Tag Archive for communication

The #1 Goal of Marital Arguments

Have you ever thought about the #1 goal of marital arguments? At first glance, you may think the goal is “to win. To make my spouse understand or see it my way.” But that is NOT the most important goal, the one we desire most. Let me ask the question differently. Do you want to make your spouse “see it your way” if it means damaging (or worse yet, destroying) your marriage? For most disagreements (at least 99% of them), the answer is “no.” We don’t want “to win” an argument with our spouse at the expense of our relationship. You may have had an experience like this in your marriage though. You disagree with your spouse and, after exchanging a few heated words, you “prove your point.” Your spouse concedes. They give in. They say you are right. You walk away knowing you “won the argument,” but feeling dissatisfied, disconnected from the one you love. In fact, you’re probably thinking about how to repair the relationship, how to reconnect and feel close again. No, we do not want to win at any cost.

If the #1 goal of any marital argument is not to win, what is it? The #1 goal of any marital argument is to connect in a way that makes both people feel safe and secure. You have probably had this experience too. You and your spouse have the same disagreement mentioned above. You even exchange a few heated words about it. But, somehow, when all is said and done, you feel closer, more connected. You’re not really sure who “won,” but you know you understand your spouse better than you did before the argument and your spouse understands you better as well. You feel connected…and as though you have both “won.”

How do you achieve this #1 goal of any marital argument?

  • First, see your spouse. Look at them. Don’t just look at the issue, the frustration or the anger of the moment. Look at your spouse. Soften your gaze. Recognize your spouse. We all long to be seen. Give your spouse the gift of being seen by you.
  • Pay attention to your spouse’s emotions. Do they look and sound angry, frustrated, hopeless, happy, passionate…. Accept their emotion. When your spouse reveals their emotions, they are opening themselves up like a book for you to learn about them and their priorities. Read this precious book carefully, lovingly. Do not just glance at the book. Get curious and read between the lines. Look deeply to find the priority behind the emotion. It may have little to do with the disagreement you are having and more to do with their sense of security and safety.
  • Accept that your spouse may have a valid point of view. Many issues have more than one valid perspective. Much like the group of blind men trying to describe the elephant, you and your spouse may both have valid perspectives, even though they differ. See your spouse as the intelligent, loving person you married and accept that they may have something important to add to the issue, something important for you to hear and know.   
  • Graciously delay voicing your own point of view until you understand your spouse’s point of view. Lovingly defer your desire to be proven correct until you can understand how your spouse’s perspective seems right to them. This takes patience…a patient delay of your own right to be heard. Such patience is an act of love for “love is patient” (Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:4).
  • Listen. Listen carefully. Listen intently. Listen sincerely. Listen completely. Listen until you understand your spouse’s perspective and they know you understand their perspective. Listen.

As you practice these 5 actions, you will find a growing emotional connection with your spouse. You will also find arguments resolve more easily and more quickly. Hmmmm, a more intimate connection with the added bonus of a quicker resolution? Now that is a great goal for marital arguments!

A Powerful Way to Learn About Your Teen

Turns out that one of the best ways to learn about teens is to ask them questions about themselves. But ask with caution because questions are powerful. Using them improperly can result in a backfire that drives your teen into silence. In order to avoid the backfire, keep these safety precautions in mind.

  1. Do not fire questions too rapidly. Machine gun firing of questions leads to a backfire. The teen becomes overwhelmed and shuts down, silence.
  2. Why ask why? Why? Because “why questions” backfire. “Why would you do that?” leads to defensiveness. “Why are you going there?” invites a lie. “Why” can make your teen feel criticized. Best to think of a different way of wording the “why question.” Try a “what” or a “how.” “What led you to try that?” “What kind of things are you going to do there?”
  3. Condescending questions backfire as well. Asking a rhetorical question with a tone of voice that says your teen should also know the answer” pushes their silence button. Your teen will likely think, “No need to talk with them. They think they know everything.”
  4. Questions designed to make your teen confess will backfire. Such questions make your teen feel trapped. What reason would they have for answering a question for which you already have the answer. (Notice the avoidance of the “why question: “Why would they answer?”) It makes them feel humiliated. Instead, make the statement of what you already know.
  5. “Closed questions” fall into the category above. They invite simple “yes/no” answers or answers from a limited set of options. They also introduce the questioner’s bias and, many times, are used to manipulate the listener toward a certain end. Teens run from this trap. They shut down. “Closed questions” backfire.

