Communication — 26 April 2009
Respectful communication rules

Many conflicts between mates occur as a result of poorly phrased sentences. Sometimes innocent and even well intentioned communications are poorly received due to common languaging errors.

Most people expect to be treated by their mates with respect, kindness and positive regard. Any hint of criticism, control, harshness, impatience, irritation, dismissive, threatening or negative attitude by the mate is likely to be received with hurt and defensiveness terminating the interaction and initiating a fight.

Many individuals are unaware of the communications errors they make and thus repeat them regularly. Some partners are equally non-discerning of the triggers that cause their hurt responses and thus cannot articulate their displeasure well enough to get them extinguished. And there are couples who are very aware of what upsets them and have a difficult time recruiting each other’s cooperation in ceasing the painful sentences.

I would suggest that both of you agree to follow the thirteen communication rules listed below, some of which are already part of your style. In doing so you will find greater comfort in your communication, significantly reduce ill feelings and conflicts and increase your emotional closeness.

A caveat: Agreeing to adhere to these tools is not an invitation for competition or demerits. It is a contract to sincerely learn to talk respectfully and enjoy your partner even more. Also remember that instilling new habits takes practice and you can help each other by kindly rephrasing your partner’s errors to the style that is easier for you to hear.

• Do not start a sentence with a “you”, unless it is followed by a compliment. “You are wonderful” is an encouraged phrase.
• Avoid using “always” and “never” about human behavior. It is incorrect and inflammatory.
• Do not start a sentence with a verb, such as: “stop”, “come”, “go”, “do”, ”don’t”, ”leave”, “come here”, etc. It is commanding.
• Ask – don’t tell. Say: “Would you like to go for a walk?” rather than “We are going for a walk”.
• Do not ask “why” if the answer does not have a factual response. “Why are you this way?” is unanswerable and demeaning. Use “what” instead. “What made you choose this option?”
• Do not use the word “but” in the middle of a sentence, it invalidates the first half of the sentence. “I love you, but I can’t stand what you do” should be replaced with “I love you, and I don’t like what you do.” Both parts of the second sentence are valid.
• Never criticize the partner. Convey your dissatisfaction with his/her behavior. “You can’t even remember something so simple?” is shaming. “I am disappointed when what I ask for is not remembered,” is respectful.
• Abstain from messages that indirectly imply a threat to the relationship, such as “I am fed up” “I don’t know how long I can take this”, “I have had enough”, “This may not work”, “I can’t handle this any longer”, “Maybe you need to be with someone else who would not upset you so much”, “If I don’t get it here, I can get it elsewhere”, “ This is a deal breaker”. These messages create a threat and cause greater emotional distance between partners.
• Make suggestions gently, allowing the partner to make choices. Instead of saying “just do this”, say: “I would like to encourage you to consider this option ”. That allows the partner to consider or not, to accept or reject the option, and to feel autonomous.
• Avoid complaining about what you do not receive. Instead, ask clearly for what you need. “It would really please me if you would play with the children while I make dinner”. Once it is done, remember to keep your promise to be pleased and state your appreciation.
• Use your “soft voice”(just above a whisper) it is more likely to be perceived as kind words. It also invites careful listening by the partner.
• Say it the way you would want to hear it if it were said to you. Pause before you reply so you can phrase it nicely.
• Speak to your partner at least as nicely as you would to a neighbor. If you would not say it that way to a stranger, it is worth rephrasing.

There is nothing magical about good communication. It requires some self-awareness about how you deliver your thoughts and the choice to be respectful and kind. You will cherish the greater closeness and intimacy you will create with each other.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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