You have probably heard the importance of communication, especially if you have (had) a significant other. Hopefully, it has been healthy and effective communication, but sometimes (because we are human), our communication with our partner is not the healthiest. In fact, it can get downright mean, disrespectful, and dirty (and not the fun, kinky kind of dirty talk). Maybe we throw hurtful jabs at our partner when we are feeling irritated, or we want to express a frustration but don’t want to come off as a nag. Or perhaps we've been on the receiving end of the “below the belt” hit of hurtful comments and feel criticized.
The thing about communication is that it is a two-way street – there is a speaker and a listener, and both have equally important jobs. With healthy communication:
- The speaker’s job is to express their thoughts and feelings in a way that is assertive and respectful. Assertive does not mean aggressive, but rather, it means sharing your voice and asking for what you want in a respectful manner.
- The listener’s job is to actively listen with an open heart and an open mind. Hearing does not necessarily mean listening, as hearing lacks the intention of active listening. What does listening with an open heart and mind mean? It means listening in a genuine attempt to understand what the speaker is expressing. On the other hand, passive listening is interrupting or tuning out while the speaker is sharing. A passive listener may get lost in their own thoughts and try to poke holes in the other person’s argument, or they try to develop evidence for their own point being “right”. This is not wholehearted listening. It is half-assed listening. Do you hear what I’m sayin’?
Now, on to the concrete tools!
Directions for Speaker: You will go through the following statements, and complete each statement in one sentence. Keep it succinct to one sentence. This may mean pausing and reflecting between each statement, and that is totally okay. Take your time with this.
Directions for Listener: The listener’s job during this time, as mentioned above, is to listen with an open mind and heart. Try to stay focused and attuned to what the speaker is saying. Notice your own thoughts and feelings that arise, and gently put those on hold while you wholeheartedly listen.
I will include example responses in italics. Here we go!
- “I notice: that you come home hours after you say you will be home” (This is a specific and objective behavior that you notice about the other person, so “I notice you are an asshole” does not work here.
- “I assume: this means you would rather be working or be out instead of spending time with me”
- “I wonder: if you care about me as much as I care about you”
- “I suspect you: don’t consider what I am feeling when you decide to come home late”
- “On the other hand, I believe for me: this triggers my insecurities and trust issues”
- “I resent: that you continue to do this after we have discussed it many times”
- “I’m puzzled by: why you don’t seem to care how much this bothers me”
- “I am hurt by: the impression I get that you don’t care enough about me to change this behavior”
- “I regret: the nasty fights we have had about this topic”
- “Based on past experience, I am afraid of: not being able to find a compromise and the relationship ending”
- “I am frustrated by: the times I don’t feel you are considerate of me”
- “I feel happier when: you respect my wants”
- “I want: you to be home within an hour of when you say you will be home” (1-2 specific requests)
- “Based on past experience, I expect: this may be an issue again in the future”
- “I appreciate: you for being better with this compared to a year ago”
- “I realize: you are trying to get better with this”
- “I hope: we continue to work on this stuff and talk it through”
Next, the listener reflects back some key points they gathered from the speaker’s share. It might sound something like, “I heard your frustration with me continuing to not follow through on my word and not being considerate of you. I also heard how this triggers your trust issues, and you want me to be home within an hour of when I say I will be home”.
Next, the listener validates the speaker’s experience. It might sound something like, “I imagine you feel so irritated with me, considering that I keep doing this. This is not helping your insecurities”. (Note: Validating does not mean you are agreeing. Those are two separate things. Validating is acknowledging the other person’s experience, even though it may be completely different than your own. I will write more on this in another blog).
Finally, the listener checks in with the speaker to see if they are on the same page of understanding. It might sound something like, “Did I understand you?”
Hopefully, the speaker’s response will be “Yes”, but if it is not, that’s okay too because now there is space to discuss where the gap in understanding may be.
How did you guys do?
Well there you have it, folks. While some people may think this dialogue is too "scripted" or "structured", that's because it is. That's the point! I have found it very helpful in my therapy work with guiding couples through discussing hot topics, and even just lukewarm topics. This structure can really help slow down communication, allowing each partner to express their voice more mindfully, rather than reactively.
Resource: Couple Therapy for Depression: A Clinician’s Guide to Integrative Practice (D. Hewison, C. Clulow, & H. Drake, 2014)