“Better to put your heart on the line, risk everything, and walk away with nothing than play it safe. Love is a lot of things, but “safe” isn’t one of them.”
~ Mandy Hale
Communication can tie us up in knots sometimes.
We often know the right things to say and do, and yet somehow, when a conversation gets just a little too close to one of our “hot buttons” we find ourselves doing all of the “don’t’s” - raising our voices, attacking the person instead of the problem, making accusations, not listening, shutting down, interrupting… and on and on.
This is why the single most important thing we can do while in a difficult conversation with someone we love is to keep our bodies calm.
Ok stop laughing… it really is possible! Let me explain:
I know it feels at times like your partner is on your last nerve, but in truth, you are. To be more specific, you are on your Vagus Nerve. Whenever we have strong emotional reactions the body automatically squeezes the pelvic floor which then pinches the Vagus Nerve. The Vagus Nerve then sends a signal to our brain to turn on our automatic fight, flight, freeze or fawn response, (the Sympathetic Nervous System,) and turn off our thinking brain, (the Neocortex.) Our bodies flood with cortisol and adrenaline, leaving us with that jittery, somewhat out of control feeling.
This is why words you don’t want to say are rushing out of your mouth like a tsunami, and why your partner is trying desperately to get away from you!
Or for some people, this is why you are shutting down and trying to melt into the floor, unable to say the things you know you really need to say. You are angry, or frustrated or sad or feeling threatened, and you are entitled to your feelings! Expressing them this way, however justified, very likely keeps your partner from truly understanding a single thing you are trying to communicate.
At risk of being baldly sexist, I’m going to make a sweeping generalization: Most cishet males are enculturated to take the path of least resistance, and to try and “fix” problems rather than empathize. When faced with a rushing wave of emotional water, a man who is wired this way is likely to run, to minimize, or to say anything he can just to make you stop. I’m going to guess that this was not your goal. You wanted him to hear you and to care, right?
In order to use all of the communication tools you’ve worked so hard to learn, you are going to need to first shift your emotional car into neutral.
In a healthy-enough relationship, when one partner says “when I thought that you (perceived infraction,) it left me feeling really (fill in the blank,)” the other partner is believed. Proving the enormity of the feeling with raised voices, interruptions, inflammatory speech or personal attack, uncontrollable crying, or by withdrawing into a far corner of your mind to stay feeling safe only gets in the way of what you really want to communicate.
Our feelings are chemical firings that come from how we interpret situations. When we intentionally get off of our last nerve, we have the emotionally flexibility to consider a wider array of possible interpretations. We have room to hear the other person’s very different understanding of the same events. It’s also a heck of a lot better for your blood pressure. Once the body is calm we can have a constructive dialogue that leads to important change. We can hear one another. But how?
For the sake of space, I will offer one technique here and give you a link for four others.
The most subtle and probably easiest technique to employ in a difficult conversation is peripheral vision. When we get angry, hurt, fearful, upset or what have you and start into that unhelpful body reaction, our vision literally and automatically narrows. As strange as this might sound, the simple act of softening our eyes and taking in our peripheral vision as widely as possible on either side of our heads sends our bodies the signal that we need our thinking brain engaged and our reactive brain turned off.
Why? Because the Neocortex controls the peripheral vision. By waking our peripheral vision up we automatically relax the pelvic floor and stop the flood of cortisol and adrenaline that’s getting us tangled up in our communication. Using peripheral vision sends the signal to the body and brain that we are safe enough and do not have a use for the reactive brain. It goes to sleep and we can think much more clearly.
The other four techniques for getting off of your last nerve can be found in the “Changing Anxious Chemistry” section of www.mypeace.co/anxiety.
The process of stopping anxiety is identical to stopping the angry, frustrated, overwhelming reactions we have when talking about difficult things with our partners. Practicing these techniques when you don’t need them creates neural paths in your brain so that you are much more likely to recall them when you do need them, even though the area of the brain that stores them is starting to go offline in the presence of adrenaline. You will also lower your overall body reactivity, leaving you physically and emotionally healthier. Some of the techniques can be done while you are in the conversation with your partner, and others are ones you might need to take a break to go do, returning to the conversation when you are more centered and effective.