Caveats in mind, questions are powerful. You can learn a lot about a person by asking them thoughtful, loving questions with an open and curious mind. Some powerful questions include:

  1. Follow-up questions. When your teen is telling you about something, ask them follow-up questions to assure you understand. This shows you value them enough to listen and become interested in what they are saying.
  2. Open-ended questions. Open questions allow your teen the freedom to express their thoughts and opinions. A parent will often learn a great deal about their teen through the careful use of open-ended questions.
  3. Be sensitive to your teen’s mood and schedule when asking questions. Look for the right time to ask a question. Do not ask questions as your teen runs out the door or while they are in the middle of their video game. Ideally, you can develop times when your teen is available to ask question. For instance, bedtime, supper time, and time in the car as you go to various events provide great times to talk with your teen. 
  4. Use the “right” tone and volume. A casual tone often contributes to more ready responses. A volume sensitive to your teen encourages more responses.
  5. Be willing to answer questions your teen asks of you. Our children and teens want to know about us. They want to know about our lives, our mistakes, our victories. Be willing to answer questions they might have. If a question seems inappropriate (and some will), you can politely tell them you do not think they need to know those answers right now. But, be willing to accept the same answer from them.

Questions are powerful ways to build a relationship with our teen. Used recklessly, questions can backfire and leave you with a silent teen. But used wisely, questions can help you learn about your teen. You will grow more connected with your teen. You will enjoy a deep, loving relationship with your teen.

Learn to Complain Well

Complaining can easily become a habit that traps us in a cycle of finding even more reasons to complain. That cycle is bad for our mood, our health, and even our brain… UNLESS we learn to complain well!

Complaining well has a different purpose and outcome than simply complaining. Simply complaining traps us in the self-perpetuating cycle of negativity that feeds negative expectations and attracts even more negative experiences. How can we complain well and break out of this cycle of complaining? Here are 3 tips to help you do just that.

First, determine what you can and cannot control. Rather than complain and worry about what lies outside your control, focus on what you can control. You cannot control what other people do or say. You can control your response to other people. You cannot control the weather. You can control how you dress for the weather. Notice, those areas we can control tend to evolve around ourselves, not others. Focus on those areas you can control and take action to make a change.

Second, practice gratitude and appreciation. Learn to view your desire to complain as a signal, a light on the dashboard of your “car of life,” that warns you of the need to “fill up” your tank with gratitude and appreciation. When the signal arises (when you feel like complaining) fill up the tank by thinking about those things you appreciate and those for which you can be grateful. Then start sharing your gratitude and appreciation.

Third, voice your complaint with a goal toward resolution. This 4-step plan can help you do this.

  1. Assess why the situation arouses your desire to complain. What value or expectation is being infringed upon? Is it a reasonable expectation?
  2. Determine what you would like instead. What action would better align with your values or expectations? Is it possible and within your control? Is it reasonable?
  3. Give a solution with an appropriate boundary. If it is possible, how can the solution be achieved? Can you enact the solution alone or do you require assistance? If the solution is not accepted, how will you respond? Are you willing and able to respond in this way?
  4. Calmly verbalize this to whoever else is involved. If there is no one else involved in the situation, simply determine what action you can and will take to remedy the aspects of the situation over which you have influence.

At first glance, this may seem more difficult than simply venting and complaining. In fact, complaining is easy. It just doesn’t do anything but make us feel worse. And, habits take intentional effort to change. Changing the habit of complaining is no different. However, changing the habit of complaining will add to your happiness and your health. Perhaps more important, it will enhance your family’s happiness and health. It will improve your relationship with your spouse. And you know that’s nothing to complain about!

