Last week, I wrote about how I help my clients manage strong emotions. I shared my perspective on how emotions come and go if you let them, and described some strategies for releasing difficult emotions.
I strongly believe that learning to let emotions come and go is one of the most important skills for maintaining a healthy relationship, and for that matter, a happy life. But don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying stuff down your emotions.
It’s very important that you be able to share your truth with your partner, even when that truth may be difficult for one or both of you. Working out differences in a relationship is really about balancing these two skills: letting the emotions come and then go, and discussing what you want your partner to understand about you and your perspective.
Sometimes people believe that if they bring up something difficult their partner won’t listen to them or will get really upset, so they don’t open the discussion in the first place, or drop vague hints that are easily misinterpreted or ignored. Other times, a person might think their partner won’t hear what they have to say unless they show how strongly they feel about it–whether that’s by yelling, pouting, shutting down, or storming off in a huff.
Neither of these strategies is particularly effective. Shutting down or avoiding the topic rather than discussing it obviously makes it difficult to make yourself heard, and ramping up in a dramatic way is likely to cause your partner to engage with the drama rather than the reason behind it–which makes it difficult to focus on a meaningful topic, or even remember what the fight was about after the fact.
Ironically, the very feelings that drew your attention to the topic in the first place also will make it difficult or impossible for you to think clearly, or to express your perspective without blaming it on your partner. If you want the conversation to go well, you will need to get calm before beginning. Here are some tips for setting up a successful conversation:
- Get calm. Actually calm, not pretend calm. Breathe (remember the long exhale?) Consider the issue as if there were not a “right” and a “wrong”, but rather different perspectives and opinions. Nobody listens well when they’re being told they are wrong or bad. Before you even start the conversation, challenge yourself to come to a place of owning your own reactions and preferences, rather than blaming them on your partner.
- Calmly express your desire to talk, and come to an agreement about when you will sit down to discuss it. Giving your partner a heads up makes it possible for them to prepare for the conversation and bring their best self to it. Your calm request will help them come to the meeting in a more open place, rather than approaching with their guard up. Starting with guards up makes communication difficult, since you’re already fighting before you start. Both of you have a role in accessing calm and curiosity, not just during the conversation, but before and after as well.
- Prepare your communication. What would you like your partner to understand about you? Something about your experiences, perceptions, feelings, thoughts, beliefs? Figure out how to express yourself as directly as possible, while being clear you are discussing YOUR unique perspective, not your rightness and their wrongness.
- Express your perspective clearly and briefly. Stick to one point at a time. Don’t go on and on, and don’t go off topic. You can have many, many conversations. Keeping each one manageable and focused will make it safer to do it again next time. This will help you and your partner stay focused and present rather than becoming flooded and either shutting down or blowing up.
- If things get tense, take a few breaths, remind yourself and your partner that everything is ok here, you’re just talking, and you care about one another. If necessary, take a break. This might be anything from a few breaths, to a shower, to a walk around the block. If things are feeling extremely overwhelming, be prepared to postpone the rest of the conversation until another time, perhaps tomorrow. Taking a break is a success. Going slow is how to stay calm. You both need to be calm in order to bring your best self to the conversation.
- When you come to a place of taking a break or wrapping up the conversation, thank your partner for doing their best with it, and engaging in the conversation with you. Pat yourself on the back for bringing it up and for staying calm and focused.
Keep your emotions from dictating your responses, and you’ll likely find that the conversations you have with your partner about differences of opinion or values are much calmer, more open-minded, and more productive.