My husband and I couldn’t be more different if we tried.
They say opposites attract and we lean into that cliche with all our might. It’s an absolute wonder we haven’t killed each other since we began our relationship 15 years ago. Not to say I haven’t briefly dreamed of creative means of injuring him when he’s snoring loud enough to shake the picture frames on our walls. But what exhausted, frustrated wife hasn’t had that particular guilty fantasy?
I’m sure me leaving my clothes piled beside the bed, a foot from the laundry basket, has given him pause to think of my untimely death as well.
But somehow, no one has been fatally injured in our house due to our differences, although there are many of them.
He’s a straight forward, logical-to-a-fault problem solver. He’s cautious in making decisions and stands on the very precipice of change for what feels like an eternity before throwing himself off the cliff with eyes closed – or waiting for someone to push him (usually me). He worries about making the wrong choices sometimes to the point of paralysis.
I’m an overly emotional, passionate introvert who needs hours or days to process my feelings. But I’m impulsive despite my obsessive need to over-plan, the kind of person who would still be triple-checking the flight plan even as I’ve already jumped out of the airplane, parachute and all. I don’t trust myself not to dither indefinitely on a choice in an attempt to make it perfect, so I try to leap with faith that I’ll figure it out on the way down.
He’s a quiet, mechanical minded blue-collar employee with a work ethic that boggles the mind, and a brain that thinks in one perfect rigid and straight line from Point A to Point B with no stray thoughts in between.
I’m a secretly lazy, boisterous-bordering-on-obnoxious empath who works all day doing nothing by hypothesizing about the origin of messy emotions and thoughts, while my own brain ping-pongs faster than Forrest Gump.
He loves cars and documentaries on obscure history and drug cartels.
I love reading and still laugh like a loon when I watch Austin Powers.
He’s as steady as the tide, and hasn’t changed his style since high school, as I can personally attest to him owning AND WEARING his elementary school gym uniform t-shirt on a regular basis (Go Timberwolves).
I’m as changing as the weather and can’t tolerate stagnation; my wardrobe and hairstyle is a rotating carousel of new styles, constantly startling everyone I meet with a new colour, or a new look almost weekly.
And somehow, we work. We have a very strong, steady relationship. We rarely go to bed angry. We have a nightly ritual of thanking each other for all the small things we do every day, listing them individually from doing the dishes, to picking up the kids.
We still fight. We aren’t perfect. There have been rocky patches where we both doubted our love and whether we could push through. We’ve snapped and said regretful things. Forgotten to be grateful. But we come through it in the end. We dance around each other, still bickering and spiteful at times, but always coming back to being more solid than we were before. I won’t lie – it has taken work. It has taken both of us a great deal of blood, sweat and tears, of time and patient learning to get to where we are today.
I was reminded of this just the other day, while I discussed (READ: ranted) about a difficult day I had faced. I wanted nothing more than to spill my tangled jumble of thoughts all over the kitchen counter, just so that someone else could gaze at them and hum appreciatively at the difficult task of sorting through them. But my husband has rarely done well with these conversations. It is not within his nature to listen for the sake of venting; he views it as pointless, as complaining. Why talk about something if not to solve it? And I know this, but my urge is still always to talk to him. He is my husband after all – he should be my confidant, my best friend, my rock. I value his opinion and need his support in making big decisions that affect our whole family.
My husband, the fixer that he is, was listening with thinned lips and bright eyes, a somewhat strained sort of expression which typically means his gears are turning. It looks a bit like being verbally constipated, like he has a body full of words that stubbornly cannot escape without vast discomfort. Normally if I see this face, I prepare myself to be given a solution to a problem I didn’t necessarily need solved; I just needed empathy, and although he is a deeply caring individual, he’s not been trained in the art of talking just for the sake of talking. He’s trained to fix things with muscle and elbow grease.
Emotional problems rarely get fixed that way, as you can guess.
At one point, midway through my rant, he opened his mouth to offer a possible solution.
But then he paused.
“Well, have you thought about–” and here he gave a beat of silence, barely more than a second before shaking his head as if to scatter his sentence like water out of his hair.
“No, nevermind. You don’t need me to fix this. You just need me to listen. Go ahead,” he urged, patiently folding his hands on the table and looking me in the eyes with nothing but sincerity on his face.
I just about jumped across the table to kiss him senseless, but I was nursing a glass of wine and didn’t want to spill it.
