Lee A Edwards, PhD

Psychologist, Austin Texas

Communication - How To Do Tough Topics Well

These techniques are written for romantic couples, but they'll help you in other relationships too. Give 'em a real try.

Check in before launching a topic. If the other person's not mentally available, talking won't be useful to you! Ask whether they're ok with talking about a relationship issue. If they're not, ask whether you can talk about it later. If necessary discuss when.

Choose a topic and stick to it. You'll make more progress than if you try to cover many topics at once. This one's incredibly helpful. If one of you really wants to get to the next topic, agree to do that later. When you're tempted to raise a new topic--even if it's very related to the current topic, ask yourself, "Did we get resolution about the first part?" If not, try to stay with the first part. If the first part absolutely requires dealing with the new topic, go ahead, but be careful of mentioned several topics and resolving none; that typically makes things worse, not better.

Use "I" statements. Example: "I felt hurt when you forgot such-and-such." The point is to help the other person see how their behavior impacts you. Make sure you're voicing your emotion, such as sadness, hurt, anger, joy; avoid the pseudo-emotional terms such as "abandoned," which are indirect ways of saying, "You abandoned me." That's not an emotion, and it's not an "I" statement; it's a "you" statement in that it's all about the other person. And "I" statement lays out your emotion about their action. Sure, you're still mentioned their supposedly bad behavior, but talking about your feeling is a softer approach than, for example: "You always insult my friends," which is completely about the other person. Try "I feel hurt and defensive when you criticize my friends repeatedly." Also try to describe the problematic behavior in a way that the other person will agree with...that keeps the focus on sharing the impact on you. In the above example, if the other person isn't already in agreement that they criticize your friends repeatedly sometimes, the focus won't stay on how it impacts you; it'll be a debate about how they do or don't criticize your friends.

When you "share your feelings," make sure they're feelings. As in "I" statements...sharing a feeling/emotion is different than launching an interpretation of the other person's motives or an analysis of their personality. No pseudo-emotions such as: abandoned, dismissed, ridiculed. Notice that a lot of them are a verb + -ed. The verb is something the other person is supposedly doing, not a feeling you have. I see it a lot in couples therapy that one person says, "I feel really minimized when I share feelings with you"; then there's an argument; then the first person says, "I was just sharing my feelings" (which is supposedly good behavior, right?). But it's not true. They were couching a criticism as "sharing feelings." Don't be harsh on other people when they do this...because it's become an accepted thing to do...but do point out that it's actually not sharing feelings, then invite them to tell you how the do feel (if you can handle it!).

Realize Anger Isn't Warm & Fuzzy. So, let's say you get A+'s on the techniques of using "I" statements and sharing actual feelings. Great. But now the emotion you want to share is anger, specifically. Your motivation may be to be open, connecting, informative, etc. But please understand the special thing about anger: unlike most emotions, it's based on blame. So if you're "sharing" your anger with your partner, and the anger happens to be directed at them, you're putting them in two very different roles at the same time: (1) listener/supporter and (2) person who's being told what's bad about them. (1) is warm and fuzzy; (2) usually isn't warm and fuzzy and connecty at all.

So, is it okay to share/relate anger? Yes. All I'm saying is: be extremely aware that you are putting your partner in this complicated position, and do not expect the same, warm support that you would about other emotions. It's enough to ask that they hear your anger at them; expecting support about your criticism of them (which is what they'll hear most loudly) simply isn't realistic.

Again, I do think that sharing/relating your anger can be helpful. Here's an example: You're pissed off in the moment, and you're tempted to list off every bad thing they've ever done, plus some of their general character flaws. Instead, a great option is simply sharing, "I'm really angry toward you right now." It might not feel quite as satisfying as starting a verbal version of World War III...but it's a lot more likely to lead to some real resolution of the problem.  Stating your anger doesn't fix the problem, of course, but it helps you "own" it, and it often lets you vent a little of that angry energy just by speaking the anger. Try it sometime.

The other common emotion that has some blame in it is hurt. I do recommend sharing your hurt with your partner when your partner is the one you're hurt about. But realize they're gonna get it that there's also a bit of criticism built into the hurt.

Agree Partially. I see something from people in distressed relationships: if they listen to their partner, then respond, they'll respond exclusively to the parts they disagree with. Sure, those parts are important, but it often gives the impression that "You disagree with every single thing I say!" So to make a difficult conversation less difficult, point out the parts you agree with also. Example: "Yeah, I'm with you about not assuming that just 'cuz I'm a woman, it's my job to handle all the housework. But I don't agree about...."

Or maybe you partially agree with a specific point. Great, so point out the positive. Example: "Yeah, I agree that Tito needs to learn more discipline. That's really important. But I disagree about how we should teach him discipline...."

