One of the biggest reasons people seek couples counselling is due to a breakdown in communication. They will often say that communication was good at first but over the years something has shifted, resulting in disconnection and a sense of feeling unheard and misunderstood.
Communication would seem to be a relatively easy practice – speak, listen, understand, and respond. But when defensiveness, blame and other protective strategies step in, we can find ourselves out of our depth and wondering how the conversation derailed to the extent it did. Far too often, communication in relationships falls into a pattern that’s less about understanding and more about winning. It becomes a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) game of determining who’s right and who’s wrong, turning what could be a path to deeper intimacy into a battleground of egos.
It’s Not about Right and Wrong
The reality is, most conflicts in relationships aren’t about right or wrong; they’re about feelings, perceptions, and unmet needs. They’re about the hurt that lurks beneath the surface of a sarcastic remark, the fear hiding behind a wall of silence, or the longing masked by a flurry of accusations. Effective communication isn’t about proving a point; it’s about uncovering the underlying emotions and addressing them with compassion and understanding.
It’s easy to attack, defend, and and blame, especially when emotions run high and vulnerabilities feel threatened. But the tug or war style of communication is not only ineffective, it’s corrosive. It erodes the foundation of trust and respect that healthy relationships are built upon. When the focus is on winning an argument, one partner may gain but the relationship loses.
In the midst of a fight it can be a lot to remember effective communication strategies. It helps, therefore, to focus on one strategy at a time and to practice it. The following strategies can be applied at any stage of a conflict. However, step one, “the soft start up” is the first strategy to use when you want to raise an issue that may be contentious.
1. Try the Soft Start Up
The way a conversation starts often predicts how it will end. Relationship experts and Psychologists, John and Julie Gottman, talk about the “soft start-up.” Instead of beginning with accusations or criticisms, a conversation about a contentious issue is far more effective if it begins with a calm, clear expression of what you’ve observed and how you feel about it. This approach reduces the likelihood of your partner becoming defensive and sets a cooperative tone for the dialogue.
Instead of saying, “You never help around the house,” try, “I feel overwhelmed with chores and could use more help.” This shift in language invites a collaborative discussion rather than a confrontational argument. Other ways of talking to your partner using the soft start up may include phrases such as, “There’s something that’s been on my mind and I’d like to share it with you. Is now a good time?” Or, “Can we talk about something that’s been bothering me?”
To get to the place of being able to initiate a soft start up, it’s important to check in with yourself and take your emotional temperature. Are you angry? Resentful? Overwhelmed? If so, the conversation is likely to escalate quickly. Try to approach the conversation with a willingness to stay open and to listen, and to focus on sharing your feelings without blaming.
2. Connect to Underlying Emotions
In every relationship, there’s an emotional undercurrent that often goes unnoticed. Like dancers focusing too much on their steps and not enough on the music, we sometimes miss the essence of our partner’s feelings. Dr. Sue Johnson, a well known relationship expert, urges us to listen to the music and recognize that beneath a complaint or a harsh word, there is often a plea for connection and a longing for understanding.
Think of a time when a simple discussion about something mundane, like doing dishes, escalated into a heated argument. What was really going on there? Likely it was not about the dishes but about feeling undervalued or craving more help and support. Conflicts are often expressions of deeper feelings of neglect, insecurity, or fear of disconnection. When a conflict arises, it’s crucial to pause and consider what emotional needs might be unmet. Are feelings of safety, appreciation, or closeness at stake? Understanding this emotional landscape is the first step towards meaningful resolution.
3. Listen with Empathy
Stepping into your partner’s shoes and really trying to understand their emotions is often the place couples become stuck. A typical pattern instead is for each partner to stay in their own protective corner and defend their position, leading to a cycle of defend and attack. What would the conversation look like instead if, rather than defending your position, you tried to understand what your partner was feeling and why? When we can have a conversation that looks different from the usual pattern, the outcome is also different.
This means giving your partner your full attention, acknowledging their feelings, and validating their perspective, even if you don’t agree with it. When partners feel heard and understood, they are more likely to be open and less defensive. This step is about building emotional connection, showing that you care about your partner’s feelings as much as your own.
5. Take Space When Necessary
Conflicts can escalate quickly, leading to emotional flooding, where rational discussion becomes impossible. The Gottmans advise taking breaks to calm down when things get too heated. This is not about avoiding the issue but giving each other space to return to the conversation with a clearer head. During this time, it’s beneficial to engage in activities that reduce stress and allow for introspection. Additionally, making and accepting repair attempts – small gestures or words that show a willingness to bridge the gap – is crucial. This could be as simple as a touch, a kind word, or an expression of appreciation.
6. Find Common Ground
Resolving conflict is not just about getting through a disagreement but also about building a stronger, more meaningful relationship. This involves compromise and finding common ground. It’s important to remember that the goal is not to win an argument but to find a solution that respects both partners’ needs and values. The Gottmans talk about creating shared meaning in relationships – this means developing an understanding of what is fundamentally important to each of you and finding ways to honour these values in your life together. Through this process, conflicts become opportunities for growth and deepening the connection in your relationship.
7. Perfect the Art of Apologizing
A genuine apology goes beyond simply saying the words, “I’m sorry.” It begins with a frank acknowledgment of the specific wrong committed, taking full responsibility without excuses or shifting blame. This involves expressing an understanding of the impact of one’s actions and showing empathy for the other person’s feelings. It’s about being specific about what you did wrong and recognizing how it affected the other person. Without this, your partner doesn’t feel heard or understood and they are left alone in their pain.
A heartfelt apology includes expressing sincere regret and a firm commitment to not repeat the offending behaviour. It’s about demonstrating that you’ve learned from the situation and are actively working to make positive changes.
A genuine apology also involves respecting the other person’s reaction, whether it is immediate forgiveness or a need for time. This respectful approach acknowledges that forgiveness is a process and that the other person’s emotions are valid and important. Such an apology, grounded in sincerity and empathy, can be a powerful step towards healing and strengthening a relationship.
Incorporating each of these steps into your communication style takes time. Pick one for now and try to work with it the next time you experience conflict with your partner or need to raise an issue that has been bothering you.