Two Tips For Better Marital Communication

“That’s all you did today?” With those words the marital conflict began. Heart rates quickened. Pulses started to race. “You never appreciate anything I do around here!” Now both partners started talking over one another. Winning (and thus gaining of sense of safety and control) became the goal of this “heated discussion.” Criticism increased. Defensiveness turned to accusation. Both people jumped to conclusions and both said things they never really wanted to say. Why? Because one statement, perhaps poorly phrased, was misunderstood and triggered the fight or flight response. Their rational brains were no longer running the show. Instead, their “fight-or-flight-to-save-your-butt-brains” were running things. But what could they have done differently? It’s hard to do things differently in the moment of defensiveness and anger. However, there are skills you can practice in the daily life of your marriage that will prime you to make a better response in such a moment. Practicing these two tips with your spouse when you encounter minor disagreements or during everyday conversation can prepare you for a better response in the “heat of the moment.”

First, practice thinking about the words you use when talking to your spouse. Some words come across as privileged, patronizing, or moralizing. For instance, “I need you to…” can come across as though my need is more important than your need, especially in a moment of conflict. It sounds entitled, as though “I” am entitled to having “my” needs met even at “your” expense.

“You should…” is a moralizing statement. It sounds as though the listener is wrong if they do otherwise. It induces guilt. In the words of Albert Ellis, “Don’t ‘should on people.”

“I encourage you to…” sounds patronizing, especially during the heat of an argument. It sounds like a way of saying, “I’m really right and ‘I encourage you’ to take the time to recognize that.”

So, what can you say instead?

  • Try “It would really help me if you could….” Or, “I would like it if you….” These statements offer invitations to possible solutions.
  • You might even try switching the “I” to “we.” “We might need to….” Or, “maybe we could….” These statements recognize that the marital partners form a team with no single partner more important than the other.
  • An even bolder approach is to take ownership for our own part in the conflict and the solution. “I need to….” Or, “tell me again so I can better understand what you mean” are statements that help with this. 

Second, practice recognizing the difference between the content of what your partner says and the relationship message underlying the content. The content merely refers to the topic of discussion or disagreement. The relationship message speaks to the connection between you and your spouse. Many times, a statement about content becomes a misunderstood relationship message because of tone of voice (which may be impacted by mood, tiredness, other people), the context, or the emphasis placed on certain words.

  • For instance, “That’s all you did today?” can easily be misunderstood to mean “You should have done more.” When it might simply mean “I didn’t realize it was such a big job and would take so long.”
  • “You’re home late” can be misunderstood as “You don’t care enough about me to get home earlier.” It might mean “I didn’t realize you would be so late. What happened?”

The only way to know is to check your initial reaction of defensiveness and anger so you can ask for or offer clarification. “Yes, it turned out to be a bigger job than I thought.” “Can I show you how much I did? It’s surprising.” “Sorry, traffic was heavy. I wanted to get home earlier.” “Yeah, I got a last-minute phone call at the office. Did my late arrival mess up any of your dinner plans?”

Think about the words you use and what they might mean during conflict. Recognize the difference between the content of the message and the relationship message inherent in a statement. These are subtle practices. However, paying attention and practicing these two tips can bring reduce conflict and bring greater intimacy to your marriage.

The Maariaage Ruummble

“Let’s get ready to rumble!” Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to this evening’s marital bliss match. It promises to be a classic in every sense of the word.

In the blue corner we have the husband, weighing in 180 pounds.  Known for his silent fighting skills and constant use of humor, he sometimes becomes overwhelmed in the midst of the emotional tension.

His opponent, in the pink corner and weighing in at 135 pounds, his wife. She is known for her agility to maneuver, verbal prowess, and sudden attacks.

As the bell rings, the wife moves quickly to the center of the ring and leads with a jab of criticism followed by a quick uppercut of blame. The husband slides into a defensive position before a launching a lumbering counterattack of blame.

Verbal sparring continues with the wife dancing around the husband. The husband attempts to follow her dancing but is left flooded and confused. He throws wild punches of character assassination. His wife parries and returns with a blow of her own character assassination. The husband is stunned.  

Suddenly, with a name-calling hit below the belt, this disagreement turns into a street brawl. Both are aiming at their spouse’s sensitive areas, their vulnerabilities, those raw spots of pain.

Flooded by the stimuli of emotional punches, the husband covers and silently accepts the blows, seemingly unfazed. The wife grows more furious and throws a flurry of jabs to prove her point and make him understand. He simple covers more and withdraws…still seemingly unfazed.  

