PaulHutchinson

Ph.D. Psychologist and Therapist

Psychologist and Therapist, Individual Therapy,  Bellevue, WA

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Communication and Diplomacy for Couples:

How to Talk to Someone You Love

It is amazing how hard it can be at times to simply talk with those we love.  The stakes are high.  A good talk can resolve a problem, repair a rift, reaffirm the love between two people.  A talk that goes badly wrong can leave two people hurting and distant.  Love relationships are all about strong emotions, so it is natural that emotions run strong during our most important talks.  But it is still possible for these talks to go well, even if you have a history of talks ending badly.  This article is about how to manage that. 

There are a few principles and strategies that can make important talks go well.  The principles are easy to describe, but they have a great deal of depth to them.  That is because our feelings run deep, and our feelings and ways of talking to loved ones tie back to our entire life history, and what we learned growing up.  The principles that I am going to describe here are based around empathy, diplomacy, deliberate kindness, and managing your anger and aggression.  Empathy is trying to put yourself in your loved one's shoes, and see the world from their point of view.  Diplomacy involved choosing your words and your timing carefully, to avoid hurting your loved one or putting her on the defensive.  Deliberate kindness involves trying to be kind even when you aren't feeling kind.  Managing your aggression involves staying tuned in to your head and your heart even when you are angry, to prevent your anger from doing damage.  I'll describe each of these principles in some detail, with lots of examples of how to put them into practice.

Empathy:  The Heart of the Entire Communication Project

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and imagine how they see things.  Naturally your loved one sees things differently than you do.  Empathy involves understanding their point of view, and even more importantly, trying to understand how they feel and why.  Empathy often happens automatically.  If a loved one or a close friend is talking about something painful, and starts to cry, we feel a portion of their pain; we feel some of their sorrow ourselves.  Without consciously trying to, we get what they are feeling; we feel some of it ourselves; and we typically reach out with compassion and concern, trying to make them feel better.  Part of what makes them feel better is the sense that we can feel their pain, that we get what they are going through, and that we care.   

Sometimes this mechanism works well for couples.  If my loved one is hurting, and senses that I understand her hurt and I care about it, she won't feel as alone in her experience, and that usually makes it somewhat better.  Being there with someone in pain and sharing their pain is a kind and nurturing thing to do.  It usually strengthens the bond between two people and leaves them closer.  This sounds so simple, and yet it often goes wrong with couples, and some couples fall into a cycle in which it goes wrong almost every time.  What happens here and how does it happen?

I'm not just upset, I'm upset with you

The most classic way that two people fail in their empathy for each other is when I feel criticized or wounded by your point of view.  I can empathize and be on your side when you tell me how your boss is a jerk.  But what about when you tell me that I'm being selfish, that I'm a jerk?  All of us want to see love and admiration in the eyes of our loved one.  There are deep ties between my loved one's admiration and whether I can admire myself in the way I want to.  Now my loved one says something that translates to, "why did you do that?  How could you not realize that would hurt me?"  What does this mean about who I am?  It suggests that I must be selfish or indifferent or clueless, somewhere between a jerk and knucklehead.  You would like empathy, for me to grasp and accept your point of view, and to feel your pain.  But what I want in that moment is for you to be mistaken.  I'm not a jerk; there was a misunderstanding; you aren't seeing this correctly.

So, suddenly my game plan isn't empathy, my game plan is to persuade you that you are mistaken.  If I can get you to realize that you are seeing this the wrong way, then you will change your mind, and you won't think I'm a jerk and a knucklehead.  And I know I'm not a jerk and a knucklehead, so you must be wrong.  And "persuade" makes it sound like this is all tidy and logical, which it emphatically isn't.  More likely you are angrily telling me how much I screwed up.  I'm stung by your criticism, so I angrily tell you how wrong you are.  At that point you feel abandoned and betrayed, that your loved one isn't even on your side anymore, but is attacking you.  You up the ante and tell me how I always do this thing wrong, meaning that I am perpetually a jerk and a knucklehead, and as far as you are concerned, I always have been.

So, that is how it all goes wrong.  How can it go right?  In a nutshell, it can go much better if both people can make it their project to hang onto their empathy even when feeling criticized or attacked.  Now I will tell you how to do that.

Don't get trapped in your own point of view, especially the view that you are right

We each experience the world from our own vantage point, and we interpret the world based on our own lifetime of experiences.  This isn't just our thoughts, but our deepest emotions, especially emotions about love and trust, about whether we are loveable and whether loved ones will stay with us.  To practice empathy in a love relationship, we are asking ourselves to step outside of our own deep experience of who we are, and try on someone else's experience.  It isn't surprising that this is hard, especially because it involves the things we feel most deeply. 

