Have you ever noticed that rather than communicate directly, you make your partner guess about what you want?
Certain conversations can be difficult to begin. Strong emotions can keep us from getting started. Fear of conflict escalating may hold us back. Unspoken signals can confuse us and make it less safe to proceed. Not trusting our partner will be open to difficult conversations may increase our hesitancy to speak about what is on our minds.
Many people know that communication is important for relationships. Still, sitting down for a talk often fills partners with a sense of dread, especially when the motives behind the discussion are unclear.
There are lots of people out there guessing what their partner wants. And that makes sense—certain conversations can be difficult to begin. The more conflict or emotion you feel about a topic, the more likely you are to be indirect about what you are discussing and why. This can lead your partner to feel anxiety and confusion before the conversation even begins, which does not create an optimal context for communication.
It is important to let others know what you want to discuss and why you want to discuss it. With the right relationship tools, you can stop the guessing game and foster more productive communication.
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
Relationship therapist David Schnarch has identified 5 goals we often have when we engage partners, family, friends, colleagues or neighbors in dialogue or conversation. You can find these on our Resources page, under Relationship Growth.
The most common goals are to:
- Create intimacy.
- Request feedback, support or comfort.
- Tell a story and share experience.
- Solve a problem.
- Make a decision.
Letting your partner know, at the beginning of your conversation, what you are trying to accomplish will take the guessing out the first few moments of your interaction and reduce anxiety. It will help your partner understand what you are looking to achieve and what kinds of responses might be helpful.
HOW TO START
When broaching difficult topics, navigating conflict, or sharing complaints, I recommend the following:
- Start by letting your partner know you would like to discuss something (name the topic) and ask if the present moment is a good time.
- If now is not a convenient time for your partner, try to negotiate a time when they are available to talk. (Hunger and fatigue often make communication difficult, so make sure you and your partner tend to your physical needs first.)
- If now is a good time talk, start with a simple statement (not more than one or two short sentences) that lets your partner know quickly:
- The specific topic you would like to discuss, and
- Why you want to discuss the topic or what you are hoping to achieve by discussing the topic (refer to Schnarch’s list above).
Chris: John, are you free to talk about household chores now?
Chris: Great, I want to talk to you about how we are handling dishes in the sink because I want to feel close to you at the end of the day, not upset about the dishes.
Maggie: Delila, can we speak about the trip to Rhode Island now?
Maggie: I want to talk about what you said yesterday regarding the cost of the trip because I need feedback on my budget.
THAT’S A GOOD START, BUT IS IT ENOUGH?
If you notice you still have trouble communicating at times, try asking yourself what behaviors or words you are hoping to see and hear from your partner. What do you think could help you both work toward this conversation’s specific goal? What will help you know that your communication is being received and that the goal is being achieved? Share that with your partner.
Chris: John, it would help me know that you are hearing me and feel closer to you, if you would mirror what I say. Would you be willing to do that?
Maggie: Delila, could you say specifically what you allocated for your trip last year?
It is important to check to see if your partner is willing to give you what you are looking for and respect their limits. This builds trust and respect for individual boundaries and capacities in the moment.
There are some common behaviors and responses that can encourage you and you partner to meet conversation goals. While these behaviors can be helpful, it is generally not useful to force or require yourself or your partner to do or say anything. You may ask for these or offer them but be respectful of your partner’s boundaries and feelings. What feels supportive in one moment may be overwhelming in another. Respect your partner and honor their limits.
To create intimacy, closeness and connection, try:
- Holding hands
- A hug
- A kiss
- Cuddling together
- Brief shoulders or foot massages
- Deeper sharing or showing of emotions
To request feedback, support or comfort, try:
- Sharing perceptions and reactions
- Offering consolation or encouragement
- Providing input, suggestions or reassurance
To share a story or experience, these behaviors may help:
- Active listening
- Nodding along
- Laughing or smiling at appropriate times
- Asking for details or clarification
- Asking more about the experience or story
To solve a problem, the following can be useful:
- Collecting information
- Asking questions
- Doing research
- Brainstorming collaboratively
- Suggesting solutions
To make a decision (similar to solving a problem), try:
- Asking about different sides of the decision or issue
- Understanding pros and cons
- Offering encouragement or conversely respecting hesitation/not pushing or pressuring
LET ME KNOW
These are just a few suggestions. You may have discovered others. What helps you in conversation? Do those same things help your partner, or do they want something different? Do you respect and appreciate your different needs regarding communication? How do you approach conversations with others? What have you found helpful?