Have you ever noticed that the more you try to fight fair and work things out calmly with your significant other, the worse an argument gets? Why do your positive attempts to talk things through devolve so quickly into shouting matches, silent treatment or someone storming out?
If we’re honest, most of us know what we’re supposed to do if we want to communicate more effectively with our partners: listen without judgement, use “I” statements, criticize the behaviors and not the person, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. We all know the drill.
The problem is that most of us —even couples in happy, healthy relationships — simply don’t do any of these things while we are actually in the middle of fighting.
When our partner’s point of view doesn’t immediately align with our own, tempers flare, feelings get hurt, defensiveness sets back in and tension escalates.
The cycle gets so painfully dysfunctional that you may sometimes wonder if it’s even possible to stop your emotional, gut reactions from sabotaging your best efforts to improve communication skills and talk openly and honestly with the person you love most.
But, as we all know, in the heat of an argument, egos, especially hurt ones, rarely do what’s logical, healthy or perhaps least of all … mature.
When your attempt to talk it out immediately goes off track, here are Helen and Harville’s 3 best tips for using effective communication skills to halt emotional reactions and get back to active listening.
1. Take a (brief) time out
Harville says, “The only thing I’ve seen work when communication breaks down is to take a time out.”
At this point, the lower brain — e.g. the brain stem and limbic system, where your emotional reactions and threat responses occur — is activated. Couples need to create space for the amygdala to calm down so that the prefrontal cortex — or upper brain, where logic, reasoning, and empathy reside — can come back online.
Your time out should only last about 10 minutes, as it’s important to not abandon each other. Just take a brief breather, whether that’s sitting quietly, or going in separate rooms, to let one another’s brain re-balance. Then it’s time to come right back together and try again.
Helen offers a great tip here, encouraging couples to establish a code word they can say in times of conflict to signal that communication is going south and they need to change course.
The mutually agreed upon code word can be something like “ouch!” or something silly like “bananas.” When either partner says it, that’s the signal that you both need to pause immediately and let each other’s brains calm down before things get out of hand.
2. Do a quick repair
After taking a time out, resist the urge to dive right back into the conversation. Instead, do a quick repair to restore a sense of safety and connection first. Harville and Helen stress that healthy conversation can only happen in safety.
In attempting a quick repair, it’s important to know what gesture each person prefers to receive from the other, as they’ll likely be different.
“Helen is very happy with an apology,” says Harville, “but if she apologizes to me, I’m not fine. I want a behavior shift: a firm, sincere hug … maybe a compliment.”
Once those small but sincere gestures are made, reset the energy of the conversation. Harville recommends using the sentence stem “let’s redo that” which acknowledges your shared intention to communicate in a better, healthier way moving forward.
After doing this, you’re ready to step (carefully) back into the conversation.
3. Use “sentence stems”
Helen emphasizes the importance of each partner remaining in their upper brain as they re-engage in dialogue.
“In the aftermath of conflict, we say things like ‘I’m sorry, I just lost it’ or ‘I flipped my lid’,” says Helen. “In a way, you really did. You lost access to your prefrontal cortex. If you want to have a healthy relationship, live in your upper brain.”
Harville and Helen say the best way to do this is to use sentence stems, an educational theory-based technique in which you essentially provide the beginning of the other person’s response, allowing your partner to “initiate their responses more quickly, utilize full sentences to express their answers, and be more likely to stay on topic to structure your conversation.”
Their Imago Dialogue technique provides examples of specific phrasing for sentence stems designed to keep each of your prefrontal cortexes engaged.
For example, while explaining your point of view, avoid “you statements” which put your partner on the defense back in their lower brain.
Instead use this stem: “When [blank] happens, I feel … And when I feel that, I think …”
Likewise, when mirroring back what you heard your partner say, use stems like, “Did I understand that right?” and “Am I understanding how you felt accurately?”
Another particularly safety-building stem is, “Is there more about that?”