Couples often get stuck debating who is right.  The wrong plan is, “I’m going to get you to give up your point of view and adopt mine. I’m going to get you to admit that I’m right and you are wrong.” 

How is it that we get so stuck in our own point of view?  It's complicated, but let me give you a fairly simple description of how it happens:  All of your life you have been trying on various ideas for how you interpret the world, and for how you see yourself.  As we try on all these various ideas, we tend to hang onto ideas if we like how they feel, and reject ideas if we don't like how they feel.  Most of us want to see ourselves in a positive light, so we tend to hang onto ideas that paint us in a positive light.  I know that I mean well.  I know how hard I try.  How I am seems like a reasonable way for a person to be. 

But now I pair off with a spouse or a loved one.  They have a lifetime of thinking about things and doing things in ways that work for them.  But now we have to line most of our preferences up with each other.  Half of how you do things may not line up with my preferences.  Since my way works fine for me, it feels to me like you are the problem.  If you just did things like me, we would be fine.  Ditto for how we think about things.  If you only believed what I believe about politics, religion, money, and in-laws, we wouldn't be having these problems. 

So, naturally some parts of your point of view seem strange and mistaken to me, while my point of view seems obviously sensible and correct.  After all, a lifetime of experience has brought me to this point of view.  Of course it isn't wrong.  Having a point of view isn't wrong.  I get trapped in my point of view when I decide that my point of view is right and your different point of view must be wrong. 

But it isn't just that we have different viewpoints and preferences.  Because I craft my point of view in a way that feels good to me, I craft a point of view that is easy on my ego, one in which I look pretty good.  Again, I know that I mean well and I know how hard I try.  You craft your point of view to help you feel OK, and you know that you mean well, and you know how hard you try, and you feel let down by me.  So you start telling me what I'm doing wrong, and it sounds like you think I'm some combination of a jerk and a knucklehead.  I feel stung by that, because I want your admiration.  My ego has taken a blow, because you aren't seeing me in the way that I want to see myself.  That hurts, and I want you to be wrong.  And that is when I totally fail to empathize with you; I fail at making you feel understood or validated. 

To empathize with a loved one who is criticizing you, you first have to accept the pain of not being admired.  This is crucially important, and really hard.  Instead of debating with your loved one over whether you are an admirable human being, you have to accept that right now they are feeling your faults more than your virtues.  You need to accept this, and then you need to try their criticism on for size, and see if it doesn't have at least some merit to it.  If you can try their criticism on for size, and tell them that they have a fair point, you will have succeeded at about half of the job of couples communication.

Practice empathy in your world view and attitude

 Here is the mental and emotional shift involved in practicing empathy. Practicing empathy means saying to yourself, "of course my loved one doesn't see this the way I do.  Of course they have their own views.  And of course they feel strongly about them.  Now I need to deliberately change my game plan.  I need to give up the project of changing their mind, getting them to decide that they are mistaken.  My new game plan is to understand their point of view, and to help them feel understood." 

Sound easy enough?  Now remember that the real test of this is when they are upset with you, mad at you, thinking that you are a jerk and a knucklehead.  Now how do you practice empathy?

 They are telling you unflattering things about yourself, telling you things that you don't want to believe, that you don't think are true.  What now?  Well, a part of what you need to do here is to try to digest and accept the experience of being criticized, and the feelings it stirs up in you.  Try to think of it this way:

 It isn't easy to hold onto the idea that my loved one sees things differently than I do, but neither of us has to be wrong.  Cognitive Dissonance is the discomfort that we feel when we are holding onto two ideas that seem to conflict with each other.  To practice empathy with your loved one, you need to tolerate two sets of uncomfortable emotions.  First, have to tolerate the discomfort knowing your loved one sees things differerently, without trying to resolve it by making someone right and someone wrong.  Second, you have to tolerate times when the version of you reflected in your loved one's eyes doesn't seem very admirable and lovable.  You have to tolerate this without debating the point and trying to make them wrong to prove that you are OK after all.

Practice empathy in the way you talk to your loved one

After some practice trying on the world view that no one is right and no one is wrong, that everyone has a point of view, here is how you go about speaking in those terms.  

Invite Your Loved One to Tell You Their View

Your goal is for your loved one to feel like you understand their point of view and that you care about them.  That can only happen if you get them to tell you about their point of view.

