Contrary to popular belief, being a “good communicator” isn’t an innate skill that you’re either born with or you’re not. The myth that good communication skills should come naturally to most people couldn’t be more ill-informed. While it’s true that some lucky individuals have better natural skill at being able to discuss their feelings and communicate with others effectively, many of us could surely stand to learn a thing or two to better help our partners (and ourselves) feel better understood during hard conversations.
Effective communication takes practice, understanding, forgiveness, and empathy. In romantic relationships, while deep in the trenches of a heated argument – taking a deep breath and actually trying to understand how your partner is feeling – right then in that moment – is often the last thing we want to do. It’s easy to get swept up in a cycle of defending yourself when you feel attacked, finding yourself arguing the same cyclical points over and over and not really making any progress.
The problem is that many fights erupt from two people truly misunderstanding each other – they arise because one person assumes how and what the other person was thinking (or not thinking) at a given time, and is hurt or angered by it. What happens then is that the other person feels that they are being unfairly attacked because whatever their actual intentions were at the moment in question were actually completely different from what their partner thinks. What results is a spiral of anger, blame, hurt, and inefficiency. Here are some foolproof tips for helping your partner feel more understood and supported:
Do not interrupt each other. Period.
We all know how tempting it is to interrupt someone when we disagree with what they’re saying or think we’re clarifying an important detail. The problem is that what you really say when you interrupt someone is: I don’t care or respect what you have to say enough to let you finish. What I want to say is more important than letting you finish your thought. The very first step in resolving a disagreement is to set an environment of respect and consideration; and this requires that you let each other finish complete thoughts.
Listen to understand, not to respond
In the midst of an argument, it can be really, really tempting to rebut whatever the other person’s just said about the situation and your involvement in it that you disagree with. The problem with jumping right into your counterargument after the other person’s just explained their side, though, is that they don’t get the acknowledgement that they need to move on. When you immediately jump into your own points, you don’t validate to them that you understand what they’re feeling (and how your own actions or words were involved). Discussions like this quickly become a game of who can talk louder or faster, and suddenly you become two people talking at each other instead of with each other. In the end, nothing really gets solved because no one really feels “heard.”
The way to avoid this is by shifting your goals in the midst of a tense conversation from responding to what the other person said, to instead trying to empathically and authentically understand their experience. This means temporarily putting yourself in their shoes as much as you can – and really trying to hear and understand why they are feeling the way they are. This does not mean that your feelings are no longer valid or that you don’t have any reason to be upset yourself – it just means that you’re actually taking the time to attempt to authentically understand each other. From understanding comes growth and progress, and helps ensure that neither of you feel “alone” in your experience at the end.
Learn to paraphrase first
When your partner finishes their point in the midst of a tense or important conversation, the very first thing you need to do is paraphrase what they just said. It can be so tempting to jump right into what you’ve been thinking about retorting this whole time, chomping at the bit to get your word in. The reality is that this quickly becomes an unproductive cycle of speaking your minds back-and-forth without really acknowledging or addressing the root of the problem or the other person’s feelings. Paraphrasing what your partner just spoke can feel really counterintuitive at first, especially when they’ve just said something that’s insulting or offensive to you. It might feel very strange the first few times you do it, but trust us, this is a game-changer. We all just want to feel that we’re supported and understood, and a surefire way to do that for your partner is to repeat in your own words what they’ve just said to you. Only after you have validated their experience can they feel that you care and that you understand; and only from mutual understanding can you resolve your differences. Here are some sentence-starters:
- “What I’m hearing you say is….”
- “From what I understand, you’re feeling like…”
- “I hear you. It seems like you felt … when ….”
- “Let me see if I got this right….”
And don’t forget to give your partner the opportunity to correct you if what you’re saying isn’t quite what they meant.
Don’t take everything personally
Sometimes we feel insulted when someone tells us that something we did or said made them feel a certain negative way. We are offended by their hurt in some way because deep down, we don’t think what we said should have made them feel that way. The truth is that we just don’t get to decide this. We don’t get to say someone’s feelings aren’t valid – this is the opposite of empathy and puts a major roadblock in any progress moving forward. As hard of a pill as it may be for us to swallow, we need to remember that we are responsible for our impact just as much as our intention. We are not absolved of the ripple effect our actions and words cause, even if our intention was lightyears away from our memory of what happened.
Remember that people often project their feelings onto others as a way of defending their self-worth and ego. This is a natural part of being human, and while we can take steps to reduce it in ourselves, at the same time we can take some comfort in knowing that when others appear to be angry or displeased with us, there is a chance that it doesn’t even really have to do with us. Remember that stress can powerfully affect relationships. With that being said, whether someone is projecting or not is for them to decide, not for you to assume. If they tell you they’re really upset with you, don’t dismiss it and decide that it has to do with their boss or their mother. Just remember that sometimes our environments cause us to be more upset or sensitive than normal – this is when we need to be extra patient with our loved ones even when it’s not our fault.
To help your partner feel more understood, you need to validate their experience, whatever it may be. If they tell you that you hurt their feelings in some way, this is not an attack on your character or worth. They are simply letting you know how your actions affected them. You can choose not to take this personally because it likely was not your intention to hurt them. Moving forward, then, starts with acknowledging your impact and offering a genuine apology. Remember: you are on the same team.