Please read the articles written by my colleagues on this site in this same section. You will find all sorts of very helpful advice that -- now that you can get off of your last nerve -- you can use well as you have those difficult conversations with your partner without pushing him away. You’ll thank yourself.
Because women are sometimes more in touch with and verbal about emotions than men are, it’s vital that they think about what effective communication is with the opposite sex. That said, it’s equally the job of males to realize emotional gender differences and consider how to best express their thoughts and feelings with females.
For now, here are several strategies for women who want to improve their communication skills or style.
Timing is everything
Make sure that when you want to talk is a good time to share what you need to say. That often means directly asking, “Do you have a few minutes to chat?” or “Could you let me know when you have time to talk?” There’s nothing worse than charging into a conversation the minute your partner walks in the door, when he’s exhausted and ready to go to sleep, or when he’s in the midst of exercising or meditating. Be considerate.
Good timing also means that you don’t want to approach your partner when you’re in a rage. Take time to calm down, which doesn’t mean to back down from what you want to say. It matters how you express yourself. If you want to be listened to, you’re going to need to speak in a way that your partner will want to hear you.
Set expectations beforehand
Along with finding the right moment to communicate, it’s important to let your
partner know how long you think the conversation will take. There’s a big difference between having a chat about bids on getting a new roof and deciding whether or not to have children. Be specific if you can by saying, “I’d like 5 minutes to talk about what we’re bringing to the barbecue this weekend” or “Do you have 30 minutes to go over our vacation itinerary?”
State your purposes
So often people jump into talking about a subject that’s been on their minds and take the other person completely off guard, leaving them with no idea what the subject of discussion is. If you want to talk about the kids, say so and be specific. “I’d like to talk to you about Joey’s poor grades in math” or “It’s time we have a conversation with Layla about how to get her to clean up her room. I’d like to hear your ideas.”
Do unto others
Rehearse what you want to say and make sure that you’re not using any triggering words. Let’s face it, most of us know our partner’s hot buttons and are wise to keep away from them. If your husband’s father always called him lazy to prod him to do household chores, you’ll want to avoid that word.
If your boyfriend grew up poor, you’ll want to be careful when you talk about money issues not to make him feel less than due to all the amenities he lacked in childhood. This doesn’t mean that you need to walk on eggshells around him. Just that you want to be thoughtful about the words you choose.
Just because you’re a rapid responder, doesn’t mean your man will have answers for you on the tip of his tongue. If he’s someone who requires time to cogitate when you ask him a question, give it to him. If he says he’ll get back to you, it’s fine to ask when, but other than in emergencies, don’t be a nag. Be clear about when you want an answer or further information from him and check in that this is doable for him.
One of the most useful strategies for communicating with your partner—or with anyone, for that matter—is to check in with them about how you’re doing. Therapists call this asking a process question. You’re not speaking of a particular content (cleaning out the garage, visiting your parents or sharing kitchen duties). You’re asking your partner how your attempts at communication are going. You want to know what you’re doing right so that you can repeat it and what you’re doing wrong so that you can avoid it.
Having this “process” discussion will help improve future discussions. Feel free to ask for suggestions about what works best for your partner and then, if they’re feasible, agree to follow through with these actions.
Communication, including arguments, exists for the purpose of gathering information that can lead to greater understanding and resolutions. If you find that when you try to communicate your partner withdraws, he may be conflict-avoidant or there may be something in your style that is off-putting.
Ask yourself the following:
- Do you fight to win?
- Do you always need to be right?
- Do you need to get in the last word?
- How well do you listen?
- Are you listening with one ear while preparing your comeback?
These are all common communication errors.
Good listening is actually pretty difficult. It requires one to set aside any personal agenda and really pay attention to what somebody else is feeling or thinking. It requires a stance of neutrality that allows you to take in the information without a pre-conceived idea of the outcome.