Let Them See That You Got Their Message, Especially the Emotion

There is a classic method that couples therapists have been teaching since the dawn of therapy.  To help your loved one feel like you really got their message, paraphrase the message back to them.  It sounds goofy and artificial, but it works really well.  And think about what happens if you don't paraphrase their message back to them.  If you leap directly to the next point you wanted to make, they won't know if you were actually listening to them.  They will probably feel like you were just waiting for them to stop talking, so you could say your piece.  You'll get your chance to say your piece.  But first show them that you heard theirs. 

Validate Their Point of View, Including the Strength of Their Emotions

What you are trying to accomplish here is to leave them the sense that their viewpoint and their feelings are valid rather than invalid.  It is the difference between, "I get it that you feel that way.  I understand why you feel that way," and "you shouldn't feel that way.  Here's why..."   Your goal is for them to feel like you get it, and you care.

Diplomacy:  Put Down Your Weapons; Pick Up Your Tools

Diplomacy is the fine art of talking about really difficult subjects without making the situation worse, and without causing any more pain than necessary.  All of the empathy suggestions above could be thought of as part of diplomacy.  Now let's add a few more tools to that chest. 

Diplomacy for couples means doing everything you can to avoid putting your loved one on the defensive.  It also means trying to propose ideas and solutions, rather than just talking about what is going wrong.

Here is the main problem with diplomacy:  Everything I’m going to recommend is going to sound like a weak way to have a fight. They are weak ways to have a fight, but remember that we are trying not to have a fight.  It is the same in a couple as it is between nations:  Fighting means trying to get the upper hand, trying to win by making the other person lose.  At its worst, fighting can mean trying to verbally hurt the other person, because you are angry or because they hurt you.  Diplomacy means trying to work out agreements and compromises, trying to avoid a fight, and trying to avoid hurting the other person.  The problem comes when one person is trying to use diplomacy, and the other person is trying to use fighting tactics. 

Diplomacy works best If both parties are really on board, and playing from the same kinder, gentler playbook. If both parties aren't on board, you will wind up having exchanges like, “Here’s how I see it” — “Well, you are just wrong.”

The temptation in an argument, especially when you are feeling heated, is to say something decisive, or to say something hurtful. What is the difference between a weapon and a tool? In general, weapons are either designed to hurt, or to get the upper hand, usually by claiming to be right.  Tools are designed to exchange ideas, negotiate, find solutions, and repair hurt rather than cause it.

Check out the Empathy stuff just above

Some of the phrasing in the empathy stuff above is a first good round of diplomacy.  As I am fond of saying, your goal on the empathy front is to leave your loved one feeling like you get it, and you care.

To avoid putting your loved on on the defensive, avoid accusations:

Avoid most sentences that begin with the word “you.” Instead practice:

Describe what happened and how you felt. Don’t claim to know their intentions.

Try to talk about the future rather than the past.

Requests usually don’t sound as much like accusations. It also helps to suggest solutions when you are bringing up a problem.

Avoid sweeping statements about your spouse’s character

Ah, the temptation of the decisive declarative sentence. 

Don't we all love to sound that decisive?  But there are a few problems with such deliciously decisive phrasing.  First, the person hearing it never says, "you're absolutely right."  Instead they debate you and criticize you back.  Second, if I'm just a slob, that sounds like it will be a part of my character until the day I day.  Surely you don't expect me to change something that is just a part of me.

If you are trying to persuade someone to change, you stand a much better chance if you talk about their behavior rather than their character.

Avoid “never” and “always” accusations about your spouse’s behavior

Once again, the temptation of the sweeping, decisive statement. 

As soon as you say this, your loved one will be on a mission to make you wrong.  And it will be a really easy mission, because they just have to find one example.  And then, even if you are generally right in the point you are making, all they need is one good counter-example, and your point just lost all of its impact. 

Avoid unflattering comparisons: “You are just like your mother.”

We all grow up absorbing habits and attitudes from our parents and our family.  We often absorb some amount of our parents, even some of their qualities that make us nuts.  Even if you think there is a grain of truth to it, "you are just like your mother" sounds like destiny, not like something they can work to change.  Better to simply say, "sometimes you do X.  Do you think you could try to do that a little less?"

Avoid telling your spouse how he feels, or telling him what his motives are

It is fair game if you make it clear that it is your perception, rather that you claiming to have the truth.

