How to talk so your partner will listen


A few weeks ago I told you that learning to fight fair was one of the greatest gifts you could give your marriage. Here’s another: communication. Not just any communication. (Arguably, screaming, “get your damn dirty socks off the couch,” is one way to convey a message.) I’m talking effective communication — the kind that opens channels, honours your partner and (here’s the biggie) solves problems.

Before we begin, let’s figure out your preferred style of communication. Everybody has one. And it’s easier to establish new patterns once you are aware of the old ones.

Family therapy pioneer Virginia Satir pinpointed five communication styles — the pattern of engagement reflexively adopted when under duress. Find yours…

The placater is self-effacing and confrontation-averse and will say whatever needs to be said to service others. Your goal: to please.

The blamer needs to be right at all costs and will dominate, accuse and tyrannize in order to win. Your goal: power/superiority.

The super-reasoner adopts a robotically cool, intellectual stance to remain emotionally detached from situations. Your goal: control.

The distracter uses irrelevance, chatter and constant movement to disrupt and thus diffuse communication. Your goal: comfort.

The congruent communicator is genuinely expressive, listens to others, and is oriented on solving problems rather than gaining the upper hand. Your goal: solutions.

If you are a congruent communicator you don’t need this column; your time would be better spent exploring the archive of my past relationships columns.

If you see yourself in one of the other four styles, well, you are in good company. And while I have some solid pointers for you, the best one is this: abandon your goal. The aim of effective communication is not power, control or attention; you and your partner need to set your sights on the loftier goals of increased consciousness, increased connection, and better problem solving. Here’s how:

Use “I” messages. Whenever possible, speak in sentences that begin with “I” and describe a feeling, like “I felt anxious when…” or “I get hurt when….” This technique forces you to stop blaming and start sharing emotions that are deep and true.

Sample: “I find weeknights really hard. I find myself stressed out and exhausted and frankly I get hurt and resentful.”

Use reflective listening. Marriage guru Harville Hendrix calls the exercise of repeating, or echoing, a message “mirroring.” It’s important not only because non-judgmental mirroring validates the messenger (“you really get me”), but because it is also a building block of better understanding. You can’t solve a problem until the problem is defined.

Which brings us to…

Problem solve. The ultimate aim of all clear communication is the creation of solutions, according to Toronto couples counsellor Georgine Nash. Problem solving puts the focus squarely on the issue and off the egos. It’s what Adlerian therapists call being task-oriented versus prestige-oriented, and it’s where you want to be.

And two other helpful hints…

Take inventory of your biases. No two people see the world the same way. Our appraisals are subjective — we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. That’s just human. But being aware of our biases — what Dr. Phil McGraw calls “evaluating our filters” — helps us get rid of static on the line and prevent unnecessary distortions of the message.

Pick your battles. It is possible to over-communicate. When we overshare our feelings, our true intent gets lost in all the noise.