It’s difficult to pick out the winner in this match. Each won a battle here and lost a battle there. Both are emotionally bruised and bleeding. Both are angry, bitter, and feeling disconnected from their spouse. Yes, I believe this one is a draw. There is no winner in this match, only losers.

Does that sound familiar? In marriage, we will have disagreements and even arguments. But there is no such thing as a single winner. We either both win or we both lose. In this scenario, both lost.

So, what’s the alternative? Avoid the emotional boxing match altogether. Instead of starting with the idea that you have to win an argument, start with the realization that you and your spouse may both have equally valid perspectives. Accept your spouse’s perspective as valid, even when you disagree. Instead of trying to prove their perspective wrong, strive to understand it. In understanding their perspective, you learn about them. You draw closer to them. You open the door to connection and intimacy. Isn’t that what you want most of all? Don’t you desire connection and intimacy more than a shallow victory that leaves you in a lose-lose scenario? 

Then, muster up the courage to apologize for your own wrongdoing (chances are, both parties have some wrongdoing). Doing so expresses your love for your spouse. Then put your energy into reconnecting. A hug will go a long way in reconnecting. After all, the only winner in a marriage is the couple, not the individual.

That Makes Me So Mad!!

It happened. Your spouse has done something that makes you angry. No, furious. They’ve made you furious! Your blood is boiling and you’re about to blow your top. But wait. Will that really get the results you seek? Has it worked in the past? Probably not. You know that your angry outburst in the past immediately flooded your spouse with emotions and they either attacked back or shut down. Neither response helped. There has to be a better way.

Breath. Calm down. Think. Perhaps if you approach the situation calmly, things will turn out differently. In fact, when it comes to this kind of interaction, it ends like it begins. If you offer an objective description of what aroused your anger it might elicit a different response, a greater possibility of change. So, start with a calm description of objective facts and the emotions you felt in response to those facts. Oh, look. They look somewhat surprised at how calm you are; and, they’re listening. They’re not getting defensive or shutting down or blaming in response. They’re simply paying attention and listening. That’s nice…good. What now?

Now focus on the behavior you desire from them. Don’t get stuck on what you think they did wrong. If you dwell on past mistakes or behaviors you don’t like, they’ll feel the need to defend themselves and cast blame elsewhere. Move on to what you desire instead. Give them a solution. Give them a way out. Clearly and specifically make the request of what they could do to help you. After all, they love you and want you to be happier. They want a deeper relationship with you. Let them know, clearly and calmly, what they could do to help you draw closer to them. Yes! They’re nodding their head in agreement.

Now open up and be a little vulnerable. Explain why this change in behavior would mean so much to you. Let them know something about your deeper motivations, the reason for requesting this change from them. Maybe your deeper need is one of security and this change will make you feel more secure. Maybe it’s a need for more affection because of personality or childhood experiences. Whatever the reason, open up and tell them about your need. Then make your request again, adding that this change in their behavior will help you. They’re looking closely at you now. You can tell they feel closer to you…and you realize you feel closer to them. Being vulnerable has brought you closer together. “Yes, I will work on making this change for you. I love you.” That’s exactly what you wanted to hear. Hug and enjoy one another’s presence for a moment. Express your gratitude. “Thank you for listening and being willing to work on this with me. Thank you.”

One last thing to do. Every time you see your spouse make an effort to do what you requested, thank them. Let them know you see their effort by acknowledging it. Knowing you recognize their effort will encourage them to continue making the effort to change. And isn’t that what you really wanted when you were about to blow you top?   

The Art of Listening is More Than Responding

Responsive listening is a great start to the art of listening. But it is not art of listening. Responsive listening includes hearing the wishes of another person, considering our own desires, and arriving at a mutual goal, one we can both agree to. We engage in this sort of listening all the time (at least I hope you do). Anything from deciding what to have for dinner to buying a new car to where we go on vacation involves this type of responsive listening. And, this type of listening makes our relationships more congenial and cooperative. It concludes the important business of daily life.  However, it does not build the deep intimacy we long for in marriage.  To build deep intimacy we need to listen for more than mutual goals. We need to listen at a deeper level. We need to engage in the art of attentive listening.

The art of attentive listening moves us toward deeper emotional intimacy. It does not merely exchange information or share in mutual problem-solving. No, the art of attentive listening shares vulnerabilities and draws us together. It involves three things.

