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Couples (and anyone for that matter) can find communicating about a concern or a misunderstanding to be challenging. It’s hard for all of us, so how can we communicate in a clear way that is fair to the listener, and is also carried out in a manner that minimizes defensiveness and escalation?
My goal today is to give you some effective strategies that you can implement right away to clean up your communication and prevent escalation and defensiveness. Why? So you can have constructive conversations about the things that matter, and to give you more time to focus on the fun aspects of your relationship (and spend less time on arguing that gets you nowhere).
Here is what I will explore:
Avoid Negative Interpretations:
The book Fighting for Your Marriage highlights four communication danger signs, but today I am going to focus in on just one—negative interpretations (Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg, 2010, pp. 50-57). Negative interpretations are assumptions that you have about your partner that are negative generalizations taken to the extreme that are not true, or mostly false. How do you identify them? You can root them out by looking for labels or all or nothing statements. Examples of labels: He is lazy. She is uncaring. He is ________. She is _________. All or nothing statements can be found by listening for the following words: always or never. Additionally, all or nothing statements might include statements like “she just won’t do it” or “that’s just his personality.”
By the way, one of the things I give to every new couple who begins couples counseling with me is a copy of the book Fighting for Your Marriage. I tell couples that if you only read one book about relationships, please read this one. It is a great summary of research-based relationship strategies that really work. I also give each couple a Discovery Keeper to track their goals, homework, notes, and milestones. Anyhow, back to negative interpretations...
Examples of Negative Interpretations:
Let’s Explore Some Feelings Here:
Have you ever been on the receiving end of a negative interpretation or an extremely negative assumption about why you did something? I would bet yes! How did it feel? Pretty awful? Like you were backed into a corner? Maybe you felt like an animal backed into a corner who was ready to strike back? Did you instantly feel defensive?
Feeling instantly angry and defensive is pretty universal (I know because I have asked many couples about this, and just about every couple describes how extremely upset and defensive they feel when they are on the receiving end of negative interpretations). I don't like to use the word hate, but people really hate it when others make incorrect negative assumptions about them. Other ways to describe it, is a character attack and veering into the territory of shaming someone.
Food for thought... Please remember how it feels to be on the receiving end of a negative assumption (or several at a time). Don't forget it. Use this as motivation for why you choose to be clear in your communication, and fair to others, when you speak about them. How do you prefer to be talked to if you make a mistake or someone feels confused by your actions?
Let's Explore Some Harmful Consequences:
One consequence of negative interpretations is that they can change our own behavior when we believe in them. I like to emphasize with couples that a good majority of negative interpretations may never be said out loud; instead, they are said in our heads where they fester and grow. When they grow and we believe them, we then tend to act more negatively towards our partner, and in turn our partner may act more negatively towards us. Can you see the back and forth downward spiral that can happen?
Another harmful consequence is that when we feel upset, we may feel more comfortable gossiping, and sharing our negative assumptions about someone, than directly approaching the other party to clear up the issue.
You know, it's okay to think negative interpretations; do not be hard on yourself about that. We get mad, upset, confused, or worried about things, and we cannot always control what direction our mind goes. What we can control is catching the assumption, and making the choice to not buy into it. This is part of emotional maturity. It takes self-awareness and practice to reach a high level of emotional maturity. We also want to be careful about buying into other people's negative assumptions about others.
Escalation and Defensiveness Equation:
Making a negative interpretation (or several) + mostly general and vague statements = The person on the receiving end defending their personality/level of care or concern, and feeling confused about what the problem is.
As you can see with this equation, the discussion likely won't get very far unless someone makes a smart choice to ask for specifics and decides to stay calm. I want to help you understand the back and forth nature of this dynamic. So, after a person defends their personality (or level of care/concern) the person who originally brought up the issue interprets this defensive response as an indicator of a lack of intelligence, a lack of interest, or a lack of caring. As you can see, very often more negative interpretations are made and they can quickly spiral out of control (on both sides).
It’s Okay to Feel a Little Bit Defensive:
I want to add a little bit more to this conversation and clarify something. Please realize that even if both parties do pretty well at being specific and clear, both will still internally feel a little defensive and uncomfortable. This is okay and expected; furthermore, communication is never perfect. You may also disagree with the other person on some aspects.
It’s often hard when someone holds us accountable for something or it's hard when there are hurt feelings involved. If you are feeling defensive, just be aware of it, and take special note to still stay in the conversation, communicate respectfully, and listen to understand (not to reply and defend yourself).