In most cases it’s not a question of being right or wrong. It’s just that people are different and often have different points of view. Differences are normal. Those differences are also what might make a relationship more interesting. Finding common ground or learning to compromise is a necessary skill in a relationship. To do that you both have to be able to listen.
Here are some tips:
- You have to manage your emotional reactivity. If you are triggered you will not be able to take any of the following tips. Call the discussion off until you can both be calm enough to hear each other.
- One person is the speaker and one person is the listener
- Otherwise the conversation could escalate into a fight.
- The listener’s job is to be curious about what the speaker has to say. Summarizing what you are hearing is a good way to make sure that you are getting the information correctly.
- The listener must be civil and it helps to speak in “I-statements”. “I-statements” make it harder to be critical. You are talking about yourself, not your partner.
- Both speaker and listener need to remember that most information is subjective. Try not to take the information personally. Nobody else can define you.
Good listening is a skill worth cultivating.
While communication isn’t the only dynamic of a healthy relationship, it is really important. Remember to refrain from criticism or defensiveness. Never try to win a fight. Winning the fight usually means losing the war.
Good communication works to pull people toward you and create greater connection—even when discussing problems or differences. While poor communication pushes people away and hurts their feelings. Here’s some things to keep in mind:
Words to avoid. Obviously, name calling, insults, put downs, and sarcasm should be avoided—even in jest. You may think you’re teasing, but you never know how the other person will react.
It may be surprising to learn that it’s best to avoid using the words YOU, BUT, and CAN’T. The word YOU typically implies that a criticism is coming. The word BUT negates everything that has just been said. And the word CAN’T is just plain discouraging and almost always means you don’t want to do whatever is being asked, So, you’re sending a double message of rejection. It’s better to focus on what you can and will do instead.
Be open and direct. Say YES and NO clearly. Don’t make your guy guess what you really want. Don’t make excuses but give your reasons clearly and with thoughtfulness.
Speak up quickly. When he’s doing something you don’t like, don’t wait days or weeks to let him know. Waiting leads to you becoming more and more upset, and then you’re more likely to blow up rather than make a calm, clear statement.
Use the YALE communication model. I teach all my client to use this step by step model, because it is clear and really works—even with difficult people. When something is happening and you want to let him know your feelings and wants concerning it, these steps work the best.
- When ____X____ happens
- I feel__________________
- I would like_____________
- I will need to ___________
Instead of saying when YOU do such and such…..You say When I see your clothes lying around on the floor. A statement about the event, not the person. This is less threatening and less personal.
Then state your feelings.
The difficulty here is that often you don’t really know what you feel. So, take some time to figure that out ahead of the conversation. The other difficulty is that most people don’t know how to express a feeling without also an opinion about the other person. Say, I feel hurt, sad, angry, delighted, overwhelmed, etc. Just words about YOUR feelings. Always avoid saying, I’m angry that you….. Because then you’re making it about him instead of the problem, and this won’t feel good so he’s more likely to move away or even fire back something like…Well, you do that too.
Often these two steps are all you’ll need for most problems and concerns.
You can even use it to express appreciation and thanks. However, if the issue indicates a conflict or dispute between you, using the third step will be clarifying. E.g. I would like a clean floor, I would like to discuss this with calm voices, I would like the car to be fixed by next week. Again, try to avoid using the word YOU. Make statements about the solution that you would like, not about him.
The last step is used only if the first three steps don’t result in an agreeable solution.
The problem is still there, you and he haven’t come to s joint solution, so what do you do? When it’s an issue that YOU find distressing, then it is ultimately you who needs to find a solution—even if he doesn’t want to participate. This step takes some real thought. What do you need to do to solve the problem for yourself. Here’s some examples:
He keeps shouting.
You say, I will need to leave this conversation until we are both calmer.
He refuses to do his part of the cleaning.
You say, I will need to hire someone to do your part of the cleaning.
He always wants to stay later at social events.
You say, I am going to go in my own car, so I can go home when I’m tired.
Again, it’s not about criticizing him, it’s about solving the problem. If you stay focused on the problem instead of the person, you can usually find solutions that satisfy both of you.