Dear Dr. Hurd,
I read your column every week, and I 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 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, the great majority of relationship problems come down to 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 among family and friends is not a license to ignore good manners and civility. Respectful, non-threatening communication, taking the listener’s feelings into consideration, can help avoid arguments and ensure your point is well taken.
I’ve put together ten practical tips for clear, rational conversation. Each and every one of them grew out of experiences I have had with clients over the years.
1. Do not interrupt. 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 he is saying. Look for evidence of honest misunderstandings. These are the root cause of most family and marital quarrels.
3. Do not try to formulate your answer while he’s talking. When it’s your turn to speak, carefully formulate your answer before stating it. Don’t rush things.
4. Allow time-outs! If you’re too emotional to continue, call for a break. Take responsibility for reinitiating the discussion when the agreed-upon time has passed. Time-outs can be frustrating, but it is more frustrating to try and carry on a conversation when you’re too emotional to think clearly.
5. Avoid saying things you don’t mean. Hurtful statements made in the heat of the moment can do irreparable damage. Words have consequences, and many can never fully be taken back.
6. Remind yourself that you are an adult, and no longer a child at the mercy of adults. You’re in this relationship by choice, and you owe it to yourself to resolve the 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.” In the intensity of the discussion, you might feel they are true, but feelings and facts are not necessarily the same thing.
8. Avoid defensiveness. You don’t have to protect yourself against enemy attacks from the person you supposedly love. Instead, calmly ask for the evidence that you never show that you care, for example, or that you are not truthful, or whatever. You do not have to accept assertions without proof.
9. If your partner does provide convincing evidence for a criticism, act like a grown-up and accept responsibility. Adherence to reality is a virtue and a sign of maturity. Your partner or friend will respect you more, and admitting accountability will help improve your own self-esteem. Denying that something is true when you know full well that it is, can be insulting, hurtful, and create permanent damage.
10. Always remember that feelings and facts are not necessarily the same thing. So many psychological issues end up boiling down to this one fact.
Nobody has the right to declare their feelings as truth without valid facts to back them up. When people ignore this rule, true happiness in any relationship can never be possible.