Remember, you cannot control that communication is imperfect and disagreements can be hard at times, but what you can control is making the choice to really understand and clarify the topic at hand.
Move the Conversation to Productive Talk:
Part of accepting that people are never perfect in their communication, and that communication is naturally messy, means finding ways to move conversations to more productive communication.
For example, if you hear someone say a negative assumption to you, it’s not the end of the world (although, I know it doesn’t feel very good!). Your job is to stay calm, ask questions, ask for specific examples of the incident, and also specific examples of what things would look like if the issue was resolved. This will help move the conversation to a more productive direction, and help you get a much clearer picture of the situation.
Use an XYZ Statement to Sharpen Your Message and Decrease the Likelihood for Defensiveness and Escalation:
Fighting for Your Marriage has a really great tool I like to use with every couple I work with to help them make their concern clear, respectful, and fair. The tool is called the XYZ statement: “When you do X in situation Y, I feel Z” (Markman et al., 2010, p. 175).
Examples of the XYZ Statement:
Your Clear and Calm Conversation Equation:
Using an XYZ statement + specific and factual examples = Giving the other person the best chance to apologize, share their experience, and deeply understand where you are coming from.
This equation isn’t going to fix everything, but it will give your conversations a good start, and the best chance of coming to a resolution. Additionally, make sure you use a calm tone of voice.
Some Caution Based on My Experience:
After helping many couples use the XYZ statement, I have found an incredibly common pitfall that accidentally leads to some defensiveness. Make sure that when you say your feeling that you are only saying a feeling and not a negative interpretation. Those negative interpretations are really sneaky sometimes.
I will give you an example of what not to do: “When you didn’t help me give the kids their baths, after I asked you to several times last night, I felt that you were just trying to hurt me and I realized you really don’t care about helping me out with the kids’ bedtime routine.” The underlined part was the oh so sneaky negative interpretations that slithered in there.
Please imagine for a moment that someone just said that to you… How would you feel? You are probably feeling really great, and you probably want to admit to where you need to take responsibility and help out more... Not!
So, what do you do instead? You can avoid the common pitfall of sneaky negative interpretations by just being very simple and brief. ONLY state a feeling after “I feel.” That’s it. Nothing more. Stop and give the other person a chance to explain, clarify, or apologize if necessary. Examples of feelings: upset, angry, happy, sad, concerned, confused, alarmed, excited, and elated.
For more examples of feelings, check out this cool feelings wheel: http://feelingswheel.com/. Or if that last feelings wheel was a bit overwhelming (lots of feelings going on there), and you just want the basics, here is a simpler wheel: http://prismwp-dev.ku.edu/project/feelings-wheel/.
A Common Question Based on My Experience:
Couples often ask, well, what if the situation has happened more than once? How can I be specific and clear without sliding into a character attack? Great question!
Fortunately, there is an easy solution. State, “there has been a pattern that when you do X in situation Y, I feel Z.” Make sure to give multiple behavioral examples to support your statement that there has been a pattern. Boom! Problem solved. You can do this.
Another neat solution (I know, I'm a psychology geek) is to express specifically the behaviors you have noticed, and state you feel confused about what is going on. You might also state that you would like help understanding from their perspective what is happening. Let the other person explain their behaviors and feelings.
Interestingly, when we avoid jumping to conclusions and jumping to character attacks, the other person is much more likely to quickly admit when they were wrong and take responsibility for their actions. Or, we might find that once we find out the details we didn't need to be upset in the first place. Another outcome is that we discover that we have different values or beliefs, and it's not that either party is "bad" or "wrong."
Use XYZ Statements for Statements of Gratitude:
I love, love, love using XYZ statements for gratitude and appreciation statements. It's important to be aware of the ratio of our negative communication to our positive/encouraging/grateful communication and behaviors. All of us would be wise to make sure the majority of our communication throughout the day is positive, respectful, and constructive.
One way to do that is to use an XYZ statement for appreciation. Here is an example, “When you planned our date this past weekend, I felt so loved and I felt relieved I could forget my stress for a while and just have fun with you. I could really tell you put some thought and care into planning the date.”
What is wonderful about the example above is that the person on the receiving end will feel really good, and he or she will know exactly why planning the date meant so much to his or her partner. The person who planned a fun date night will be much more likely to want to do it again. Compare this to how you would feel if someone said “date night was nice,” or didn't say anything at all. If you notice, "date night was nice" doesn't have quite as much of an impact, and is definitely not as meaningful.
