How to Foster Mutual Understanding with Your Partner
All couples will argue at some point, but there are many ways to handle problems or topics of contention with mutual understanding and respect. Rather than letting your emotions get the best of you, or avoiding topics that might stir up arguments, consider taking an active and positive approach to the situation by starting an open dialogue in a healthier and calm way.
Taking a Step Back To Decompress
Create a "time out" system when the arguments get too heated.Talk with your partner about having a signal such as "time out" as a way to prevent a heated argument from escalating further. The best way to communicate effectively with your partner is when both are mutually ready to continue the conversation in a calmer way.
- The purpose of "time out" or "stop action" is to create some space and time for each person to regain their composure, and to re-engage at a later point (possibly in a few minutes, hours, or the next day).
- Emotions will hopefully be less high after having a "time out" so that communication can continue in a more loving way.
- If you call a "time out" and your partner is not able to decompress, or sees this "time out" as an avoidance tacit, consider reminding him or her in a loving way about the positive intent of this action. Taking a "time out" can be positive for both of you because it gives you the chance to cool off from the argument. Ideally, both parties have already come to a consensus about when and how to use the action of "time out."
Agree on the logistics once "time out" is called.Instead of continuing an argument, focus on the terms of where you and your partner will go to decompress, and regain composure. This may mean that you go into one room and your partner in another. Talk about how each of you needs to take a moment to think and relax, before continuing the conversation.
- Determine if you both are willing to continue the conversation in a few minutes, or if a longer period of time is need. Set a specific time so that this conversation isn't left hanging unresolved.
Relax your mind of negative thoughts.When your emotions are high, your blood pressure may go up, and your ability to think and focus may go down.Try to put stressful thoughts on hold for the moment. In order to deactivate your body's stress response and relax more, take a moment to consider doing one or more of the following:
- Take deep breaths, counting to 10.
- Take a short walk outside, or around the house, and come back when your mind is more relaxed.
- Lie down and close your eyes while listening to soothing music.
- Draw something in a journal, or write down your thoughts as a way to release them.
Open your mind to listening to your partner.Be open to your partner. That does not mean that you need to abandon or invalidate yourself, but rather to be more receptive to a mutual understanding of one another's concerns. Be receptive to other ways of thinking.
- Create a place in your mind and heart where you see your partner as lovable and worthy of your attention.
- Allow more space in your mind for listening openly to your partner's thoughts, feelings, and experiences without immediate resistance, defensiveness, or judgment.
Reestablish communication with your partner.When you feel you are composed, centered, and receptive, check in with your partner to see if he or she is ready to engage in a more understanding dialogue. If not, ask him or her to come and get you, or let you know when they are ready.
- In the meantime, continue your breathing and relaxation exercises as mentioned. When you partner is ready, you can engage in a more open dialogue.
Starting an Open Dialogue
Make a peaceful space that is free of distractions.While you can't always stop things from getting in the way of a conversation, there are ways to prioritize your dialogue, and reduce other distractions.
- Find a room or space that allows you to talk, away from children, other people, phones, TV, and other things that may hinder effective communication.
- Consider holding hands, hugging or smiling at each other, as a way to make amends from previous heated conversations. Physical touch may signal you and your partner are ready to focus on what matters--open communication.
Consider couple's meditation.Use this mindfulness practice as a way to free your mind of negative thoughts, and become receptive to listening and speaking in a constructive way. Do this before starting the conversation again, as a way to calm yourself, and becoming "in tune" with your partner.
- One way to practice this is by sitting cross-legged and facing each other with your legs gently touching. Hold hands. Close your eyes, and breathe. Notice your breath.
- Being present with your breath helps to slow down racing thoughts and emotions. Notice the rhythm of your own breath, and your partner's breath. By doing this for a few minutes, you can be ready to go back to difficult conversations with a more-centered mindset.
Agree to take turns talking.The first person to act as the "speaker" could be decided by preference or by some chance method like flipping a coin. The other person will act as a "listener." Each person will have the opportunity to be both "speaker" and "listen" through possibly several rounds of making your points known.
- It is important to give you and your partner equal time to speak, and to not interrupt until one or other has finished his or her thought.
- Fostering understanding starts first with the goal of active listening.
