Experts cite communication problems as the number one reason marriages fail.
But good communication in marriage is not enough, unless that communication leads you to a closer connection with your partner.
Communication is not really the problem in marriage. Feeling disconnected is.
You can have good communication and not feel connected.
I’m not saying communication is not important, because you can’t connect without communicating. What I’m saying is you can communicate without connecting.
Sometimes you may communicate perfectly and still trigger each other’s defenses.
Whenever defenses are triggered, the space between you becomes negative. Negativity makes a conversation unsafe, and that’s what keeps you from connecting.
Whether it’s criticism in your communication, or a judgmental reaction to your partner’s words, this kind of communication will prevent connection and conflict will be the result.
Talking with criticism or listening with judgment can make any subject a contentious one. And that’s when we blame our relationship failure on “communication problems”.
On the other hand, when you talk in a way that leaves you feeling connected, then you can more easily deal with every problem in your relationship.
The Safe Conversation model (aka The Couple’s Dialogue) is a tool that will help you communicate in a way that leads to connection.
Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt have defined a Safe Conversation as…
A way of talking without criticizing, of listening without judging, and connecting beyond our differences.
Let’s consider how this can work for us.
1. Talking without criticizing
Janet said to her husband Rob, “You’re going to kill yourself if you keep eating like that! You know that white sugar is poison!”
Communication? There is no question about what Janet is communicating. It’s crystal clear. But what do you think Rob’s response would be to this kind of communication?
He’d probably see it as criticism, and react by judging Janet’s intent as being disrespectful or controlling. Right?
“Stop telling me what to do! You’re always trying to control me!”
And then this reaction would then trigger further frustration on Janet’s part.
“You never listen to me.”
This downward spiral began with a critical comment.
A safe conversation can eliminate that.
You can talk about almost anything if you’ll say it in a respectful way without criticism.
It’s not what you say but how you say it. Whatever it is you’re talking about is secondary.
As safe conversation is like a truck moving produce. The truck will deliver whatever it’s carrying: wheat, corn, beans or potatoes, it doesn’t matter.
In the same way a safe conversation will deliver any kind of message you want to send: appreciation, frustration, things you want, or things you need from your partner, it doesn’t matter. Like the truck moving the cargo, a safe conversation will deliver the goods.
So what would a Safe Conversation look like in this case?
1) Use “I statements” rather than “you statements”
Instead of saying “you” and then criticizing Rob, Janet could start by using “I” statements to share two things: “what I saw or heard” and “what I felt”.
And then she add any other thoughts or feelings that come to mind.
“When I saw you eating donuts, I felt anxious. My mother had diabetes and died at an early age and I’m afraid of something happening to you.”
2) Watch the non-verbal messages you’re sending
Often, things like a sigh, a glare, or a rolling of the eyes communicate negativity.
It will be really helpful if Janet conveys a soft look in her eyes and speaks in a kind tone.
It’s the non-verbal gestures that actually do most of our communicating.
3) Regulate your own emotional reaction
When Janet speaks in this way, she is working to regulate her reaction and the fear that drives her criticism.
This gives Rob a chance to control his own reaction, and perhaps listen with curiosity.
So, when you’re talking, use I statements, watch your non-verbal messages, and regulate your reaction to what you’ve seen and heard.
These steps will help do a lot to make the conversation safe and thus easier for your partner to listen and connect with you.
The problem may not be that your partner is not listening well. The problem may be that you’re not communicating in a way that can be heard.
Talking without criticizing can help make it safe to talk about even the most difficult issues.
2. Listening without judgment
What’s Rob’s part in this?
Rob stirred the pot by reacting with, “Stop telling me what to do! You’re always trying to control me!”
What if he were to regulate his own reaction for the moment?
You know Janet is really a decent person. What if Rob were to become curious about what feelings are driving her insensitive comment.
The three-part Safe Conversation model is designed to help you do that.
Here’s what it might look like:
What if Rob simply mirrored back to Janet what she said?
Mirroring says to your partner, “You matter. What you have to say matters.”
Here’s what that might look like:
“Let me see if I got what you’re saying. You’re saying that when I ate that second donut, you felt anxious. Your mother had diabetes and died at an early age, and you’re afraid of something happening to me.”
Did I get it? (checking for accuracy)
Is there more about that? (curiosity)
Checking to get 100%, and then becoming curious about your partner has a powerful effect, making your partner feel like she or he matters.
The second step is…
Validation is when you say to your partner, “Although I may see things differently, you make sense.” And then you tell your partner what makes sense about what she or he just said.
“Janet, you make sense. It makes sense that because you experienced such a loss when your mother died, you’d naturally be anxious when you see me not being careful about my sugar intake. That makes sense.
“Does that give you the validation you need?” (always check to see)
And finally, empathy is when you feel what your partner is feeling about the issue.
“And I can imagine that you’re feeling really scared. I’ve felt afraid when I thought of losing someone. And that feels really bad.”
Empathy enables you to be present with your partner in the midst of their fears. This enables you to connect emotionally, on a deeper, heart level. This will also bring a measure of healing to the wound that is driving your partner’s fear.
3. Connecting beyond our differences
As Rob and Janet connect, their differences over diet may not change. But empathy will enable them to connect beyond their differences.
You say, well, what if I can’t accept the difference? What if it’s not just an addiction to sweets, but an addiction to say, alcohol.
Then it may be necessary to ask for a change in behavior. But in my experience Rob would be much more open to Janet’s request if they feel connected.
On the other hand, if they continued being defensive and feeling disconnected, the fight would go on and on and on. Right?
What about you?
You too can learn to communicate in a way that leads to closer connection with your partner.
By talking without criticizing, listening without judging, and connecting beyond your differences.