There are lots of benefits to frequent statements of appreciation and gratitude. In a culture of appreciation and gratitude, when the problems do come up (and they always will), the issues tend to feel minor, not as scary, and they feel easier to overcome. This is because when people feel appreciated for what they do, feel loved, and feel emotionally safe, it's an environment that is conducive to being willing to openly admit to mistakes, explore areas of growth, and explore ideas/solutions.
Next I discuss meeting in the middle which is another way to help you nurture a positive and healthy culture. Additionally, think of meeting in the middle as the context and environment to use your XYZ statements in.
Meet in the Middle:
Last Thing, For the Relationship Legacy Leaders Out There:
Teach your kids the information in this blog. Be a wise teacher about it and use age appropriate language and examples that they can relate to depending on their age and the topics that matter most to them. Be aware when you are thinking or saying negative interpretations about your kids and the damage this can cause. Especially focus your energy on modeling positive XYZ statements in front of your kids, and to your kids.
Kids really respond well to positive XYZ statements. The more appreciated they feel, the more they feel part of a caring family, and the more willing they will be to participate in family activities or chores. You also might find that with all the modeling you are doing, your kids start telling you positive XYZ statements of appreciation that make your heart melt!
I make these recommendations because I really want everyone in your family to:
You can teach kids, or even your coworkers about the topics in here. The information in here definitely applies to the workplace. Clearer communication saves time and money.
For the Relationship Legacy Leaders interested in politics, have better political discussions with the information in this blog. Have you noticed that many political discussions do not get further than attacking the other party's character or personality? Do you see how this essentially puts the brakes on any constructive discussion or problem resolution? Unfortunately, in my opinion, we are ALL guilty of this (both Democrats and Republicans). It's human nature (we all do it), and we need to understand good communication skills to combat it.
Find ways to communicate about specific examples, your feelings, and your values in a constructive way. Give all sides the chance to speak using a respectful tone. This doesn’t at all mean you will agree on everything (we cannot control that we have different values, beliefs, and ideas for solutions). Furthermore, we need to examine a variety of ideas to come up with the best solution. However, the clearer and more respectful we are, the more we can actually get further into a discussion and really find out the full picture.
As citizens I believe it is our duty to learn how to constructively discuss political topics and especially topics we disagree on. We also need to vote for people in politics who demonstrate a commitment to constructive communication. I have the opinion that it probably wouldn’t hurt for politicians to take communication and conflict resolution training for the sake of getting more done with less unnecessary fighting, defensiveness, and escalation. Defensiveness and escalation wastes time, and hurts relationships. Communication and conflict resolution skills are incredibly important for the effective working of government. Like I say, they are not "soft skills."
Healthy Family Systems:
Today’s blog is also really helpful for the Relationship Legacy Leaders changing bad communication habits in families. Whole family systems can get caught in saying and believing lots of harmful assumptions about each other. Everyone individually needs to watch their own assumptions and be extra careful about adopting negative assumptions (or gossip) about other family members.
I have found that the more the leaders of the family pass along negative assumptions about each other, the more unhappy and disconnected that family feels. It’s especially damaging when parents do this. Furthermore, negative interpretations erode trust. It is my opinion and firm belief that the leaders in the family, typically the older ones, the parents, or the oldest siblings, have a much greater responsibility to be careful about how they talk about other members of the family.
Ideally, family leaders create an atmosphere where it’s okay to learn, to grow, to admit mistakes, and to communicate feelings and concerns in a constructive way. Family leaders will want to model constructive and clear communication, because they set the standard for their family. Children, younger members of a family, and family members with less power do not have as much choice in the habits of a family—they often have to just go along with the rules whether it’s healthy or not.
Talk With a Trusted Friend:
Lastly, brainstorm right now who you feel might be interested in some of the topics in here. Do you have a trusted friend or a close sibling who would love to dive into a conversation about communication? Strike up a conversation with him or her, and get their viewpoint and ideas on negative interpretations and XYZ statements. Tell him or her what you learned in this blog, or what really stood out to you. Talk about what you are thinking of implementing.
Thank you so much for joining me here today. I enjoy being here with other Relationship Legacy Leaders. I know that if all of us work on implementing these strategies we can make a massive difference in our own lives, and in the lives of everyone around us. We do NOT have to get sucked into negativity. We CAN make good choices about our relationships, communication, and mental health.
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I would love to hear from you. Please comment below with any ideas or thoughts you have so we can continue this conversation. Have a wonderful rest of the day. Thanks again for visiting.
All the best,
Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2010). Fighting for your marriage: A deluxe revised edition of the classic best seller for enhancing marriage and preventing divorce (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
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Holly L. Harrison, MA, LMFT