“If only they’d see things the way I see them, and do things the way I do them, life would be so much easier!” Sound familiar? It is very common in relationships to spend most of your time and energy on trying to get your partner to “see things your way” or to prove that you’re right and they’re wrong-to attempt to change them in order to make your relationship better. How is this working for you? Probably not very well. The problem with this strategy is that it places blame on the other person, causing them to feel defensive. From then on, they spend all of their time and energy trying to fight back, rather than attempting to listen to and understand what you’re saying. Pretty soon, one of you gives up and walks away, leaving the problem hanging awkwardly out in the open.
Rather than continuing this pattern, try something a little different and unexpected the next time you and your partner have a conflict.
Use “I”-Statements vs. “You”-Statements
“You” messages are about someone else, and are only guesses about that person. They are your perceptions about how someone else feels, what someone else needs, and about what someone else thinks. Using the word “you” during times of conflict is often what turns a potential problem-solving, bonding experience into a blame game (i.e. “You never care about what I have to say!”, “You nag me all the time!”, “You make me so angry!”). Instead of pointing the finger directly at your partner, focus on owning your emotions and expressing how you feel.
“I” messages are expressions about me. These expressions can focus on how I feel, on what I need/want, or about what I think. By using the word “I”, you can effectively express how your partner’s behavior is making you feel. This frees them up from having to be defensive, and allows them to listen to and understand where you’re coming from. Filling in the blanks of the following model can help you to practice this concept:
1. When you (Behavior) I feel (Feeling) because (Consequence).
2. I feel (Feeling) when you (Behavior) because (Consequence).
Assertiveness is the healthiest form of communication. However, most people tend to be passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive when communicating with their partners. The table below can help you identify your communication style, and what changes you may need to make in order to use more effective communication.
Validate and Listen to Your Partner
Much of getting your needs met in your relationship relies upon how you are treating your partner, and whether or not you are also meeting their needs. In order for them to be open to you, they must feel safe and validated. In other words, you don’t have to agree with them, but you must make it clear that you understand what they are feeling, and that it’s okay for them to feel that way. As you are able to grasp both what your partner FEELS and MEANS, not just what he/she is saying, he/she will feel understood, respected, and accepted.
In order to have the ability to validate your partner, you must know how to be a successful, reflective listener. Reflective listening means that you acknowledge your partner’s right to their feelings by demonstrating that you accept what they feel, as well as what they say. This does not mean you simply repeat back what your partner says to you. Instead, you must paraphrase the messages into your own words, and then state them to your partner. Be sure the emotional content of the original message is being reflected. This will communicate acceptance and empathy to your partner. You may use the following model in order to help you do this:
1. You feel _____________________because_____________________
2. You are _____________________because_____________________
3. It seems like you’re_______________________because_____________________
In Dr. Robert A. Hatcher’s poem Listening Poem, he sums up this concept perfectly:
When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving advice, you
have not done what I asked.
When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I
shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do
something to solve my problem, you have failed me,
strange as it may seem.
Listen! All I asked was that you listen, not talk or do,
Just hear me.
Advice is cheap: $1.00 will get you both Dear Abby and Billy
Graham in the same newspaper.
And I can do that for myself. I am not helpless; maybe
discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.
When you do something for me that I can and need to do for
myself, you contribute to my fear and inadequacy.
But, when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel,
no matter how irrational, then I can quit trying to convince you
and get about the business of understanding what’s behind this
irrational feeling. And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious
and I don’t need advice.
The reality is that you can’t control whether or not your partner changes their behaviors. However, you can change how you choose to interact with your partner, which, if done positively, will elicit more pleasing responses. Creating a healthy, successful relationship is complicated, and takes a lot of effort by both parties. It is very easy to get caught in negative patterns of blaming, accusing, and never-ending arguments. However, if you can learn to use “I” statements, be assertive, and validate and listen to your partner, you will begin to create a new pattern of positivity and closeness.
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