Yes, as noted above, it feels much better to say the decisive thing rather than saying "it seems this way to me."  But saying the decisive thing just leads to more argument and debate.  If both people agree to the general principle of talking about their points of view rather than claiming to own the truth, the talks can go much better.

You may talk about the recent past, but not about ancient history.

It is fine to say, "this thing happened on Tuesday, and I wanted to talk to you about it."  It is tempting to strengthen your case by making the case that they keep doing that thing that bugs you.  Avoid the temptation to say, "you always do that thing.  You did it Tuesday, and last month, and last year at your cousin's place, and also in 2016."  This tends to distract and muddy the waters. 

Avoid "gunnysacking."    Also known as, talk about one problem at a time.

Gunnysacking is when you come at your loved one with several unrelated complaints, that you have been saving up.  Here is how it happens.  You are a little bit conflict avoidant, so your loved one did thing X, and it bugged you a little.  But you figured, "it's not that big a deal.  Probably not worth mentioning."  Then your loved one did thing Y and later thing Z.  Both of them bugged you, but your conflict avoidant self was busy rationalizing, thinking "I don't want to make a big deal of it; I don't want to argue about it."  Then your loved one did thing W, which bugged you a lot.  You couldn't hold it in any more, so you got mad and said, "I can't believe you did thing W!  I'm so mad at you!  And recently you also did thing Y and thing Z and last week you did thing X."  At this point your loved one is saying, "whaaaaaa?"  I didn't even know you were bothered by things X, Y, and Z..."

Gunnysacking is when you store up your resentments in a gunny sack, and when they build up to a certain level, you hit yuur loved one with the whole sack.  As a way of resolving things, it tends to work really badly.  Talking about one problem can often lead to progress.  By the time a couple has three or four problems out on the table in one talk, they typically won't make any progress on any of them. 

If you are in a talk with a loved one, and realize that two or three or four problems have been brought up, make a proposal that the two of you talk about just one of them.  Say, “can we just talk about X for right now?  I know you are also frustrated about Y and Z and W, and we can talk about them some other time.  Today I think we will make more progress if we just stick to talking about X."

Here's what happened, and here is how I felt about it.

A good way to bring up a difficult subject is, "here is what happened, and here is how I felt about it."

Take Some Blame:  Become a master of the mea culpa.  ("I'm the culprit.")

As I noted above, our minds tend to interpret things in ways that feel good to us, ways that are easier on our own egos.  We are quick to see our our own good intentions, and how hard we are trying.  When it comes to blame, this same mechanism makes it so that I can see all the ways that you are to blame far more easily than I can see how I am to blame.  Typically we don't do this consciously, and we don't do it out of malice.  But it has a classic and natural result:  When I am comparing views with my loved one, I am truly surprised at how well she can see my faults, including faults that I don't want to believe that I have.  I may see far more of her faults, in ways that she probably won't be delighted to hear about.  Again, this doesn't happen because we are trying to do this.  It is just how we are all wired. 

This mechanism leads to endless pointless debates between couples about who is to blame, who is right, and who is more at fault.  Sound familiar?  What can a person do about it?

The first and most important thing to do about it is to accept that it is a thing, accept that this is just how we are, this is how we all process the world.  If your loved one describes your faults in a way that sounds a couple of shades darker than you think you deserve, that is just natural.  Try to accept that, even if there is some ego bruising involved. 

Now, try the criticism on for size by saying, "OK, let me assume she is at least partly right."  Be honest with yourself, and try out the idea that her criticism might be at least 25% valid.  Now, resist the temptation to tell your loved one that you think she is about 75% wrong, and instead tell her that she's right.  Go for the sincere Mea Culpa"  It is an important talent to have.  Say things like this:

It is really important to be able to accept some blame, to be able to appologize and mean it.  This is one of the most important skills in couples communication. 

Deliberate Kindness:  Act Like You Love Them.  And Say So.

We experience our lives and our relationships moment by moment, and some moments in a relationship feel far different than others.  We can see warmth and love in someone's eyes yesterday, and today the same person's face is full of anger and hostility.  That can be deeply unsettling, and even frightening.  Most of the time most of us can hang onto something called "object constancy," which means that we can know that something is the same, even though it looks different.  In this case that means that we are able to hold onto the sense that the person who is angry at us is still the person that loves us.  If we are lucky, we can feel that the underlying relationship is solid and loving, even though the appearance of it in this moment is full of hostility and frustration.  But in an argument, it can feel like the love is gone.

