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Communication “cheat sheet”

  • Listen to understand what the other person wants you to hear.

    Ask for clarification about anything that isn’t clear to you. Put your focus on getting what s/he is trying to communicate before saying what you think or feel. Often people listen only until they know how they want to respond; this does not show that you care about what your partner is saying.

  • Complement and appreciate the other person.

    Frequently remind the other person (and yourself) of what you like about him or her. Make sure you mean it.

  • Allow, acknowledge, and accept the other person’s feelings.

    No, this doesn’t mean that you have to agree with him or her all the time, and it doesn’t mean you have to take responsibility for what s/he is feeling. But saying, “Wow, I really see how hurt/angry/sad you are” acknowledges his or her feelings and will most likely make your interaction go better.

  • Share your experience, not just your judgment or opinion or conclusion.
  • Your experience includes your feelings and your perceptions. Example: “You aren’t saying anything, and I’m afraid that you are angry” instead of “Why won’t you say something? I know you’re angry. Stop being so passive-aggressive!”

    Sharing your feelings is usually scarier than expressing a judgment. If you have a feeling that you are uncomfortable with or unhappy about — such as feeling upset, hurt, angry, frustrated, sad, resentful, etc. — you can let the other person know what you are feeling without making it his or her fault.

    Using “I” statements (i.e., “I felt embarrassed and angry when you laughed at my haircut”) will help with this. But be aware that statements that begin with “I feel that…” or “I think you…” are not “I” statements in the same way.

  • Be specific.

    Clearly describe what you want the other person to do. “Would you put your dirty socks in the hamper after you take them off?” is specific; “Stop being such a slob!” is not. Once you have made your wishes known the other person can decide what s/he is willing to agree to.

  • Be prepared to soothe yourself when you are disappointed.

    Occasional disappointment is inevitable in relationship. If you know that you have ways of dealing with feeling disappointed, it won’t be so scary or debilitating.

  • Avoid the “S” word.

    “Should” is the word most likely to inspire defensiveness in someone. Say what you want or prefer, not what you think the other person should do (or say or think or feel).

  • If you feel uncertain or ambivalent, say so.

    It’s much better to acknowledge that you don’t have an answer at the moment than to try to fake your way through. On the other hand, don’t make a habit of hiding your real opinions or feelings behind “I don’t know”.

  • Don’t dump.

    If you overwhelm the other person with a 15 minute monologue or a long list of wrongs they’ve done, s/he won’t know where to start, and might be tempted to just give up.

  • One topic at a time.

    This is especially important when an interaction is getting heated. If you are discussing sharing household tasks don’t bring up the other person’s inadequacies as a driver, no matter how defensive or angry you feel.

  • Avoid global statements,

    which include words like “never” and “always”. Stick with what’s happening right now as much as possible. Statements like “You never stand up for me with your mother” are too big to discuss usefully.

  • Difference is OK.

    Remember that your partner doesn’t have to think or feel exactly like you do all the time in order for the relationship to work well. You can each get what you want, even if you don’t always want the same thing.

  • Take your time.

    Trying to hurry up and get it over with will just increase the pressure. There will be other chances to talk. Do a little now and don’t worry if it doesn’t all get resolved immediately.

  • Have relationship talks when you are in a good mood.

    It may be hard to motivate yourself to have a potentially challenging talk when things are going well, but that is the best time to do it. If you start talking when you are already upset, you are stacking the deck against yourself.

  • Take a “time out”.

    If you feel yourself getting so emotionally overwhelmed or defensive that you can’t have a productive interaction, then give yourself some time to cool down before you continue.

  • Get some help from a third party.

    Sometimes when you are really stuck you need a neutral outsider to help you sort things out. Find a good couples counselor. (You don’t have to be a romantic couple for counseling to be helpful.) Don’t enlist a friend or family member for this. It is very easy to become triangulated with two people who are struggling, and then there will be three of you feeling bad instead of two.

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