Anyone who has been in this situation can tell you what a miracle this was – how rewarding it can be to have someone pause, to recognize what you need and just LISTEN without offering a fast solution. We live in a world where problem solving is seen as the only goal, while validation and open support are viewed as counter-productive. Enabling.
My experience is anything but.
I have found through my work, and my personal life, that learning to communicate is not always about what we say, but how we say it and even when we don’t say anything at all. Learning to communicate well, despite our different personalities, can make all the difference in how some important conversations end in either success or failure.
I’m going to share with you the 6 best tips to improve your communication, some of which my amazing husband used in that exact moment that earned him plenty of brownie points.
1. Listen to Hear, Not to Respond
How many times have you been guilty of listening to someone, while simultaneously looking for your own opening to share your view on the subject? Just waiting for that little gap or lull in their breathing that signals you can pipe up with your own anecdote. While they are yammering on, you’re planning your response, as if it was a debate team and you’re up next on the podium.
Do you feel like you were really listening while you did that? Did you actually hear the words the person was saying, or were you playing ‘Conversation Double Dutch’, just watching for the right space to jump in and start your own tale?
When we listen purely so we can say our own piece, we often don’t really HEAR the other person. We think we are good actors, but we are typically quite distracted during this, perhaps with a glazed expression, wandering eye contact, or not even segueing into our response very well, bulldozing through their last statement without acknowledging it. Maybe you’ve been on the other side and have had someone suddenly branch off without really connecting with what you were saying – was it jarring? Did it make you feel ignored or dismissed? We can all be guilty of having wandering thoughts that shift away from the discussion at hand, but active listening is often the best way to really show caring and concern for our partners and all it involves is being mindfully engaged in the conversation we are having, and taking turns; one party talking, while the other party listens.
Try listening without having your own ulterior motive. Listen as though the only thing you needed to do was process, understand and empathize with your partner and THEN REPEAT IT BACK TO THEM, as if it wasn’t even expected you needed to add in your two cents. Pretend you’re going to be tested on your knowledge of their words directly afterwards (which most of us are). And trust me, you’ll get to say your piece. But for the time being, showing your spouse or co-worker that you are truly engaged with their words will go a long way in helping your relationship. Staying tuned in to what they’re saying will help you to show more interest on your face and with your body language, and help to push other distracting thoughts away and that makes people feel important and cared for! They’ll like you more when you’re a better listener!
If you notice yourself drifting, draw your attention back to their words, try repeating them in your head, as if you were watching a teleprompter. Your focused attention will help you stay present with them in the moment, and will let them know you value what they are saying, even above yourself.
2. Don’t Problem Solve
My husband will be the first to balk at this suggestion (and his father close behind). They are a family of fixers, and usually I love this about them. I’ve never met folks who were more willing to jump in and help than they are. Maybe you know a fixer or two in your life as well. Those people who always have a suggestion, a plan, a tool, or a spare part. They drop off fresh baked bread and soup at your door step when you’re sick. They shovel your front step and snow blow your drive way. They’ll pop over with the proverbial cup of sugar or can of gas when you need it. They know a great book, a great website, a great solution for whatever problem you’re having. They’ve got a contact list of ‘roof guys’ and ‘truck guys’ and ‘plumbing guys’ that they are willing to call. Have you ever heard of the 5 Love Languages? Acts of Service are top of the list here. This is how these folks care for others in their life. They want to help and they feel good when they do.
“That’s all great and I love you for it,” I’ve said on more than one occasion, “but I never ASKED for help.”
And that’s the crux of the matter. Even if you mean well, even if your heart is in the right place, telling someone a solution to a problem they never asked you to solve comes off as patronizing and actually makes the receiver feel worse. It makes them feel unheard. It makes them feel like you don’t want to hear how they FEEL, you just want them to STOP feeling that way and solve the problem. It makes them feel like their feelings aren’t worthy of consideration. It can even give the message that you think they’re incapable of solving the problem themselves – and our brains may take that a step further and assume you believe we are stupid, weak, and need help with basic tasks because we can’t figure it out ourselves.
It becomes a lecture, instead of a conversation.
Although you might genuinely be able to make someone’s life easier with your ideas, take a minute to judge if that’s really what the conversation is about. Sure – sometimes you do need to solve a problem. In a crisis, or at a brainstorming session at work, sometimes there is no time for a venting session and we do need to get to work. But if someone is coming to you for emotional support, ask yourself – or better yet, ASK THEM: Do they just need to be heard, or are they asking for some help problem solving?
