discussion and she shuts down. She either won’t say a word or she gets really mean. I don’t know what to do when this happens.
A: It sounds like your wife hits what I call an emotional landmine. She may not even be aware of what’s being triggered inside of her. Hopefully, she’s open to exploring her reactions, but regardless of whether she is, you can still do your best to remain calm and kind.
Try talking about this pattern when she’s not shut down or explosive. Ask her what she thinks would be most helpful during those challenging moments. It might be a comforting statement or a reminder that you’re on her side and you want to know what she’s feeling and needing. Some people feel reassured by physical touch when they’re triggered. Others want space and time.
Hopefully, she’s able to make requests that work for you so as a team there can be safety and healing in the relationship.
Q: It seems like no matter how nice I am to my husband he continues to be really mean and insulting. I’m not sure what else I can do to make things better?
A: The practice of being nice is not only about how you treat your partner. It also needs to be applied to yourself. While we’re only responsible for our side of the street in a relationship, we also get to decide what street we want to live on. It’s important to differentiate between someone who has anger issues, but is still a safe partner, and someone whose anger is unsafe.
If your husband is mean and insulting and unwilling to look at his part, change, or get help, it might not be a safe place for you to be. I’d recommend you seek individual counseling to sort that out and/or couples therapy if he’s open to it. Safety always comes first. If your husband is abusive, “Be Nice” becomes “Be Safe.”
Q: My wife accuses me of yelling at her all the time, but I only yell when she doesn’t listen.
A: This is a very common pattern for many couples. One person doesn’t feel heard, then raises their voice in attempt to be heard. Then the other partner goes into defense mode: yelling back, shutting down, or both.
I’m sure it must be very frustrating to feel like your wife isn’t listening, but unless you’re willing to speak in a respectful manner, tone, and volume, the chances are slim that she will.
Instead of trying to change her listening skills, how about changing your delivery and seeing what happens? The next time you feel like she’s not hearing you, try speaking very respectfully, like you would to an employer or a dear friend. Ask her if she’d be willing to take turns. One of you shares your thoughts, feelings, and needs and the other one really tries to listen and understand. Then you switch and repeat daily or as needed.