Being Responsible Communicators: Three Skills to Manage Couples Conflict

When a partner presents conflict, how is that information given and how is it received? 

What might you say?  You’re such a slob!  Why can’t you ever pick up after yourself?!

How do you respond?  Shut up!  You’re always on my ass about stupid shit! 

When conflict arises, the responsibility to communicate effectively resides with both persons.  Yes both!  It does not matter who started the argument.  If you enter into a fight with the attitude that “I’m going to win” then chances are you’re going to have many arguments in your relationship that will leave you both feeling hopeless and exhausted.  Pointing fingers and throwing blame will not make either of you winners.  Bowing out and avoiding also does not do anyone any favors.

How we speak and listen to our partners during times of conflict expresses how much or how little we respect them.  Over time, partners get a sense of what to expect in future arguments which often leads to a communication cycle or pattern.  In some relationships, one can learn to expect their partner to become disengaged, defensive, or even combative during conflict.  In others, partners might learn that their counterpart is accepting of differing views which make them feel at ease with talking about difficult problems.  The pattern you want to create is up to you.

Here are three tips for building trust and responsibility with conflict:

Speak Gently

When telling your partner that something bothers you, try wording it as an observation.  Avoid starting with “you did this” or “you did that.”  I statements are a great way to express yourself and minimize defensiveness.  When you can present information clearly without accusations or blame, people are more receptive to working toward a solution.  The listening partner can ask for clarification: “I believe what I hear you saying is…” and ask “Was that accurate?”  This expresses to your partner that you have a desire to understand and accept. 

Perspective Taking

When discussing conflict, it is good practice to try to understand how the other person feels.  Mind reading or basing your prediction of your partner’s actions on past history does not help to see your partner accurately, fairly, or provide opportunities for positive change.  Instead, be curious about your partner’s feelings and thoughts.  Respond with, “I see you feel strongly about this.  How come?”  Ask questions like, “What makes you feel this certain way?” or “How long have you felt like this?” to gain clarification.

Provide Validation

Validation does not mean you have to agree with your partner, instead it is about expressing your acceptance of your partner’s differing thoughts and feelings.  Saying something like, “I can see how that would make you feel hurt” can go a long way.  People naturally want to feel understood and connected with others. By accepting your partner’s point of view, it helps them feel secure and valued.

Psychologist Carl Rogers explained it best, “When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good!”

Essentially, trust needs to exist on both sides.  Trust to bring and share concerns that need to be addressed.  Trust to listen and respond respectfully.  When both partners are doing their part to work through conflict, they are essentially creating healthy and secure communication patterns for future disagreements.  You have the power, the responsibility, and the choice to set the stage for conflict between you and your partner. So what will you choose?