My ideas are based on my observations of working with hundreds of couples over the last 6 years.
1. Seek to understand before trying to be understood.
One of the most common negative patterns I see in my work with couples is the cycle of criticism and defensiveness. This often happens when you hear something you perceive as an attack or criticism from your partner, which leads you immediately to defend yourself.
This pattern sets both of you up not to be heard. As soon as you start to defend your position, you’ve lost the opportunity to understand your partner. Even if you feel under attack or think you hear a criticism, try to understand your partner’s thoughts and feelings before you respond.
2. Slow down your communication to truly hear your partner.
Many issues get out of control because once this dynamic of criticism and defense is under way, the interaction often moves very quickly. When your communication is speeding up, you can miss a lot of important information that your partner is expressing. This fast pace also increases the volatility of your discussion, making it harder for you to keep the conversation calm.
If you notice that your discussion is moving too quickly, intentionally put on the brakes and slow down the exchange. Make sure your partner knows you truly want to understand what he or she is saying. This helps defuse the reactivity and allows you to continue to communicate in an adult-to-adult way.
3. Be curious about your partner’s perspective.
This one is easier said than done when you’re feeling blamed, criticized or attacked. However, one of the best things you can do in such circumstances is to be curious about your partner’s perspective. This can be disarming in a positive way, and it immediately helps de-escalate the rising tension between you.
By being curious, you can learn new things about your partner, as well as support your conversation in moving toward a resolution. You can still disagree with your partner’s perspective and remain curious and interested in how their view is different from yours. Practice this next time you feel a heated discussion coming on and see what happens.
4. Recognize your emotional triggers and learn to self-soothe.
When you know what your emotional triggers are, it allows you to be aware when the potential for their activation is present. We all bring ‘baggage’ into our relationships — from our childhood, previous relationships, school experiences and of course, our family of origin. There’s no such thing as a person who is ‘baggage-free;’ however, you can use your awareness of your hot spots to know when they are likely to be triggered.
Practice observing yourself, even when you feel triggered by your partner. See if you can name it by saying “I’m feeling [insert feeling] now, and I think it’s also touching something in my past that’s not related to you.” By naming the trigger, it helps your partner understand that there’s more at play here than just the current conversation. This understanding can help both of you be less reactive in the moment.
5. Practice using empathy to foster a closer connection.
Empathy is the fuel of good relationships. Being empathic is about imagining yourself walking in your partner’s shoes seeing the world from their perspective. When you can respond empathically to your partner, it facilitates a deeper bond and creates a strong sense of safety and trust between you. When you’re feeling attacked, however, this is the last thing you feel like doing. It does require you to be able to step outside yourself and begin to appreciate a reality different from yours.
Practicing empathy does not mean that you have to completely surrender and give up what you want or give up your own reality. It just means you need to suspend your own perspective, even momentarily, so you can appreciate the smallest part of how your partner sees things. Start small – even if you’re imagining only one to five percent of what your partner feels — and then build on that. Your partner will feel the shift and will be able to let down his or her guard a little, opening up the possibility of a better connection.
6. Listen for the hidden unmet need or emotion.
When your partner is in distress and voicing a complaint or you’re feeling criticized or blamed, there’s always some unmet need, want, desire or unexpressed emotion underlying this cry. The challenge for you is to go underneath the overt complaint and see if you can tap into the hidden emotion. By uncovering this emotion and tentatively asking if the covert emotion is also going on for your partner, you can bypass the surface anger, irritation or resentment and cut to the core emotion that needs to be validated.
This is no easy task, as it requires you to figuratively step up and out of the current conflict and to look and listen for what’s not being expressed. It also requires you to suspend your own reactivity and defensiveness in order to connect with your partner’s deeper needs. When you find yourself in a conflict situation, pause for a moment and see if you can feel what else in the conversation your partner is not expressing. To help you with this, remind yourself that your partner is in distress, but is not able to share the whole picture of the distress with you. Listen carefully for this and use your curiosity to find out what else is not being overtly shared.
7. Anticipate issues before they become issues.
Many current issues could have been dealt with much earlier in the relationship, but weren’t. Avoiding talking about small issues often can lead to unresolved issues festering and expanding over time, only eventually to explode and become much bigger than they were initially. You may not want to rock the boat when things seem to be going well. You may believe that nothing good comes of raising complaints or issues.
The reality is, couples who seek to avoid conflict almost always end up in lots of it. Get into the habit of naming and flagging issues with each other, even when they are small. One of the ways to do this is to have a regular check-in to discuss current issues and assess where your relationship is going. Over time, this structure can help you feel more confident about your ability to effectively deal with conflict and disagreements.
Communication in a relationship requires constant attention. Start with the basics and establish rituals of communication and connection to ensure the longevity of your love and connection with each another.