  • First, the art of attentive listening demands we set aside our personal agenda (for a time) so we can focus on the other person and what they mean to say. We will not think about our own responses and so satisfy our agenda to sound wise. We will not think about a counter argument to fulfill our agenda of “helping them see things differently.”  We will not even think of a good compromise so we can negotiate an option that satisfies both their agenda and our agenda. We will simply focus on them–their emotion, their intent, their meaning, their agenda.
  • Second, the art of attentive listening requires that we use verbal and nonverbal cues to communicate our attention and understanding. The person who listens attentively responds with facial expressions of understanding and focused attention. They ask questions for further clarification and understanding. They invite further comment with gestures and short verbal cues (“go on,” “really,” “oh my,” “what?”). 
  • Third, the art of attentive listening involves curiosity not judgment. A person truly adept at attentive listening hears more than the words of the speaker. They “hear” the other person’s facial expression, gestures, and body language. And, they do not respond with judgment. They respond with curiosity instead. They express loving curiosity about the other person and the meaning or intent of what they are communicating. They want to know how the topic has impacted that person emotionally and mentally. Those who listen attentively are genuinely curious about the other person and what they have to say.

Of course, we can’t engage in this type of attentive listening all the time. There is a place for responsive listening, compromise, and the completion of daily business. However, marriages can get stuck in a pattern of responsive listening, a pattern of only communicating to carry out the daily business of running a family and home. They become business partners rather than a married couple. To keep a marriage strong, we need the intimacy that we gain only through the art of attentive listening. Give it a try. Take the initiative. Set aside your agenda for an evening and engage in the art of attentive listening toward your spouse. You will be amazed at the intimacy that blossoms from this practice.

The SuperPower You Want in Your Marriage

All marriages experience stress—the stress of finances, raising children, getting everything done, household crises, simple arguments, the list goes on.   Sometimes couples respond with a pattern in which one partner demands, nags, or criticizes while the other partner shuts down, withdraws, or avoids (commonly called the demand/withdraw pattern). Of course, this negative pattern proves detrimental to a marriage…UNLESS you have this superpower. No, it is not the ability to fly or become invisible, shoot webs from your wrists to silence your partner, or run at the speed of light to escape. No, this superpower is much simpler than any of these…and more powerful in your marriage. Researchers at the University of Georgia revealed this superpower in a study involving 468 couples. They asked the couples about the quality of their marriage, their communication, their level of financial stress, and their use of this superpower. They discovered that this superpower “can counteract or buffer the negative effects” of negative communication styles like the demand/withdraw pattern described above. And, this superpower was “the most consistent and significant predictor or marital satisfaction” for both males and females. It increases marital satisfaction and commitment. It decreases the “proneness for divorce.” Sounds like a great superpower to have in your marriage, doesn’t it? Well, it’s easy to acquire and use. It may not come naturally, but you can train yourself in the use of this superpower. What is it? The power of gratitude. That’s it. Gratitude!

“Spousal expression of gratitude was the most consistent and significant predictor of marital quality for both” male and female. It increased marital satisfaction and commitment. So, start practicing this simple superpower in your marriage today…right now. Really, go show your spouse some gratitude. I’m sure they’ve done something in the last twenty-four hours for which you can thank them. A simple “Thank you” is all it takes. Now, keep your eyes open for other opportunities to thank your spouse and thank them every chance you get. This superpower will do wonders for your marriage.

A Breath of Fresh Ears

I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve communication skills in marriage. Communication skills involve the sharing of ideas. They include the ability to verbalize ideas effectively and to listen more attentively. Learning both these skills will help any relationship, including our marriages, grow stronger. So, when I came across this little communication gem, I had to share it with you. It is a simple, powerful tool to help both the speaker and the listener communicate more effectively. I call it “a breath of fresh ears” (yes, “ears” not “air”).

Many times, communication breaks down because we respond too quickly. We impatiently finish the other person’s sentence, interrupting them in mid-sentence or talking over them before they have finished talking. On the other hand, you’ve probably had times when your spouse left you little to no room to even respond. They go on and on as though in a filibuster for the floor. Conversation becomes almost like a competition to “get a word in edgewise.” In this process, ideas are lost and misunderstandings arise. You and your spouse begin to feel “talked over,” ignored, or unheard. Emotions flare. But, “a breath of fresh ears” can change all this.

