All couples experience moments or periods when their communication focuses more on “who’s right” instead of “how can we understand each other”. The difference is profound.
Focusing on “who’s right” can slowly deteriorate what probably started as a warm, respectful, lively and collaborative relationship into a reactive, competitive, defensive “war of words”.
The basic key to avoiding the tendency to want to WIN the “who’s right” competition is by using words that express feelings respectfully and responses that are based on empathy and respect.
Using an “I” message to convey your feelings
When your partner has said or done something that has provoked an emotional response in you it is more effective and respectful (after some deep breathing to calm down) to use what is called an “I” message.” The format sounds simple…but the result is profound. Clearly say:
When you______ Clearly say the action or words your partner has done or said that provoked a feeling in you.
I feel_______ Stay away from words like ANGRY (because it’s usually a secondary emotion, covering up a more vulnerable one.) Words like confused, disappointed, hurt, sad, unsure, lonely, frustrated etc. are feeling words that do not blame, shame, judge or defame your partner.
Because_______ This is the reason you feel the way you do.
An example might be: When you came home and went right to your computer…
I feel (or felt) disappointed and sad…
Because it seemed like I was sort of invisible to you.
You can follow this up with one more “I” message….but make sure you are not attacking or judging your partner.
Reflective or empathic listening
This part is the key to warm and empathic communication. It is called “Reflective or Empathic Listening”.
This is when it is not about your feelings….but it is your way of articulating the feelings in your partner without judging or negating them.
It’s best to communicate this in a “conditional” way, meaning that since you can’t read anyone else’s mind….this is your best attempt to articulate the feelings in your partner and why they may feel that way.
An example (after your “I” messages) might be: It seems like you feel misunderstood or blamed because I’m taking this so personally or it sounds like you feel sad or confused or frustrated because you didn’t mean to ignore me.
These empathic communications (spoken in a warm or neutral way) are vital to letting your partner know that you understand how he/she feels and are not judging his/her feelings.
Make sure that you don’t add “BUT” at the end of your empathic, reflective statement. If you add “but”…it will undo all your empathy. End there.
Don’t return to an “I” message” at that time.
The reason that this kind of empathic, respectful communication is effective is because people tend to calm down when they feel understood and not blamed, judged or attacked. This kind of communication fosters trust, warmth, and understanding of both partners….even through a difficult time.