Reassure Them, Especially About Your Love

One thing that can be very helpful to the person you love is if you are able to do some kind or loving things, even in the middle of an argument or disagreement.  This may be especially important if your loved one has any life history of being abandoned or neglected by their parents, or having parents who were inconsistent enough that it felt like their love really did go away. 

The things that happen in our love relationships have ties back to all of our life history of love and closeness, and to everything that ever went wrong. It is classic that feeling neglected or rejected or overlooked by a loved one will stir up a mild version of any feelings that we have ever had about whether we are loveable, whether we are good enough, whether we are interesting enough, whether we are sexy enough. 

If you can manage it, in an argument, be explicitly reassuring about your love and about the fact that the relationship will survive anger and arguments.  You can say things like:

Often times in arguments people will say something about not feeling loved, or not feeling wanted.  If your loved one says something like this, don't debate with them about whether they should be feeling this way.  Instead go straight to reassurance, and tell them that you love them. 

Touch each other while you talk.

 One really effective way to keep the feeling of love and connection going during a hard discussion is to touch each other while you talk.  Sit next to each other on the couch. Hold hands. It is much harder to get too angry at someone while you are touching them.

Managing Your Anger and Aggression While Communicating

As you try to communicate with a loved one you are up against a basic paradox: Love relationships stir up some of our strongest emotions, and we humans are quite lousy at having careful conversations while we are in the grip of strong emotion.  As we get angry we release adrenaline, and pretty soon we are in the midst of a fight or flight response.  More blood gets sent to our muscles and to our heart and lungs, and less blood gets sent to our brain.  Good mental reasoning basically goes away when we get angry or scared. To put it bluntly, when you get upset enough, you lose your mind. And do you really want to be having an important talk with someone you love after you have lost your mind?  

Taking a break is your best tool:  Become a master of the time out

You have had a lifetime of experience with your own anger.  You know better than anyone whether you tend to run hot or cool.  You know better than anyone whether you tend to get unkind and unreasonable when you are mad.  And most of us tend to get somewhat unkind or unreasonable when mad.  What is your own pattern around anger when arguing?  Do you start to say things that are just designed to hurt?  Do you start cutting your loved one off, raising your volume to talk over them, not letting them finish?  Do you get so that you are always getting in the last word, even when there is nothing new to say, just for the sake of getting the last word?  Do you ever get angry enough to throw something or slam your hand on the table?  You probably also know your loved one's patterns around anger, and you know the signs of when they are getting to a point past which nothing productive is going to happen.

All of the things that I just listed are signs that the conversations has turned a corner, that it is no longer constructive, and has turned destructive.  If the argument goes longer, it is very unlikely that anyone will be offering new ideas or compromises, or hammering out solutions.  Good research shows that when couples get angry enough for their heart rate and blood pressure to go up, further talking becomes repetitive and destructive.Your best tool for trying to decide when to take a time out is your awareness of when the anger has crossed the line so that more talk won't be productive.  

When to take Time Outs:

Agree with your loved one on a plan for taking time outs.  The cornerstone of that plan should be that you take a time out as soon as either one of you thinks it is a good idea.  Either party can simply call a time out.  You don't have to talk your loved one into it. 

How to take time outs

Agree Not to Fight “Below the Belt.”

“Below the belt" tactics are any tactics that are designed to hurt or intimidate the other person, rather than to than to accomplish anything constructive. When you are both calm, have a conversation with your spouse about what is “below the belt,” and how you will treat each other even when you are arguing. Agree ahead of time that if either one of you goes below the belt, you will automatically take a time out. Work out your own list, but some examples are:

Have One Person Talk At a Time

It usually slows down the conversation and calms down some of the feelings if you do something artificial that stops you from interrupting each other and talking over each other. If interrupting is a problem, take an object like a book or a coaster. Whoever has the coaster gets to talk. The other person listens. Here’s how to use this:
The person with the coaster should make one or two important points, and then let the other person respond. No delivering lectures and no hogging the coaster.

When returning to an argument after a time-out:

 

A couple of good books

My favorite book on communication is Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzer.  The book is designed to be about communication in a business setting, but I think that it is equally good as a communication guide for couples.  I strongly recommend it.

In the article above I only said a little bit about the task of managing anger when talking to loved ones.  The subject is incredibly important, because uncontrolled anger can destroy love relationship, and sometimes destroy people's lives.  If you know that your anger is a problem, take the problem seriously, and work on yourself.  The best book I have found on the subject is actually Anger Management for Dummies. 

 

Copyright 2019, Paul Hutchinson, Ph.D.

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