The partially-agreeing versions are much, much easier for the other person to hear. I've learn from working with couples that when the "I agree that Tito needs to learn more discipline" part is left out, the first person often assumes you believe something like "Discipline's not important at all. We just need to accept him."

Agreeing partially will help you be more specific, and it'll make you much easier to listen to. Give it a whirl.

Summarize. Summarize (paraphrase) what the other person said without embellishing, interpreting or responding. It's hard, but amazingly helpful. Here's how it helps: Once they hear that you do hear what they're saying, they'll relax and be less adversarial. And if you actually aren't understanding something, they'll clarify it, which will help them relax and help you understand.

Try paraphrasing if the other person--or you!--is starting to repeat things. Repeating usually just makes things worse. Here's how to do a really effective paraphrase:

* Something like, "I want to see whether I'm getting it. Can I summarize?"

* Summarize what they're actually saying, without interpretation or rebuttal.

* Ask something like, "Did I get it right?"

* Other person clarifies what you did/didn't get right.

* Summarize the parts that you didn't get right the first time.

* "Did I get it right?"

* Repeat until they agree that you're accurately summarizing what they're saying.

Once you've shown that you do understand, you can move on to your response, and the other person is much more likely to be ready to hear it. Now they'll at least be confident that you're responding to what they're actually saying/thinking/feeling and not to some distorted version of it. Communication is so difficult that people often are misunderstood, so they very rightly are wary...even to the point of assuming you don't understand until you take the time to prove you do.

The other great way to use summarizing is to ask the other person to do it about what you're saying. Works great. "So, I'm not sure if I'm getting this across to you or not. What do you hear me saying?" Try both ways: you summarize, and you ask for a summary.

Check out interpretations / "mind reads." We often are confident we know what other people are thinking or why did something. And we're often wrong. Sorry; it's true. Example: You were late today on purpose because you wanted to punish me for what I did last night.

So when you think you know what someone is thinking, consider checking it out. Here's a particular method, taught by The Hakomi Institute of the Southwest. It sounds complicated and awkward, but it works extremely well, so try it!

* Check in with something like, "Can I check out a mind-read I'm having?" This assumes you've already explained that term...if not, you can lay it out with something like, "I've got a guess about something you're thinking. Can I check it out with you?"

* If they say No, consider doing it later. If they say Yes, move on:

* Say what your guess is about what was going on for the other person. Example: "My mind read is that when you agreed to keep my sister's collection of 200 turtles for the summer, you were saying that to placate me, and you really aren't okay with it. Is that accurate?"

* The other person responds. If they're willing to follow this form, they say, "Do you believe me?" Example: "No, I'm actually okay with keeping the turtles. It'll be some work, but I had a couple when I was a kid, and I like 'em. So...do you believe me?"

* If the answer's Yes, you're good. If you don't fully believe them, you have the option of saying why and asking for their response. Example: "I'm having a hard time believing that fully because you hated how much time it took to keep Uncle Joe's bunny."

* They respond again. And again ask whether you believe them. "Okay, that makes sense. But I hate rabbits--they're just gross--and I like turtles. So it's different for me."

* You say whether you believe them. If you're not exhausted yet, you just keep cleaning it up until you both understand each other. You may not like what's in their mind, but at least you have an accurate picture of it, and that's often quite useful.

You might end up disagreeing. Example: You think the other person has nefarious motives that are unconscious, and they don't agree. Okay, not much to be done about that. But quite often, checking out mind-reads will lead to more clarity and understanding. Try it.

Express appreciation. Simply let your partner know things about them that you appreciate, if that's at all possible for you to do. The "appreciations" can be big things or little things. They can be qualities of the person or specific actions. Expressing appreciation is extremely helpful when the relationship is going well--to keep it going well--and even more helpful when it's going poorly. Why? Because you're probably focusing exclusively on their worst qualities, which gives you a distorted picture of the whole person. And because they'll be more open and warm toward you (less angry and defensive) if they're hearing about your honest appreciation and not just your criticisms.

Share the subjective part. Say what things mean to you. Ask what they mean to your partner. Instead of describing your workday in objective terms ("Well, I did this and this and this,") try describing it in subjective or personal terms ("I was worried about the big meeting, but I feel relieved about how it went"). The subjective version lets 'em know about you, not just the events.

The other big use of subjective language I want to recommend is in disagreements. Most of us tend to lean extra-heavily on objective language in disagreements, which I think is often a mistake. Example: "Anyone would have had the same reaction. It's not acceptable to XYZ." We lean on the supposedly objective perspective to put some weight, some authority behind our critique of the other person. But it doesn't work. People don't appreciate the weighty hammer of supposed objectivity, and in disagreements, they often do not agree that your perspective is objective. So try the subjective approach, the personal approach. Example: "I felt hurt when you did that. I pulled back from you and was distant the rest of the night."

