When couples communicate during conflict their strong emotions often derail the conversation. Accusations and blame beget defensiveness, and the argument escalates from there. Voices get raised; hurtful statements are hurled; emotional temperatures accelerate. Afterwards, people withdraw and separate.
What happens next is the pivotal point that can make or break a relationship. If couples sweep the disagreement under the rug, they will create emotional drift. The couples that come back together and “return to the scene of the crime” to process the argument will be able to resolve the issue and build emotional intimacy.
The skill needed to accomplish resolution is conscious communication, i.e. communication with awareness.
When Lori and I have an argument and “return to the scene of the crime,” we share our perceptions about what happened and what was said. Often times Lori will say, “I felt you weren’t listening to the meaning of what I said.” Or I will say, “I felt like you were yelling at me.” Our partner’s unconscious, automatic response to statements like these is to become defensive, e.g. “I heard every word you said.” Or “I wasn’t yelling.” We are wired to defend when attacked, so left to our own this is what happens.
Conscious communication means recognizing your automatic responses and choosing to reply non-defensively. This involves accepting and validating your partner’s perceptions. I might say, “I’m sorry I didn’t get it. Tell me what the meaning was behind your words,” acknowledging that I must not have received the message she was trying to send me. Lori might say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was raising my voice.”
We don’t challenge the other’s perceptions, even if we don’t agree with each other’s perception.
Does it really matter if I think I understood Lori, if she felt misunderstood? Does it really matter if Lori thought she didn’t yell, if that was how I heard it? No. We accept each other’s perceptions, not as “right” but as “real” to the other person. Then we own our part and move on from there to have a calmer conversation.
Here are the steps to consciously communicate with your partner:
- Return to the scene of the crime calm and ready to listen.
- Allow your partner to express his/her perceptions fully without interruption.
- Validate your partner’s perception even if you disagree.
- Own what you did to hurt him/her, whether or not it was intentional.
- Apologize genuinely for your part of the hurt.
- Thank each other for listening.