Updated: May 19, 2022
A Guide to Effective & Connecting Dialogue in Stressful Times.
We are all experiencing a great deal of stress, grief, worry, and holding a ton of uncertainty right now. It is more difficult than ever to get a hold on what we are feeling, put it in perspective and set realistic expectations for ourselves and other people. I hope this essay might offer some support, relief, and guidance on best practices to communicate in a caring and connecting way and reduce taking these undigested emotions out on loved ones. Notice, i said "reduce" because the fact is, we are not perfect and will most assuredly slip and do the exact thing we are trying to work on. It's important to keep in mind that attention and effort are far more important than perfection.
Before we talk about the “How To” of communication, we need to talk about what not to do. The Gottman Institute refers to the pesky, reactive and unhelpful behaviors that we unconsciously use to protect ourselves in moments when we are triggered as “The Four Horseman” as in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (eep!). I think we can all agree that something with such a scary title is the LAST thing you need while we are all collectively trying to hold on to all the hope we can.
Let's just remove the doom and gloom analogies for now and just put it plainly that these are the communication styles that research shows slowly chip away at and wreck your relationships. In fact, they lead to break-up, cut-off, and divorce. They are communicated through words, facial expressions, and body language.
For those committed to a loving and connected relationship, it's really important to take responsibility for your feelings and what you need. Avoid the following pitfalls in communicating and embrace some of the antidotes that get you more of the understanding, connectedness, and appreciation that you want and need in this relationship. As the saying goes, If you want change, you need to be the change. The only thing you have control over is you.
Here’s a video produced by the Gottman Institute that gives you some examples of what these negative responses look like.
Let's break this all down.
#1 Criticism. A criticism is when you insult someone’s character. You are not angry at a specific behavior, you are attacking the core of someone’s character. This type of communication does not help get your message through, it does the opposite. It leads to hurt and rejection and pushes the other person away. Criticism is often packaged in exaggerated and totalizing statements like "you always" or "you never". It often triggers defensiveness and leads to a cycle of conflict that is hard to escape.
Types of Criticism: Exaggerated statements. Statements with words like "always," "never," "constantly," or "all the time." The partner expressing themself using these statements is often feeling frustrated, angry, or upset about something that they experience not changing and happening on a repeated basis. The partner on the other end of those words often hears that there's something wrong with them and becomes defensive and makes a counterclaim outlining the one time they did not do the angering thing. This will then leave both partners feeling unheard and even more frustrated.
'Why' questions. Why questions often get overlooked as criticism because they are not always meant critically. The problem with 'why" questions is that if you are holding a negative perspective about your partner, it is hard to hide it with a 'why' question. It is rarely posed as a truly curious and open inquiry and is often loaded with more mocking and exasperated tones with negative sentiments underlying it.
Making a joke about your partner's 'flaws'. It's a thin line between love and hate on this one. If you are feeling negatively toward your partner about something, a joke about their flaws may sneak out as a passive-aggressive way of saying what you want without being direct. If you do this in public, it can often sound like you are making your partner the butt of the joke.
"Should" statements. Should statements toward yourself lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety. "should" statements directed toward your partner can lead them to feel judged and shamed. For example, if you tell your partner "you should exercise every day," you are implying that you know best and there is something wrong with them for not knowing thus re-inforcing a negative cycle that de-motivates.
Fixing something your partner did "wrong". Criticism can also show up as non-verbal communication. For example, you've asked your partner to help you with the laundry. After they complete the laundry, you go back in and re-fold all the clothes. When you do this you are sending a message that your partner did it wrong and your way is the right way.
Concerns shared from a place of anger and resentment. If you are approaching someone from a place of anger and resentment, you won't be able to hide it. it will show up in your tone. You must do the work of de-escalating and tuning into you (your feelings and needs) before coming to your partner.
Criticism vs Complaint:
A complaint is naming how you felt about a certain behavior of your partners without totalizing statements about their character. That way you are making it about a problematic behavior and not the wholeness of a person and you are explaining how YOU feel. Not who they are.
Example of a complaint: "I felt worried and anxious when you took off without telling me where you were going. This is a time when tensions are high for me and it makes a big difference to know where you are. In the future, all I am asking is that you check in with me so i know you are safe."
#2 Contempt. This is a tell tale sign that a relationship is deep trouble and is the biggest predictor of relationship dissolution and disaster. This is a step further than criticism and assumes a moral superiority over the other person. It involves mocking, berating, sarcasm, mimicking and using body language like eye-rolling and scoffing. It makes the other person feel worthless and insignificant. Research even shows that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious diseases (colds, the flu, etc.) due to weakened immune systems. This way of speaking down to someone on a consistent basis is quite literally life-threatening.
This way of communicating is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust and superiority, especially moral, ethical, or characterological. It arises from long-simmering negative thoughts about one's partner, and it arises in the form of an attack on someone's sense of self. It leads to more and more conflict that can also escalate into dangerous and destructive forms of conflict rather than reconciliation.
Example: "You're late again. I learned to tell time when i was 6 years old. When are you ever gonna to learn?" OR "Why haven't we had sex in 8 months. What, are you too busy flirting with that person at work to care about my needs?"
These examples are the extreme side of the spectrum of contempt, but contempt can appear in more subtle forms. Someone interrogating you for "allowing yourself to be a victim" is also a form of contempt or telling you "I know you are not any good at understanding finances and your head is in the clouds but..." and proceed to tell you how it is shows contempt. Any incident where someone is asserting their moral or intellectual superiority over you is where the buzzer goes off and you know you are encountering contempt.
