How can I communicate more effectively with my partner?

Communication can be very difficult, even between people who genuinely want to understand each other. But communication is also a skill, and like any skill, it can be improved with practice and knowledge.

1. Environment and availability. Is this the right time and place to be having this discussion? A crowded room is probably not the best place to hash out relationship problems. Are both parties available to talk here and now? If one or both partners are sleepy, inebriated, upset, or in the middle of something else, it will be difficult to have a clear and productive exchange. Be sure that you have time enough to talk it out, that you will be relatively free of distractions, and that you are in a safe place to discuss what you need to discuss.

2. Commitment and desire. Do both partners actually want to talk about the issue at hand? Do you both agree on what that issue is? Are both partners ready and willing to have this discussion? If not, one partner is likely to be talking at a partner who is tuned out, rather than with a partner who is engaged.

3. Individual clarity. Before starting a serious discussion, it is important to have some degree of clarity about your own thoughts and feelings. Do you know what your goals for the discussion are, and where your limits might be? Has your partner had any chance to think about the issue at hand, or will this be a surprise to him/her? Does one or both of you need more time to sort out individual positions before working on the interpersonal issue?

4. Hidden agendas. Is there a discrepancy between the overt agenda (i.e., what you agree that you are going to talk about) and any covert agendas (i.e., what you really want to get out of this interchange). Seduction is a common covert agenda: you say you want to talk about a given issue, but you actually want to get into the other person’s pants.

5. Body language and nonverbal communication. What you say can be emphasized or undermined by how you say it. If you are shouting about how calm you are, your message is confused and confusing. Think of yourself as an actor with a script: do your tone and carriage match your lines? How about your partner?

6. “I” statements. Rather than talking about your partner’s flaws, inadequacies, errors, and ignorance, try to focus on your own feelings, thoughts, and needs. “I feel hurt and lonely when you stay out late” is much less likely to be perceived as an attack than “You’re late again; you don’t give a damn about our relationship.” It is easier for your partner to hear the former than the latter. “You” statements tend to engender defensiveness and arguments, rather than empathic attunement. Beware of the false “I” statement: “I feel that you are wrong.”

7. Paraphrasing and active listening. Try to repeat back to your partner what he or she just said to you before responding. This serves two purposes. First, it shows your partner that you are listening carefully to what they are saying; second, it gives your partner an opportunity to clear up any misperceptions or misstatements.

8. Questions. Asking your partner to clear up things you don’t understand is central to achieving a positive outcome. This is the opposite of mind reading, where you assume that you know what your partner means without asking. Questions come in two basic flavors: open-ended and closed-ended. Closed-ended questions seek out a specific piece of information (and no more), while open-ended questions invite a partner to give as much information as s/he wants. Closed-ended questions can be used (or perceived) as traps (e.g., “Do you feel angry when I say that?” as opposed to “How do you feel when I say that?”). “Why” questions, however innocent, are often perceived as hostile: try to avoid them if possible.

9. Negotiation. Once you and your partner have clarified your concerns and positions, you are ready to begin negotiating a solution: “Here’s the issue, here’s what I need, here’s what you need, what shall we do about it?”

10. Compromise. Within your limits, where can you meet your partner? Is there any middle ground? If either of you is completely unwilling to compromise or change, your discussion is unlikely to be productive. If both of you have some give and take, and both are willing to bend, your chances of successful resolution are good. Compromise is not the same as caving in: if you are in no position to stand firm, you are in no position to compromise.

11. Consensus. Having discussed the issue, are both parties agreed on the content of the discussion? If changes are to be made, do both parties understand what is to happen, when, and how? Changes that are measurable and verifyable (e.g., “I agree to be home or to call by ten o’clock.”) are less likely to cause further conflict than changes that are vague or “fuzzy” (e.g., “I agree to be more supportive.”).

12. Closure. When you are done, check to see how you and your partner are feeling. Are there residual hurt feelings that need to be addressed?

13. Follow-up. Agree to check back in after some time has passed to see whether the agreed-upon changes are working, whether any new information has entered the picture, or if anyone has further issues or feelings that need to be talked through. Rather than leave it open, it is best to agree on a specific time to check back in.

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