Dear Dr. Hurd,
I read your column every week, and I really like what you say. But sometimes, when I try to make suggestions to my husband or my adult children, it turns into an unpleasant ‘heated discussion.’ I am truly not a busybody, but sometimes your articles hit on things that I know would be helpful to my family. How can I talk to them without losing the point and ending up in a fight?
I will take it on your word that you’re not a busybody. It is virtually impossible to get a point across to anyone who feels that you’re meddling in something that’s none of your business.
That being said, a great majority of the problems I see in relationships are the result of poor communication. Sometimes people are so intent on getting their message across that they don’t take the listener into consideration. The intimate connection that exists between close family and friends is not a license to ignore the basic rules of good manners and civility. Respectful, non-threatening communication—taking the listener’s feelings into consideration—can help avoid arguments. It can also ensure that your point is well taken and maybe even appreciated.
I’ve put together ten practical tips for clear, rational conversation. Each and every one of them grew out of actual experiences I have had with clients in my office over the years.
1. Do not interrupt. Allow your partner to finish what he is saying. When there is a pause, politely ask, ‘Are you finished?’ When you’re both talking at the same time, nobody’s hearing what anybody’s saying.
2. Actively listen. In other words, think about what she is saying. Look for evidence of honest misunderstandings. They are almost always present. Misunderstandings, as opposed to fundamental differences, are the root cause of most family and marital quarrels.
3. Do not try to formulate your answer while he is talking. When it is your turn to speak, pause and carefully formulate your answer before stating it. Don’t rush things.
4. Allow time-outs! If you are too emotional to continue, call a five-, ten- or thirty-minute time-out. Take responsibility for reinitiating the discussion when the agreed-upon time has passed. Although time-outs can be frustrating, it is more frustrating to try to carry on a conversation when you’re too emotional to think clearly and logically.
5. Be very careful to avoid saying things you don’t mean. Hateful, hurtful statements, made in the heat of the moment, do irreparable damage. Words do have consequences, and many of them can never truly be taken back no matter how hard you try.
6. Remind yourself that you are an adult, and that you are no longer a helpless child at the mercy of adults. You are in this relationship by choice. Nobody is forcing you to be here, and you owe it to yourself, more than anyone, to resolve this conflict rationally so that you both can be happy.
7. Try to avoid generalized comments such as, ‘You always accuse me…’ or ‘You never show me you love me.” Use generalized statements only if you know for a fact they are true. In the intensity of the discussion, you might feel they are true, but feelings and facts are not necessarily the same thing.
8. Avoid being defensive. Don’t feel you have to protect yourself against enemy attacks from the person you supposedly love. Instead, calmly and politely ask for the evidence that (for example), you never show that you care, or the evidence that you are not truthful, or that you don’t keep your promises. You do not have to accept assertions without proof.
9. If your partner does provide convincing evidence for a criticism of you, act like a grown-up and accept responsibility. Adherence to the facts of reality is a virtue and a sure sign of maturity. Your spouse, or whomever you are arguing with, will respect you more, and being accountable for your actions will help improve your own self-esteem. Faking reality by denying that something is true—when you know full well that it is—can be the greatest sin you can commit against yourself or your loved one. Make-believe is insulting, hurtful, and the damage is permanent.
10. Follow this absolute rule: Feelings and facts are not necessarily the same thing. (Isn’t it interesting that so many psychological issues end up boiling down to this one fact?)
You have no right to declare your feelings as truth, without valid and logical facts to back them up. Neither does your spouse, your kids, or your friends. If either party fails to follow this rule as an absolute, true happiness in any relationship will never be possible.