You know that saying, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it?” That is only partly accurate. It matters greatly what you say as well.
Unfortunately, many people are not taught how to have effective communication in your relationships and are not educated and informed as to why it is so difficult in the first place.
This results in well-meaning couples spending years in conversational bad habits that create disconnection and pain. There is a better way and it begins with understanding the primary force in hurtful communication: Reactivity.
In your brain is a structure called the amygdala. Its primary function is to assess safety, the flight or fight response.
Your amygdala can be activated by numerous things including childhood wounding, past relationships, the tone of what is being said, and the words spoken.
An activated amygdala is doing its job, alerting you that your safety is potentially threatened. However, it may often perceive danger.
When this happens in relationships — when your reactivity is not managed — you become fearful and defensive in order to protect yourself. This results in disconnection and feeling unheard.
In order to potentially increase the likelihood of your communication being received, you need to practice some steps to help calm your reactivity.
Here are 4 easy effective communication skills that can make sure fear and reactivity stop controlling you and your spouse during arguments:
1. “Sandwich” your complaints with something positive.
When you want to express feedback to your partner, start with something positive first. Too often a complaint is delivered in a way that has a reactive person feeling like they “never” do anything right.
Start with a positive, add your concern/request, and end with another positive. This strategy does not diminish your concern, nor is it “sugar-coating.”
It’s much easier to hear what feels like criticism when you are able to receive positivity as well.
2. Understand that your perception and the actual situation may be different
How you express yourself creates energy. The energy of your opinion often conveys criticism and certainty, rather than remembering that two people often don’t see things the same way.
Your experience of something is subjective, and it’s an invitation to your partner to understand your perspective.
Try saying, “You seem angry,” rather than assuming that your perception of anger is correct and saying, “Why are you angry?”
Also, try and frame the situation without expressing aggression by using “I” statements instead of “you” statements.
So you could say, “When that happened, I felt…” instead of, “You made me feel…”
3. Choose a time to talk that’s good for both of you.
Is this a good time to talk? You typically don’t pick a partner who is exactly like you, and that includes readiness to talk about conflict.
Even with positive topics, it’s important to ask if it is a good time to talk. This request is designed for creating a presence to be heard, and preparedness to be able to do so.
Do not talk if you are in a reactive state; nothing positive will occur.
4. Mirror/repeat back what you heard.
When you repeat back what you heard, by beginning with, “What I heard you say is…” the process allows the speaker to be heard, and it calms the listener’s reactivity.
In addition, when you mirror what is said by the speaker, it helps decrease personalizing what they’re saying. Mirroring is a powerful tool to manage reactivity and promote connection.
Remember that reactivity is not the problem: It’s your brain doing its job. Not managing reactivity more effectively is the problem.
The goal of relationship coaching is not to never be upset. As great as that sounds, that is impossible. The goal is to derail less often, less painfully, and raise your awareness about what triggers you so you can get back on track and weather the communication storm more effectively.
These tools will enhance your relationship and create more safety for healthier communication between you and your spouse.