Communication and problem-solving are very important components of relationships. It is important that both people see eye-to-eye and understand each other. And in order to help people do this, a number of strategies have been recommended to minimize conflict and help the other person feel loved.
The problem is that these strategies rarely accomplish this. And that is because they rely on telling a person that you are right and they are wrong. This rarely works in any situation, but in a conflict, that person will already be in a state of fight-or-flight, where their mind is looking for anything that might be a threat. And even the most dressed-up criticism will still trigger an “alert” in that person's mind. This “alert” will likely cause the person to either become defensive or shut down. Either way, they are not hearing what you are saying.
Here are some commonly-used relationship tools that are less than effective, as well as some recommendations for alternatives:
1. “I” Statements.
The thinking behind “I” statements is that it puts the focus on you and how something is effecting you, rather than blaming the other person. For example, if your partner is not helping with housework, you don't say, “You never help with housework.” Instead, you say, “I feel overwhelmed when I have to do all the housework.”
Why it doesn't work: First off, in “I” statements, you are placing the responsibility for your feelings in your partner's hands. To this end, you are personalizing their behavior. Your feelings are caused by your thoughts and perceptions, and nothing else. Also, “I” statements are just dressed-up criticism, and your partner's mind will detect this, leading to a fight-or-flight response.
What you should do instead: Ask questions. Instead of assuming that your partner's behavior has anything to do with you, ask your partner about it. Ask, “Why are you sitting down right now?” when you are doing housework. Then be curious about their response. It is important to approach this from a non-defensive or attacking position. There is a reason they are not helping. Perhaps they have stress at work and need some time to unwind, perhaps something is on their mind that is distracting them from noticing that you are working and they are not, or perhaps something else is going on. The only thing you know is that you don't know.
Also called “active listening,” paraphrasing is when you restate what they other person said, to show that you were listening to them. This also helps you from giving advice and trying to solve the other person's problem. For example, if you and your partner are disagreeing about the budget, and your partner says, “I don't see why you have to spend so much money buying clothes, when we can't even eat out once in awhile,” you might respond with, “So you're saying that you would like me to spend less on clothing, so that we can have the money to eat out.”
Why it doesn't work: First, if you respond without using the person's exact words, you run the risk of putting words into their mouth, which will lead them to be defensive. Also, while you are showing that you heard what they said, you are not taking steps toward solving the problem or clearing up and assumptions that either of you may be making.
What you should do instead: Listen to what the person says, then ask open-ended questions asking them to clarify. Be sure to use their exact words when you ask them questions, and approach it from the point of being curious, not defensive. Don't assume anything about what they mean. In the scenario described above, you could ask, “Why are you saying that you don't see why I have to spend so much money on clothes, when we can't even eat out once in awhile?” This will help you not to make assumptions, and it will help the other person to think about their reasons for saying what they do and to identify any assumptions that they are making.
3. Constructive criticism.
Constructive criticism is better than complaining, because it involves telling the other person specifically what needs changing, so that you two can come up with a solution together. An example would be telling your partner that he spends too much time hanging out with his friends, when you would really like him to spend more time at home.
Why it doesn't work: Constructive or otherwise, criticism is interpreted by the mind as a statement that you are right and they are wrong. This triggers the fight-or-flight response, leading your partner to either become defensive or shut down.
What you should do instead: Ask your partner about their behavior. Don't assume that you know why they are doing what they do. Everything that people do, they do for a reason. So be curious. Ask, “Why are you spending so much time with your friends?” This will give your partner a chance to look at their behavior and explain why they are doing what they do.
4. Balancing criticism with praise.
This advice urges you to give 10 positives for every negative. If you frequently praise your partner, that will soften the blows when you do give constructive criticism.
Why it doesn't work: Criticism is still criticism, even if you hide it in the middle of a bunch of compliments. It will still cause your partner to go into a state of fight-or-flight, where they will not hear what you are saying. Praise also loses its power, as the strongest relationships are those where both partners believe in themselves already and are not dependent on praise.
What you should do instead: Ask questions! Always be curious about your partner's behavior, and you will help both of you to grow in your understanding.
Replace these less-than-effective relationship tools with curiosity and asking questions, and you will see growth in your relationship as well as in both of your personal lives.
For help with improving communication in your relationships, consider an individual e-mail, chat, or Skype session.
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