If they can tell you, yes I need help with this, then you’re away to the races! Plan and support and refer and get your hands dirty pitching in! Bake and clean and fix and mend and drive and carry and do whatever needs doing and feel great you helped someone out!
But if they tell you they just need to talk, then your only job is to listen. To nod and smile. To make encouraging soft noises at regular intervals while looking them in the eyes. To validate. Tell them you hear them. Ask them to tell you more. Trust me; you’re not being useless. I do this for a living.
You are doing SO MUCH for someone just by listening. You are building them a safe place to talk. You are carrying their emotions with them. You are helping them clean out all the thoughts in their heads. You are a sounding board, making things clearer for them just by being a set of ears they can talk to. You are breaking down the negative thoughts they have about themselves, or helping them learn to trust. You are lightening their load by sharing the weight of their troubles.
My husband did this perfectly during that conversation, and my gratitude for him was overwhelming. I instantly felt calmer. All the stress I had struggled with during the day melted away. He helped me more in that 10 minute conversation than anything else had in that entire week. I told him tearfully how much that simple statement, and even his silence meant to me. Ultimately I solved my own problem because he gave me the space to let my feelings out so I could process them on my own, and I was able to do what I needed after that. He didn’t need to solve it. I knew what needed to be done, I just needed the room to sort out the over-shuffled deck of cards I call a brain and that conversation was like him sweeping aside space on the table for me to lay it all out and watching over the process, ensuring I had the time and quiet to put the cards back in order in my own way, knowing he was there if I needed him. I felt so heard and validated through the process, and he didn’t have to do a darn thing more than sit and hear me. Really, it’s that simple
3. Use 3 Way Communication
This may be a new concept for some, but many people in the construction industry are well aware of what 3 Way Communication means. It’s as simple as this:
“Hey John, can you hand me that box?”
“You want me to hand you THIS box?”
“Yes – I want you to hand me that box.”
Easy right? Here’s how to break it down.
- Ask a question or give a command.
- The other person repeats it back to make sure they understand.
- Confirm that they have heard you correctly OR correct them.
This is a safety procedure for many on a job site, to ensure that communication is clear, concise and above all prevents avoidable mistakes. When working with large machinery, dangerous electricity, or lots of people with many moving parts, double checking our understanding of a task can ensure the job gets done right and everyone involved is protected.
So how can we use this in our relationships? Easy! When two people in a discussion agree to use 3 Way Communication, we take the opportunity to repeat back what WE understood the other person said, and verify if that was their meaning. Because let’s be honest; sometimes what I understand from what someone said, is not always what they meant.
A conversation could go something like this:
“Every time you leave your dishes on the counter, it makes me feel like you don’t value all the time I spend keeping the house clean.”
“So when I leave dishes on the counter, you think I’m lazy?”
“No! I mean that it makes me feel like you aren’t respecting me and making me more work, when you could just put it in the dishwasher. It doesn’t feel fair.”
“Ok. So what I heard was that if I put it in the dishwasher right away, it would make less work for you and that feels more fair.”
“Yes! And that would make me feel like you respect me more.”
Double checking our understanding of someone’s statements gives us the opportunity to make sure we interpreted it correctly, and gives them the chance to express it differently if we were way off. This could help catch misunderstandings early, before we go too deep into our emotional reactions to reading between the lines.
It also gives both sides the chance to be REALLY heard. We are both having a chance to go deeper and safely explain our thought processes and reactions with one another. The key is that both sides need to be OK with this process – to see it as an exercise in understanding and not a blame game.
4. Keep it Personal (I Statements)
Many people have heard of ‘I Statements’ but it still bears repeating. This is the concept that when we focus on our own feelings and thoughts in an argument/discussion, we can often avoid others feeling defensive and rejecting our points purely out of self preservation.
It’s not about being selfish and only wanting to hear our own point of view. It’s ensuring that we keep someone engaged with our conversation instead of pushing them away with shame and blame.
“YOU make me so angry when you don’t do the laundry” comes off very different than “I feel upset when the laundry doesn’t get done”.
Both are stating the problem related to the laundry, but one invites the person to be with you against the problem (the laundry situation), instead of setting the stage for a battle between you and them.
We want teammates, not enemies.
Not to mention that when someone is feeling a sense of embarrassment or shame, such as when we are aggressively blamed for doing something wrong, the area of our brain responsible for change and problem solving actually becomes blocked because we can be forced into a fight or flight sensation by our own neuroscience. We instead slip into self-preservation mode and all those worries about how our body handles stress and strain and keeps us in an ideal state to learn or change and process our own behaviours go flying out the window.
