Communication tools: How to turn an argument into a productive conversation

There is a dynamic that occurs in almost all close, long-term relationships between two people (usually who love each other) in which we begin to focus too much on what the other person is doing wrong, instead of what we should be doing differently.  Although we don’t realize we are doing it and don’t really intend it to be this way, it ends up becoming somewhat of a blame game.

What happens is that each partner begins to think, feel and say, “If you would just do/not do x, y and z everything would be fine.”  Meanwhile the other partner is thinking, feeling and saying, “If you would just do/not do a, b and c everything would be great.”  Each partner is busy trying to change the other partner and is continually annoyed that nothing changes.  Over and over each partner tries the same tactic again, and is frustrated that again…nothing changes.

There are three important things that BOTH partners need to do to avoid this game:

(They are easier said than done.)

1. When you give messages to your partner, try to word the message in a way that focuses on how your partner’s behavior affects you, not in a way that sounds attacking or blaming.

For example, “It hurt me (or made me feel discounted, not cared for etc.) when you….” vs. “You are being an insensitive jerk.”  This is a rather extreme example, but what happens with many statements that do not focus on how you feel, but instead focus on your partner’s behavior, is that your partner’s first instinct is to defend himself or herself.  What often happens, is that your partner defends himself or herself by either denying that he/she did what you say he/she did or he/she tells you that you should not feel the way you do.  Or, he/she counter attacks with something you have done that he/she did not like.

2. When you receive messages from your partner/your partner tells you how he/she feels, don’t be defensive, accept it and take it as feedback.

When your partner tells you his or her feelings, there is really only one thing to say, “Ok, I hear you, what can I do to help you not feel that way?”  If your partner gives you constructive feedback, rather than defend yourself you can say, “Ok, I accept that, I will try to take that into consideration/work on that.”

The issue is, when someone tells you how he/she feels, there is no point in telling him that he should not feel that way.  He just told you he does.  You probably did not intend to make him/her feel that way, and it is likely uncomfortable for you that you did, so people’s first instinct is to try to talk their partner out of feeling that way, or to defend themselves.  Even if you feel your partner is being oversensitive, there is no point in trying to talk him/her out of it.

Feelings are not logical, they just are.  You cannot change your partner’s feelings, nor can he/she, for that matter. In fact, the more you try to talk him/her out of feeling that way, the more vigorously he/she is likely to justify it (and the more vigorously you will feel the need to defend, and on and on).  Your partner is who he or she is.  All you can do is say to yourself, “My partner feels this way. I do not want him/her to feel this way, but I can’t change his/her feelings. The only thing I can do is to try to look at what I may be doing to contribute to/cause this.”  If you say to your partner, “Oh, I don’t want you to feel that way, I will certainly try to work on that,” it sure takes the wind out of the sails of any argument that was brewing.

Even if you still believe your partner is being oversensitive or wrong, you do not have to agree with him/her to acknowledge his/her feelings and let him/her know you will do what you can to avoid his/her feeling that way in the future.

 3. Take an honest look at yourself, taking into account the feedback you are receiving from your partner and change your behavior.

This is often hard to do.  Instead of focusing on your partner’s behavior each partner must turn the spotlight onto himself or herself.  Another example may help to drive this point home:

Partner 1 says to partner 2: “You are so critical.  All you do is criticize me!” (blames, attacks)

Partner 2: “I am not critical, you are so oversensitive!”  (defends, counterattacks)

Instead: Partner 1: “I feel like I can’t do anything right.  I feel hurt and unappreciated when you don’t notice what I do well.”

Partner 2: “Ok, I am sorry, I will try to tell you more how much I really do appreciate what you do.”

Here is a silly example that will make these dynamics more clear:

Tom says to his wife, Susie, “You never say thank you!”

Susie: “You are crazy, I say thank you all the time!! What are you talking about???”

Tom then defends his position, Susie continues to defend hers and it becomes a huge argument.  (Although this is a relatively benign example, you can see how this can become a huge argument, and something more emotionally charged can escalate even more quickly.)

If Tom and Susie were to follow the guidelines above, Tom would instead say, “I feel unappreciated.”  Although you may have heard before, that it is important to make “I feel” statements, I do not believe this is enough to prevent arguments.  This is because Susie loves Tom and when Tom says he feels unappreciated, she still feels attacked!  In her heart, Susie feels she does appreciate Tom, but Tom does not feel it, so there is a problem in the communication between what is in Susie’s heart and what Tom feels.  Susie needs to look at that.  The bottom line is that she does not want Tom to feel this way, but telling him he is wrong to feel that way is counterproductive (just as if someone came into my office and said, “I feel depressed” and I said to them, “well you shouldn’t!” That certainly would not be a productive session).

So Susie, knowing there is no point in arguing with how Tom feels says, “Ok I hear you what can I do to make you feel more appreciated?”

Tom says, “Well, you could thank me more and tell me you love me more.”

Susie says, “Ok, I guess I can try harder to show you I appreciate you.”

Something people often have trouble with, is when Tom’s feelings are unjustified.  What then?  Is Susie supposed to agree with Tom’s feelings even if his feelings are unjustified?  The answer is, she does not have to agree with him, but she has to accept his feelings and it is unproductive to argue with him about his feelings.

Now in order to make this point, I am going to make my example a little ridiculous.

Let’s imagine that everyone in Tom’s history did not appreciate him (his mother, his father, his siblings, his first wife etc).  That is Tom’s baggage.  When Susie married Tom, she married him baggage and all.  She could not say to him come on into the “room of this marriage” but leave your baggage outside because I am not dealing with that!”  Susie married Tom, baggage and all (and vice versa).  Now let’s also imagine that Susie has a certificate that says she is the MOST appreciative person on the face of the planet.

So when Tom says to Susie, “I feel unappreciated” Susie is thinking to herself, “this isn’t about me, because I am the most appreciative person on the face of the planet.”  However, if she were to say that to Tom he would feel he needed to justify his feelings (because he genuinely feels them) and it would end up in an argument.  If instead Susie says, “Ok I hear you, what can I do to make you feel more appreciated?” she is not agreeing, she is just accepting.  Since she married Tom baggage and all, she realizes this means she may have to try harder to show him her appreciation, than if she had married someone without this baggage.  So she has to be willing to go the extra mile to make Tom feel appreciated.

Tom may think about it and say, “Well, you could thank me more—hmm… I guess you do thank me a lot.  You could say you love me more…uh I guess you do that too.”  This allows Tom to realize on his own that his feelings may not make a lot of sense and have more to do with past experiences than with Susie.  This may allow him to look at the actual cause of the problem much sooner than if Susie had argued with him about how he feels.

In a relationship nothing will change if each partner blames the other for the problems and waits for his or her partner to change.

Change can only happen when each partner is willing to turn the blaming finger onto him or herself and examine what his/her part in the relationship issues are and make appropriate changes in himself or herself.  Each partner needs to ask him or herself, “What can I do to make this relationship better?”

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