If you’re in a relationship with another human, disagreements will happen. It’s a given. No matter how much we love someone, you can’t avoid differing opinions and heated discussions.
The secret to a happy relationship is how you navigate these disagreements and move through them to a feeling of resolution. This doesn’t mean finding a solution, it means getting to the point where you both feel heard and empathized with.
In the end we all need to feel respected, even in the midst of disagreements.
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg developed a communication model called Non-Violent Communication. (Rosenberg uses the word ‘violence’ in the broadest way, which includes language that is disconnecting, blaming or judging.) There are now teachers of NVC all over the world and this brilliant model has been applied to every aspect of our lives from International diplomacy to business mediation to parenting and intimate relationships.
It all boils down to relationship, regardless of the form it takes. Human beings have needs, and if our needs aren’t being met, we react. We pull away, we fight back, we give up. We make so many mistakes in trying to get our needs met.
Some of us may have been punished for expressing our needs. We’ve grown up believing that our needs are selfish. If we’re to understand our partner’s needs we must first understand our own.
It’s helpful to consider what our needs even are. Feel free to write down your basic human needs on a piece of paper so you can see them altogether.
Here are some examples to get you started. You may have needs that relate to your life in particular. Write them all down.
Fundamental Needs like:
Shelter, food, water, money, exercise, safety
Personal Needs like:
Personal goals and dreams, morals, values, spirituality, fun, beauty, peace, creativity
At some point in life, usually starting early on, we don’t get our needs met, which can leave us feeling wounded and particularly sensitive when it comes to that need.
If you suddenly find yourself getting triggered, with your heart pounding, and anger rising, it’s likely one of your wounded needs is being threatened.
This is when voices start rising and accusations start flying.
If you can catch yourself in this crucial moment, and consider what the unmet needs are under someone’s anger or sadness, you will find a shortcut through the most painful part of an argument.
If one of you can hold up the time-out sign with your hands, with the prior agreement that time-out means stop talking, you can both take a breath and apply some solid communication skills, then you’ll have a chance to step out of the painful escalation and into a conversation that will be productive and connecting.
Who doesn’t want this, Seriously. If you can avoid painful arguments in your relationship you can literally add years onto your life.
Applying Non-Violent Communication principles doesn’t mean you’re bypassing real conversation or sugar –coating real feelings, it means you’re bringing some discipline to your communication, so you can avoid painful patterns of conflict. It teaches us how to stay vulnerable, empathetic and connected while expressing our feelings and needs. It’s stepping out of the playground and into mature relating.
Compassionate communication is not something we were taught in school. It wasn’t something that was modeled at home for most of us. If you were to witness how most couples handle conflict, you would see a lot of blaming, presumptions, accusations, talking over each other, and escalation that leads to wounding. Suddenly a conversation about household chores ends in hurt and pain that can drag on for days.
Here’s what Non-Violent Communication teaches you in how to handle conflict:
1 – Take turns talking, while the other listens without commenting
Arguments are usually made up of both people talking over each other with neither really listening. When we don’t feel heard, it’s infuriating, so set yourself up to hear and be heard.
2 – Just The Facts
You start with the facts of what happened. Just the facts, no interpretation!
The facts are what a video camera would capture, plain and simple.
Ie. I told you we had to leave in 5 minutes and to lock the garage door. You agreed to do that. When I came back in 3 minutes you were not ready and the garage door was still open… Just the facts. (Not- I asked you to do a simple thing but you ignored it because you never listen. You never do what you say. You can’t be trusted.)
It’s pretty certain you can both agree on the facts as they happened. Facts are facts. Agreeing on what happened factually starts you off on the right foot.
3 – Express Your Feelings
Now that you’ve talked about the facts without interpretation, you can start to add feelings to your sharing by taking turns expressing how you are feeling.
(and here’s the tricky part) without blaming or judging the other person.
It’s easy to use words that mix feelings with accusations, such as words like, used, abused, betrayed, attacked, manipulated, neglected, rejected and threatened.
Stay with feelings that do not underhandedly blame your partner, such as words like, hurt, scared, sad, excited, irritated, confused, surprised.
These words will create connections instead of defensive reactions.
Many of us don’t have a large vocabulary for feelings.
I’ve attached a downloadable illustration of The Feelings Wheel.Study it, and use it the next time you want express your feelings.
Stay with ‘I’ statements and away from ‘you’ statements.
When we’re fighting with our partner we’ll often express our feelings by pointing the finger and making accusations, such as, ‘You make me feel neglected because you never listen to me and you always make us late, and you don’t care about our home.’
Stay with ‘I’ statements such as, ‘When I saw that the garage door was still open I felt frustrated that we might be late. I also felt afraid that our home wasn’t going to be safe while we are away.
When our partner is confessing their feelings without blaming us or judging us, it gives us the space to step into their shoes, to hear their feelings, and be open to finding a solution.
If we’re not being blamed for our partner’s feelings, there’s no need to protect or defend ourselves.
4 – Express Your Needs
Expressing your needs doesn’t mean making demands or manipulating someone or strategizing how to get your needs met. It means stating clearly and straight-forwardly, the needs that aren’t being met in the moment, (ie I have a need to be on time to things so people know they can count on me to show up when I say I’ll show up. I also have a need to feel safe in my own home by making sure things are locked up before we leave.) Your needs can be expressed simply and clearly.
5 – Make a Request
In every disagreement, there are needs not being met, and there are requests we can make to meet those needs. Often arguments leave us feeling upset and unclear on what steps need to happen to find resolution. We’re so busy defending ourselves against blame and judgment that we’re not even able to hear our partner’s request.
Consider what request you can make to your partner so they understand what they can do to meet your needs.
(ie. Can we agree to try to walk out the door 5 minutes earlier than we need to, and I’ll agree to trust that you’ll do your best to be on time and you’ll keep our home safe).
6 – Stay Vulnerable
Staying vulnerable in the midst of an argument can feel impossible sometimes. What does vulnerability look like? It’s not defending yourself.
It’s not making excuses, it’s owning up to your own shit.
Vulnerability is not weakness, it’s not giving in, it’s not disempowering. Vulnerability is acknowledging our imperfections and being brave enough to show the feelings under our anger, like sadness, disappointment, fear. These are the feelings that are usually running the show.
7 – Show Empathy
When you’re listening to your partner share their feelings, make an empathetic statement that shows them that you’re hearing what they’re saying.
Being empathetic doesn’t mean agreeing with their interpretation of what happened, it simply acknowledges that you’re hearing what they’re saying and you care about their feelings. (ie. I know it’s important for you to be on time for things. I’m sure it was frustrating for you to feel like I wasn’t hearing you.) Keep it simple, use some of their own language in your empathy statement.
You’ll be surprised at how quickly an argument will de-escalate when your partner hears your empathy statement. Escalation happens when we’re not feeling heard. Once we feel heard our nervous system can relax, and solutions can be found.
Print this article out so you can remind each other of these communication tools. Pretty soon, they’ll become a natural part of how you work through difficult moments.
The next time you find yourself in an escalating argument with your partner, remember these 7 steps:
Take turns talking and listening without interrupting
State the facts without interpretation
Add your feelings without blaming
Express your needs without manipulation
Make a request without demanding
Stay vulnerable and own your shit
Be empathetic to create connection
If you’d like to learn more about how to incorporate these 7 Tips into your relationship, click the link below and schedule your Discovery Call today!
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