It’s 5:30 am. Your alarm goes off to start another day. You rub your face, trying to wake up after a night of not-so-restful-sleep. You remember what you have ahead of you at work today and your shoulders slump. You drag yourself out of bed and down the stairs to get a cup of life-giving coffee… a bright spot in this heavy morning.
You walk into the kitchen and smell the fresh brew percolating. You blearily grab a mug, pour yourself some of the good stuff and move the fridge. You squint as the light comes on when you open the door. You reach for the carton of milk and as you pick it up you notice that it’s unusually light.
You pour the carton anyway and only a few drops drip into your mug… and you’re immediately wide-awake and furious. Your partner has done it again!!
You’ve had this conversation (or others like it) a million times and nothing ever changes!
You know if you say something it’ll just turn into a fight that goes nowhere. You’ll stop talking for a few days, then things will go back to ‘normal’. That is, until the next time.
You’re sick of the cycle, but you don’t know how to change this pattern.
You’re at a loss…
Wouldn’t it be great if there were instructions to shift this seemingly hopeless situation to something better?
Smart Guidelines for Better Communication and Starting Tough Conversations
Did you know that the way a discussion starts, is the same way it will end 94% of the time? If it starts angrily or contentiously it will end that way.
According to Dr. John Gottman’s research, how a conversation starts will determine how it ends. That’s why if you start a conversation from a place of anger and frustration, it’ll often end that way.
Of course, starting conversations like this is hard – we all know that. Even if you know what you want to say, figuring out how to say it can often be a challenge.
Let’s change that, shall we? In this article, we’re looking at 3 components that will create better communication for you and your partner.
The 3 Components Are:
- What to do before you open your mouth – Before You Say Anything
- What to actually say – How To Start the Conversation
- How to complete the conversation powerfully – End On A High Note
Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting this will make conflict easy. I am saying if you want connection and harmony in your relationship, these three components will make tough conversations and overall better communication easier.
The Art Of Tough Conversations Through Better Communication
Think about the last time someone said to you: “We need to talk”. How did you instantly feel?
- Immediately questioning what you did wrong, how are you going to explain it, and make things better?
What about when you have to your partner about something that could lead to conflict? How do you feel then? The same?
That’s usually what happens for most of us. Given that how you start a conversation is most likely how it will end, we’re going to start by looking at how to frame this type of conversation and some key things you need to think about before you start.
Traditionally the approach has been to bite the bullet and dive right in by saying something like:
- “We need to talk.” OR
- “When you _____ I feel like _____.” OR
- “I feel like _______ when you _______.”
No matter what your tone of voice, when you start a conversation with those phrases you’ll put the other person on defense. Not a great start for what is likely an important topic for you.
Before You Say Anything – Set Your Mindset:
Once you decide to have a conversation, people generally choose one of two approaches:
- Get it over with as quickly as possible – you blurt it out and hope for the best
- Over-think and over-analyze – you script out the conversation in your head
By using either of those approaches you’re making the process much more complicated and challenging than necessary.
What to Do Instead?
Spend time before you have the conversation setting an intention:
- How do I want to feel at the end of this?
- How do I want the other person to feel?
- What is most important for me here?
- What do I need to do, to have this conversation end in a positive way?
- Who do I need to BE to have this conversation end in a positive way?
For example, if you set the intention of ‘partnership’ or ‘everybody wins’ before you open your mouth, you’ll approach the conversation differently than if you want to make your partner wrong for what they did.
Consider the example of everybody wins. Being angry and critical will not have everybody win. You’ll end up feeling sh*tty and so will they. Being calm, open, and collaborative will have you ask different questions and listen differently.
How you show up to the conversation will have a HUGE impact on the outcome.
Starting the Conversation – What Do You Say?
If you’re not going to say “we need to talk” what do you say instead? Using a gentle approach or ‘soft startup’ can significantly change the outcome of a conversation.
- Start the conversation gently, complain don’t blame – be non-judgmental, don’t blame, describe your needs.
- Talk about yourself instead of them – use “I” statements.
- Describe the situation and what happened, not your opinion about what’s happened.
- Talk about what you need in positive terms – what you wish for or want as an outcome rather than what you don’t want.
Coupling that with telling them why you want to have the conversation with them, what they mean to you, or what you’re committed to by the end of the conversation, frees them up to actually participate with you instead of being on the defensive. Essentially it puts you both on the same side, looking at the problem together rather than in opposing corners with your dukes up.
Here’s An Example:
“Hey Hon, there’s something on my mind that I want to talk about. First, let me say there’s nothing wrong. You are really important to me. I just wanted to talk to you before this situation gets any bigger. Is now a good time to talk?”
Can you see how language like that would create a totally different conversation than the “we need to talk” strategy”?
You want to talk to your partner about the milk situation and you’ve set the intention of ‘deeper connection.’ When you stand in that space you have access to a whole other world of conversation.
Things To Remember:
- Don’t blame – you can lodge your complaint in the conversation but don’t start off with blaming and accusation.
- Talk about you not them – talk about how you’re feeling rather than what they’re doing or not doing.
- Talk about what’s happening rather than accusing or judging – “There was no milk left in the fridge this morning” will have a different impact than “you used all the milk again.”
- Be polite and appreciative – your partner is likely not being a jerk on purpose. Talking to them about things they do right and what you appreciate about them will make a difference here too.
End On a High Note – Complete Powerfully
Something that often happens in conversations like this, even when things stay calm, is that they don’t get complete. Often you’ll walk away from the conversation thinking you’re both on the same page without getting clarification about that.
It can seem like since you had the tough conversation in the first place all the heavy lifting is done. That is likely not the case. Clearly restating what came out of the conversation and any new agreements that were created is a critical part of changing things in the future.
Another part of ending on a high note is to ensure both you and your partner feel acknowledged and heard. Checking back in before you walk away to make sure everyone is ok is really important. If there’s still something that hasn’t been worked out it will just fester and haunt you in the future.
Tough Conversations – Not As Ugly As You Thought!
You’re obviously reading this because better communication in your relationship is important to you. You’re committed to learning about how to communicate more effectively – even on the tough or touchy topics! It’s ok if you feel weird and awkward when you first start to apply these guidelines.
Part of the awkwardness will be because you’re trying something new and anything new feels weird and awkward. Part of the awkwardness will come from the fact that tough conversations are tough. In fact they may always feel a little awkward for you. With practice you’ll get better!
Better Communication Isn’t Easy, and It’s Worth Your Time & Attention.
This is only a high-level view of what it takes to be effective with your communication during contentious topics. Learning how to communicate better takes something! It’s outside the norm of what most people take on in life and
I’d love to support you in expanding yourself in creating better communication for you and your partner! Click here to receive weekly conversations about making a difference in your life where it really matters!