What is “a breath of fresh ears”? Before you respond to your spouse, take a breath. That’s it. Pause long enough to take a breath. When you do, several things might happen. First, you’ll realize how difficult it is to slow down long enough to take a breath before responding. We live in a frenzied world that has grown uncomfortable with a slower pace that allows for miniscule moments of silence. So, we jump in with what we believe our spouse is saying or respond to get our idea “on the floor.” We are saturated with the self-absorbed mindset of our world and so interrupt our spouse to make sure our “oh-so-important-point” is heard. Taking a “breath of fresh ears” means slowing down. Take a breath. Then speak…which brings me to the second thing you might learn.

Second, you’ll experience times when your spouse starts talking again. You thought they were done but, in the momentary pause of your breath, they decided to tell you more. Humble yourself by putting your agenda aside for a moment and listen some more. As a reward, you will learn more about your spouse. You will find they had more to say and in that moment of silence created by your small breath, were able to formulate a greater understanding of what they really wanted to communicate. Their communication may even become more clear.

Third, you’ll find that the “breath of fresh ears” really does give you fresh ears. In that momentary pause you will find the time to reflect and reconsider your response. You will answer more in tune with your partner. You will answer with greater compassion and wisdom. You will answer in a way that “gives grace to the moment.” And all of that will strengthen rather than hinder your relationship.

Three benefits from “a breath of fresh ears…” oh, and a fourth benefit. “A breath of fresh ears” will create a more relaxed and enjoyable conversation with your spouse. The conversational competition will end as interruptions decrease and everyone is allowed to finish their own thoughts. You and your souse will relax. And, perhaps most important, you will learn more about yourself and your partner. Try it out. Give your conversation “a breath of fresh ears” and enjoy the growing intimacy you will experience.

4 Tips for Communicating with Your Teen

I remember the advice given to me as my children approached their teen years. “Whatever you do, maintain open communications with your teen.” Sure, I thought. Great idea. But, how do you do that? After some research and trial by fire (both my “children” are now in their early twenties) I have a few suggestions, ideas that can help keep those lines of communication open with your teen. I must admit, these ideas were often in opposition to my first impulse, but, when I was able to implement them, they really helped keep those lines of communication open.

  1. When your children or teens come to you with a desire to talk about something, give them your full attention. Put down the paper. Turn off the TV. Don’t check your messages or respond to a text. Don’t google. Just give your them your attention. Look at them and listen. Watch their expressions. Listen to the tone of the voice. Hear what they are saying and understand the emotions behind the words.
  2. Stay calm. They will say things that make you want to jump out of your skin. Don’t do it. At some point they will say something that triggers your core fears. They may even say things that hurt, feel like an attack, or arouse your anger. But, if you want them to continue talking about it and then listen to your response, stay calm. Remember, sometimes our teens just need to think out loud. Let them do it in your earshot. When you overreact, they will shut down. If you stay calm, they are more likely to continue talking, thinking, processing, and even listening.
  3. Listen. When you want to give a suggestion, listen instead. When you want to criticize, listen a little more. When you think you understand, listen to make sure you really do.  Don’t “spray” them with questions. Instead, use your questions wisely and sparingly to gain a greater understanding of what they are saying, what it means to them, and how they think about it. Listen and repeat back to them what you think they are saying until they know you understand. Then you can offer advice. But, even in offering advice, keep your words to a minimum and then…listen.
  4. Show grace. Grace is the willingness to put aside our own agenda to become a present witness to the agenda of our children and teens. Put aside your own fears in order to create a safe haven in which your teen can express themselves without judgment. Put aside your own ego and create a secure sanctuary where your teens can voice their fears and anxieties to someone they know will strive to understand them. Doing so will build a home environment in which they feel comfortable talking to us…and they will talk with us in that environment.

To summarize these 4 tips, I want to share a quote from Kenneth Ginsburg, co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “The parents who know the most and who have the most influence over their child’s academics and behaviors aren’t the ones who ask lots of questions. They are often the ones who are the least reactive and who express warm, unconditional love and support.” Put these tips into action today. They are not easy, but you’ll be glad you did.

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