Think before you speak.By carefully thinking about what you want to say, and how it makes you feel, you are better able to communicate effectively. In order to foster mutual understanding with your partner, the point of open dialogue is not about "winning" an argument. It is about making your voice heard about your concerns in a loving and respectful way.
Keep your message clear, brief, and focused.You may feel like "your turn to speak" is an opportunity to make a laundry list of all the problems you're having with a specific topic. In this form of communication, keep the need to vent minimal. By being clear, focused, and staying on topic, your partner will be able to listen more effectively to what you're saying.
- Avoid getting derailed, and starting to talk about things that aren't on topic.
- Be choosing your words more strategically, and carefully, you are less likely to escalate an open dialogue into a heated argument.
Use "I" statements.Instead of saying, "You're crazy," "You're wrong," "You shouldn't...," use statements that focus on yourself, or "I" statements. People often get emotional and upset if you focus on how they are "wrong" or "crazy," so instead try to express how the situation or their actions make you feel.
- Be specific in what you are feeling, and avoid phrases that are simply "you" statements disguised as "I" statements.
- Consider statements like "I feel worried when you don't call me about when you're coming home." By using "I feel"_____ "when"______, you can show how a feeling is tied to specific action.
- Use these statements as way to express both concerns and gratitude. Talk about how "I feel insecure" when...., or "I feel happy" when...
Avoid blaming, and focus on problem-solving.While it may seem like a perfect opportunity to use your time to speak as a way to talk about what your partner "should" or "ought" to do, this is not a forum for blaming. Avoid using labels that will simply incite anger.
- By coming up with possible solutions to the problem at hand, you are more likely to find mutual understanding. You and your partner are simply that---partners. When people encounter problems, it is important to focus on the possible solutions, rather than trying to prove who is wrong or right.
Utilizing Active Listening
Think of listening as an expression of love.Active listening involves giving your undivided attention to your partner, and showing that you are being present in the conversation. By both paying attention to your partner, and really hearing what he or she is saying, you are expressing love, respect, and understanding. Your body language can help to show you're listening, in the following ways:
- Not talking, or interrupting by being silent while your partner speaks.
- Providing nonverbal cues such as head-nodding or resting your head on your hand in thoughtful way.
- Leaning your body forward slightly.
- Maintaining eye contact with your partner, but not staring.
Reflect fully on what is being said by the speaker.After your partner has finished sharing, pause for a moment to take in what was said, and reflect on what parts you understand or may not understand fully. It is okay to ask your partner to clarify their message if there is any confusion.
- By processing what is said, you are giving yourself time to react in a more calm and constructive way that shows you care.
Repeat back in your own words what you heard.By paraphrasing what your partner has just said, you both are reducing opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding. The use of repeating back, and paraphrasing, will be key to actively versus passively listening. If you partner can hear what you thought you heard, there is the possibility of understanding the other's point of view on the matter.
- “What I’m hearing you say is that you feel ____________ when ____________ because ___________ and you want ____________.” See how your partner responds when using this way of paraphrasing.
- Find out if the speaker feels heard after you have asked questions, or discussed clarification. Consider using statements like “Do you feel understood?” If the speaker states no, consider asking for clarification such as “Would you please repeat what you said, so I can listen further?"
Use empathy when listening.Provide validation and appreciation for what your partner is trying to openly and honestly say. This is important to showing that you love, respect, and trust your partner. Empathy is crucial to finding some form of resolution, because you have shown that you are willing to "talk in their shoes." Consider using expressions such as:
- “I can understand that you feel the way you do." And, “Thank you for sharing that with me."
- Be forgiving, and understanding that if you and your partner are able to engage in even some of these techniques, that you and you partner are both heading in a healthier direction.
- These techniques are not foolproof, and will not necessarily resolve all conflicts and arguments. They are a stepping-stone in the right direction. If your attempts to utilize these techniques with your partner aren't working, consider finding a third-party such as a couples counselor, or a religious leader such as a chaplain, to assist with more effective communication.
- Consider that timing is key. If you and your partner simply continue to get into heated arguments when trying to start a dialogue, call a time out, and set aside time for an open conversation later.
- It is a good practice to use couples' meditation and other activities that reduce stress on a regular basis, regardless of any recent arguments or misunderstandings.
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