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April 30, 2010 4:44 AM   Subscribe

Developing new dialogue strategies in a relationship. Established, late 30s couple seeking hive mind advice on changing the way we speak to each other on important subjects.

I am sure others must have had the same problem. Speaking about the important things (love, future, kids etc...) we sometimes retreat into our instinctive defensive corners for a while rather than acting as unit from the get go. Our communication is good, but it does need an update given both of us are stubborn and have been in love for a long time.

No therapy needed, we are more curious about finding better communication strategies to get us on the same page quicker sans extra discussion that leaves us both asking ourselves the proverbial "why was that so difficult?". Ancedotal or practical advice is appreciated.

Thanks :)
posted by Funmonkey1 to Human Relations (14 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
some random things:

There is the "100%" concept. As in "If I were to get 100% of my own way it would look like X". "My 100% would be for us to have six kids and a flock of geese". It's a way to make sure that you are comfortable laying all your cards on the table, without feeling like you are demanding all of that from the other person.

There are the "five whys". When you want something, ask yourself Why. When you figure out Why, ask Why again. Five times is probably too many.... but the key is to keep asking "why" until you get back to something that both parties agree on.

Discussing things on msn or by letter or otherwise than face to face feels juvenile, but it can be easier when the stakes are high. Talking verbally is not something most people do well when they are angry or upset.

Working on your self-awareness helps. Knowing what kind of triggers make you angry, being able to say "I'm just cross because it was a long day, let's talk about it some other time", or "I don't want our family to be like that, because my parents did that and I hated it, maybe it's not rational but there we are".
posted by emilyw at 5:05 AM on April 30, 2010 [8 favorites]

...rather than acting as unit...

You are not a unit. You are two people, with different histories and soft spots. Understanding and compromise are the goal; perfect agreement is not (or shouldn't be).

Take turns. One of you makes some statements about his/her own point of view ("I feel/think X, etc.). The other's job is to first listen, then reflect what he/she has heard to check that they've heard and understood correctly. When the first person's point of view (or some manageable chunk of it) has been satisfyingly heard and understood, switch roles.

You should each take personal responsibility for keeping the discussion on track. When either of you finds yourself getting exhausted, irritable, aggressive or defensive, take a break. Remember that a safe-feeling conversation is one that facilitates actual understanding and progress.

Also useful: the Gottman Repair Checklist
posted by jon1270 at 5:37 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

No therapy needed, we are more curious about finding better communication strategies to get us on the same page quicker sans extra discussion that leaves us both asking ourselves the proverbial "why was that so difficult?". Ancedotal or practical advice is appreciated.

Therapy may not be necessary per say but a lot of people who don't think they need therapy get a lot of benefit from having an impartial, logical mind in the room who's not invested in either point of view. Therapy isn't just for fixing; it's also for doing maintenance and improving on your relationship. If it's something your insurance allows, it isn't something that will hurt.

Otherwise, I find our relationship goes best if we have these types of discussions when they're not completely pertinent to a current problem/argument. We keep a little list of things we know we're going to have to talk about and we talk about them when we're having a great day and are in the right mindset to really listen to one another. It helps to take some of the pressure off and when we know we've been talking for more than 15 minutes, we decide to postpone the argument so we can think a little bit about what the other has said.

Best of luck!
posted by Hiker at 5:38 AM on April 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Deborah Tannen. For her men and women in conversation books, but also for her book about mothers and daughters. (your title suggests someone might have a mom problem of one kind or another.)
posted by bilabial at 5:45 AM on April 30, 2010

Response by poster: Mother title meant as humour, not issue..Sorry for the false direction.
posted by Funmonkey1 at 6:22 AM on April 30, 2010

We use "feedback" for upsetting/difficult conversations; it's where I make a statement (of limited length), and then my spouse repeats to me what I just said:
"I'm really afraid that if we move now, we won't be able to afford the new mortgage payments."
"So what you're saying is, you're really afraid that if we move in the next few months, we won't be able to afford the new payments."

One of the things that kind-of amazes me about it is how someone who is repeating back to you EXACTLY WHAT YOU JUST SAID will often change the words to concord with their idea of what they THINK you just said. I'm sure every couple can relate, where you say one thing and your partner interprets something in that isn't there ... when I say I'm "frustrated" my husband almost always reads that as "angry at him."