Having a gentle start up, as in choosing our words wisely, can keep someone engaged with us and help us reach a better, kinder conclusion and cuts down that potential for a fight to erupt.
Start your sentences with “I feel”, or “I think”. Avoid the word “You” as much as possible. It might be helpful to focus on the problem, not the person. This gives you the chance to be heard and keep them on your side at the same time.
5. Stay Humble
One of the best things I’ve ever done is to begin a practice of humility. Admitting my mistakes, saying them out loud, taking responsibility for my own reactions and apologizing for them. This can be a difficult process, because it means facing my own actions and those yucky, sticky, uncomfortable feelings of failure and shame. And for someone who yearns for perfection, that’s a big step.
But I can now say those words out loud to others, and feel good about myself for them. I feel like a good person. I can hold myself to a higher standard and even if no one else does the same, I know I am proud of myself for taking that step towards self improvement.
I always say that discomfort is a precursor for growth, and taking responsibility for my words and actions is definitely uncomfortable. So I know that growth is not far behind.
The added benefit is I often find people follow suit and they start to acknowledge their own impacts on the relationship as soon as I do, and this tends to diffuse the situation dramatically.
This helps in a relationship because it invites you and your partner to set down the sword and shield in the fight and come together on equal ground. When I can admit I did something wrong, and can be humble about how that impacted the conversation, it helps the other person do the same.
It’s hard to keep being angry with someone else being mature and calm. It’s hard to keep fighting someone who is showing you they are unarmed and apologizing for how they contributed to the fight.
This might mean taking a deep breath after an unhelpful reaction and naming the behaviour. Acknowledging that you raised your voice, that your words were unfair, that you didn’t follow through on a promise. It means staying humble and aware that you can contribute to the success of a conversation by managing your own emotions and words.
You are responsible for the energy you bring into a relationship. Take ownership of that and change what you can.
6. Be Present
You may be tired of hearing about mindfulness, and being in the moment, but this is another no brainer – pay attention. Be present with your partner or your child or your coworker in your interactions.
Listen well and give them your whole attention. Turn off the TV, the radio, find a quiet place to discuss. Don’t try to have a deep conversation over the sound of your children running through the kitchen and the stove fan blaring. Ensure that you have the time and space to have this kind of conversation without interruption and without distraction. It sets the stage for a better form of communication, and your own time and attention. It shows your partner this is important to you, and you are both respecting the need to make this discussion a priority.
Being present also means staying with the current topic. Many of us are tempted to bring up the past and link a current problem to a past one. And this is natural! It’s how the brain works! It links similar feelings, events and thoughts together like a giant filing system in alphabetical order. But having a past mistake brought up in the middle of a current argument is a bit like adding fuel to an already raging fire. When we bring up something from the past, we are bringing all the emotions and sensations from that past event as well and trust me – those feelings can get stronger with age, especially when combined with what we are already feeling. And now that little flame has turned into a bonfire and both of you are too close to the heat to be able to put it out without getting burnt.
If you want to discuss a past or recurring issue, make sure you and your partner agree that’s the purpose of the conversation. Set the tone that you want to discuss it mindfully so you are both prepared and in the right state of mind. Otherwise, try to stick with the current situation and the current problem. Don’t get sidetracked by how this links with an event that occurred many years in the past.
But if you find yourself itching to make those connections and you know they have an impact (maybe you can’t avoid seeing those patterns!), use some of the skills listed above, like I Statements, or staying humble and admitting why your reaction seems a little bigger than just the topic at hand. I’ve been known to take a Time Out from an argument to admit when I was feeling triggered from a past event, and my ability to take a break and explain that helped my partner not get blind-sided by my thought processes, which he isn’t privy to. It helped him put my reactions into context and we were able to acknowledge it was an issue that needed to be adressed, but maybe for another day when the current problem was resolved.
There is always more tips and tricks to use when dealing with issues in any relationship, and it’s foolhardy to think it can be covered in one post in a way that does justice to a complex topic such as this. But it’s a start. Consider trying a few of these tips today during your next conversation. Share this with a spouse or family member and start a conversation about the patterns you maybe see in your own relationships. And I encourage you to reach our for marital counseling, or your own personal therapy to learn all the unique ways we can improve how we communicate with one another.