Casual conversation, playful banter, passionate exploration, are all fine and fitting communication styles as long as both participants are relatively calm.
This changes the moment someone begins to get upset. In a previous post, Old Brain New Brain, I explain why it is vital to remain relatively calm, kind and respectful in any emotionally significant conversation with your partner.
Your relationship is more important than any single conversation or conflict. How you manage these conversations, however, turns out to be one of the most significant factors in determining your long-term relationship success.
The following is an outline. It is a highly effective structure for managing emotional conversations and conflicts, keeping them productive and respectful.
The ground rules
One person talks at a time – no exceptions.
One subject at a time.
Let the person who is upset first or upset most be the first speaker.
Give the speaker some object that functions as a microphone – whoever has the microphone is the speaker. PERIOD. You cannot ever take the microphone, it can only be given.
Using the format below, the speaker continues until they have:
Expressed everything they have to say on the given subject
Affirmed that the listener has understood / acknowledged each of their points
Says something like “Ok, that’s good, that’s all I have to say about that.”
The speaker then passes the microphone to the listener and the roles reverse (Speaker becomes listener, listener becomes speaker)
The above process repeats (back and forth) until both participants feel fully expressed and fully acknowledged / understood.
No part of this exercise is about reaching agreements or resolving the problem.
I cannot emphasize how important this is. Agreeing about details is unnecessary and can come later. Lasting productive solutions can only come after both partners feel like they’ve spoken their truth, maintained an emotionally safe environment, and feel understood and acknowledged.
(Establish eye contact, remember to use a soft voice, state your good intent)
Observations: What did you see and hear. Not pronouncing truth. Not winning an argument or defending yourself. You are merely stating what you remember as subjectively as possible.
How you make sense of your perceptions: Examples:
“I imagine that ____.”
“The story I made up was that ____.”
“The way I make sense of it is to believe that ____.”
(Make sure these are “I” statements and not “you” statements.)
Your biggest concern or fear: Examples:
“I’m afraid what this means is…”
“I’m afraid of losing out on…”
“I’m afraid I’ll never get to…”
“I’m afraid I’ll always have to…”
“I’m afraid you will…”
“I’m afraid you won’t…”
Express what you really want or need: Remember this is a LOVING request for what you want, stated in the positive. Example:
“What I really want is ____.”
“In the future would you please _____?”
“What would really work for me is if you would ____.”
(Remember that your only goal is to help your partner to feel understood, acknowledged, respected)
Listener responds: (every minute, or when brain is full, whichever comes first)
“So what you saw/heard/remember is __________.”
Or “So what happened for you was____.”
“The way you made sense of it was ____.”
Or “What you imagined was____.”
“What you’re afraid of is____.”
Or “Your biggest concern is____.”
“And what you really want(ed) is (for me to) ____.”
Then ask the Three Magic Questions:
“Did I get that right?” (look for head nod, affirmation, and the calming response)
“Did I miss anything?” (listen for and reflect back any missing pieces)
“Is there more?” (they get to keep going until they are done)
Communication is complete when both partners feel completely self-expressed and completely understood.
Then, and only then, is it productive to move on to problem solving…