Feedback does a couple of things: It forces each person to actively listen because you HAVE to repeat back; you can't just start preparing your rebuttal, which people often do in arguments. It makes you feel really HEARD by hearing your words back from your partner. And the partner repeating them allows you to either find where they're misinterpreting you (from their word choice in repeating it back), or it allows your partner to really take your words and understand what you're feeling in a way that they "own" it more.

It's a slightly clunky way to have a conversation, but it often helps clear the decks of all the emotional mess so you can be productive. :)

(Also, yay marital therapy! When people ask me for my marriage advice, my two pieces are get a comforter one size larger than the bed, and go to therapy! It's SOOOOOO helpful! It's like getting to skip ahead five years in the whole "learning how to argue properly" thing.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:30 AM on April 30, 2010 [15 favorites]

For really, really contentious and painful issues, my partner and I have found it helpful to not try to have the whole conversation in one sitting. The situation I most remember using this in is during his gender transition, a huge life-changing decision he made that impacted both us of tremendously and which I found very painful at the time. Because we were so emotional, any back-and-forth conversation just got really overwhelming really fast. We started breaking the conversations down into a really slow process: one of us would talk, the other would just listen, for maybe half an hour. Then we'd just stop and go do other things. About three days later, we'd sit down and the other one would talk while the first one just listened. This let us have the conversation without being swept away by our immediate emotional reactions.

Once or twice we've done a version of that that involves setting, say, 15-minute increments for one person to talk while the other listens. If you start to break in every time you're thinking, "Yeah, but see that right there is the problem about how you just don't take my desire for X seriously..." it's hard to make progress.
posted by not that girl at 7:10 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do not complain that your partner has done X. Ask your partner to not do X in the future.
Do not complain that your partner has not done X. Ask your partner to do X in the future.

In other words, Make Requests, Not Complaints.

Simple, but it avoids putting your partner on the defensive. You're not accusing them of anything or criticizing them, just asking them to do or not do something.

I got that from The Power of Two, which I recommend.
posted by callmejay at 7:25 AM on April 30, 2010 [7 favorites]

One thing I try to keep in mind is the acronym HALT: never make important decisions (and have important conversations) when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.

Also, be clear about what you want, and assume nothing. If you want one thing and then request a second thing, does that mean you don't want the first thing any more? We write requirements documents at work, and doing this has helped me be more clear about what I want and what I need. (It's also made me more sensitive to the fact that other people don't always do this well!)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:30 AM on April 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

We often use the exact same strategy Eyebrows McGee described. It feels really stupid while you're doing it, but it works surprisingly well in clearing up misunderstandings, or in getting to what's actually important to each person about a given issue.
posted by ook at 9:42 AM on April 30, 2010

When you're discussing the big stuff, be aware of your partner's learning style. My husband is auditory, I am visual. If we're discussing finances, I have to have a spreadsheet in front of me or I can't function. In contrast, he can talk about it and do it all in his head.
posted by desjardins at 10:02 AM on April 30, 2010

Helpful book which goes through helpful and unhelpful styles of dialogue: Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage

I just read it and it addresses just what you're talking about.
posted by choochoo at 10:27 PM on April 30, 2010

Use the "WIN" formula:

When you do XXXXXX (don't support me on the disciplining the kids)
I feel XXXXX (like I'm left to be the bad guy)
I Need you to do XXXX in the future (support what I'm saying and discuss it later if you would rather have dealt with it another way.)

This structure makes the speaker the person with the problem, and has them asking for assistance from the other person, rather than the speaker telling the other person that they are the problem and that they need to change.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:00 PM on May 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Learn to say, that this not a good time to discuss it. If you're in a bad humor, then now is not the time to dig into a dicey issue. If your partner wants to table a discussion, respect it. The key is to commit to when you're going to discuss it and what you'll do in the meantime. That way, you're not blowing off the issue.

It's not a big, formal thing. Try something as simple as, "Honey, I'm wiped out. Can we talk about this Saturday morning over breakfast? Let's hold off on a decision until then. Is that okay with you?"
posted by 26.2 at 11:15 AM on May 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

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