I mentioned that the subjective part can be about what something means to you. That can be helpful in a disagreement, like this: "When you raise your voice, to me it means you're just trying to overpower me...that I should shut up...that my perspective isn't welcome." That's going to be much more helpful than: "When people raise their voices, they're completely disrespecting the other person." The latter, "objective" approach only works if they agree with your generalization...which usually doesn't happen in disagreements! You may get something back like, "B.S.! Some people yell all the time just 'cuz they're passionate about their perspective!" Fights are often bad times to explain to someone how the world "really" works. But good times to explain how you work.

By the way, another way to address that example about raised voices is through checking out a mind-read (check out the article sometime): "My mind-read is that when you raise your voice, it means...."

Try to understand...when you don't want to. Even if you don't like what the other person is saying, try to get it, to understand it. It'll help you see why they're doing what they're doing. Example: They equate yelling with violence, so they feel justified rushing out of the room mid-conversation if you raise your voice. But you don't equate yelling with violence. Okay, at least now you can get why they're doing what they're doing, and you'll realize it's not being done just to jerk your chain...it's being done as self-protection.

Let 'em finish. Don't interrupt. Let your partner share a whole thought. This is hard to do, but amazingly helpful. Now, it may be helpful to ask little, clarifying questions and to give little responses like "I didn't know that" or "That sounds hard," but don't take over. Realize that people often get to their point at the end of a speech, so cutting 'em off means you never get it. And so they repeat it. And so you cut 'em off. And so they...yuck. They'll listen to you more if you listen to them. Put the other way: they're going to be impatient if you listen impatiently, interrupting frequently. Try it for a while, and you'll probably see other people's behavior change for the better. And you'll probably understand other people a lot more.

Clean up your language. Leave out sarcasm and insults. You'll pay for them in distance, hurt and anger. Pause and think: what's the descriptive, straightforward, non-insulting way to say this? I'm not going to say you can't ever curse in a disagreement, but I am going to say that it jacks up the emotional intensity, which usually makes people less rational and more defensive. It's to your advantage that the other person be calm and rational. So try to use clear, respectful language so you can deal with the important issues.

Never say "never." Avoid "You never..." and "You always...." They're rarely true, and they're consistently provocative. Try "You often..." or "When you...." Believe it or not, there's a huge difference in the emotional impact of "You always..." or "You never..." compared to "You often..." or "You rarely...." Makes sense when you think about it: it's rare that people always do something wrong, and they hate it when you ignore the (few?) times they don't do it wrong. To put it in some bottom-line terms: when you use "always" and "never," you make yourself very unconvincing. So try something different.

Remember the Criticism Amplifier. Most people, when hearing criticism, will amplify it as they hear it, so you usually don't need to say, for example "I see you as always being extremely, horribly condescending toward me." It'll be plenty powerful enough if you just saying, "Sometimes you seem condescending toward me." The second version cut out the "always," the "extremely," and the "horribly," but it still got the point across, and it's still going to hit the other person as powerful feedback. The additional "volume" you add with "extremely," etc. just increases the chances of overwhelm and defensiveness.

If the other person admits the problem, but then underestimates the intensity or frequency of the problem, you can always deal with the intensity issue next. But don't set 'em up to reject your whole thought by coming in too loud to begin with. Make it easier for them to hear your point, to get it.

Remember that criticism usually comes across very loudly to begin with, and you'll get heard more often.

Take a Time Out if one or both of you can't be constructive at the moment, Stop. Pause. "Don't go to be angry" is often horrible advice. I have couples tell me all the time about terrible things they said to each other at three or four in the morning, when they should have hit Pause at eleven or midnight. Time Outs are super helpful, but sometimes super hard, so I'm going to break down how to do it well.

* Say, "I need a Time Out." That can be because you're not able to make progress or because you see that your partner can't.

* If you can handle it, say you're willing to come back to the topic. This is helpful because you just cut the other person off, and they might not have been ready to quit!

* If possible, specify when you're game for getting back to it--sometime tomorrow, etc.

* If you need to leave physically, say where you're going, if at all possible. Simply leaving makes a loud, dramatic, yet vague statement. Don't do it.

So, pulling it all together concisely, here's an example: "I need to take a Time Out on this. I'm pretty sure I can talk about it again tomorrow, but for now I just need to walk around the block for 15 minutes or so."

Don't drink and talk. Communication about tough issues is hard enough sober; if you're tipsy, defer it. Or otherwise altered. Lots of dumb, unproductive fights happen when people are altered. Just don't do it. The problem will still be a problem the next day. Deal with it then.

Reach out. I constantly see couples sitting in stalemates when it's clear that if either one reached out and made an overture, the other one would be willing to break the stalemate too. Don't wait. If your partner almost never reaches out, address that big picture issue, but instance-by-instance, don't wait. Do something helpful by reaching out.

Licensed psychologist, Austin

(512) 694-1322

4403 Menchaca Rd, Suite A, South Austin, TX 78745
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