#3 Defensiveness. The product of receiving criticism is often defensiveness. You put your back up, deny or project unwanted feelings on to another person to get someone to back off and leave you alone. It communicates no accountability or responsibility for mistakes and feels like the tables are being turned to make the person that lodged the complaint the problem and completely denies their experience.
Example: Your partner asks you.. "Did you remember that we have a phone call with some friends tonight to connect?
Defensive response: "You know I am stressed out and I barely have time to breathe. Why did you rope me into this? You should know better. "
#4 Stonewalling. This is evasion by shutting off and shutting down. This is when someone withdraws from the interaction and simply stops responding to their partner. Like all of these reactions, it is often relational. Stonewalling can be a response to criticism, contempt or defensiveness. These are the folks that disappear, switch the subject or focus their attention on something entirely unrelated to the topic at hand. The trick is to ask for and take a little breathing room and practice emotional self-soothing (explained below) and return to the conversation when you are less activated.
#1 Gentle Start-up. Use "I" statements not "you" statements. Take responsibility for your feelings and your needs and do not put them on your person. You don't have to put a bunch of sugar on top to get your person to hear you. You just need to speak your truth clearly and without blame, critique or universalizing their behavior. Don't evaluate and don't judge. It may be as simple as starting your sentences with "I wish" instead of "you never".
Example: "I really wish you would check in with me before making decisions for both of us. When you act alone when making decisions, i feel shut out and alone. When you check in with me, I feel considered and respected for my time and schedule.
#2 Build Culture of Appreciation. This can be more of a long term solution. Are you more responsive to hear someone out and listen to them if you have a long-standing sense that they appreciate you and have your back? That's a rhetorical question. Of course, you do! If you have a foundation of respect and appreciation for your person's good qualities, you can draw upon them in times when you are irritated by them and be a bit more generous. I can be very difficult to have a sense of good will if the well of good is dry. When the well is dry and folks have a long-standing history of distrust of one another's motivations that have obscured their ability to see the positive qualities of why they made the choice to be in this relationship, it can be a hard road back.
When the well is dry, we need to work 3x harder to cultivate it. When people feel heard, understood and appreciated.. they move. When they do not, they go rigid and close themselves off to possibilities and change. Another way to say this is when people constantly hear what they are doing wrong and not what they are doing right, it is easy for entropy and hopelessness to set in. Compliment your person, notice when they are doing something you appreciate and like and say something about it. Be active in appreciating their positive qualities and they will likely do the same for you. You've got to give a little to get a little.
#3. Take responsibility for your actions/Empathize with your partners perspective. In this moment, arguing right or wrong or trying to win is futile. As a friend once said to me, "Do you want to be right or do you want to be in a relationship? " Taking responsibility, admission of fault or just empathizing with your partner’s perspective is the most effective approach.
Example: 'Oh no! I am so sorry, but I forgot about the call we had planned and knew I was running behind on my deadline this morning. This is on me and I'm sorry I didn't say anything until now. If you want to continue the call without me, please do. I am also more than happy to email them and see if we can reschedule."
Example if you haven't done anything wrong per se, but your person is upset:
"I hear you are upset and looking forward to this call. I really wanted to be on this call too. I am not sure where our wires got crossed. I recall mentioning to you this morning that I might have to finish this project tonight. I also hear that perhaps that wasn't completely clear. I'd like to work on where these wires got cross because I would like to join you on calls with these friends in the future."
**Remember: You can't argue against someone else's experience, but you can empathize first then offer your experience.
#4 Psychological Self Soothing. You are experiencing the smoke detector part of your brain trying to protect you in that moment. It doesn’t know that it is not serving you. It thinks it's saving you. Stonewalling can be difficult to stop if it is a repetitive behavior. It can also be a survival reaction connected to our personal histories of conflict. For example, say you grew up in an explosive household where people over-reacted to conflict and nothing really ever got addressed, so you may have developed to survival skill of retreating and swallowing your emotions. Perhaps your partner grew up in a household where you had to yell to get someone the hear you and pay attention, so their survival skill is to continue to pursue you to get answers. You see why this may cause an impasse? And why you might feel like stonewalling is your best option.
When our brain gets triggered and overwhelmed, our amygdala (the smoke detector in our brain), is triggered and we may not have access to the words to describe what is happening or be able to come up with a response that serves us. This is what neurologist Daniel Seigel refers to as "Flipping Your Lid". Logic and reason requires the use of our frontal lobe (the part that controls cognitive skills like problem solving, memory, language, or judgment) but you can’t actually get access to its abilities to help you out if the smoke detector in the back part of your brain is telling you to fight, flight or freeze. Your frontal lobe needs safety and then it can come to your assistance.
First approach if you cannot access words and you are simply way too triggered is to walk away. The second response is to name that you are overwhelmed, so your person doesn’t feel like you are abandoning or dropping them and let them know you just need a break or some space. Third response is to do the second response and be clear to your person that you want to return to the conversation when you feel calmer. The trick is, you actually have to return to it. Don’t wait for them to bring it up again later. You take the initiative. Taking the initiative says to your person that you care and you actively want to work it out. If you don't, it continues to communicate that you were just placating them.
If you are the partner, it is advisable to allow the person stonewalling to have their space and not attempt to pursue the conversation further because it will likely only escalate or completely shut down the issue.
I would be remiss if I signed off before telling you that it's important to hold these ideas as a practice that takes ongoing work. It's important not to try and do it perfectly or use this information to establish a competition between you and your person to determine who is the good partner or bad partner. We all have room to learn and develop these skills. Our culture certainly does not teach us how to control our emotions or de-center our experience to understand the other. However, I do believe that continuing to work on these skills does make your relationship and the world in general a more pleasant and kinder place to live. Owning our mistakes, feeling the hurt, reflecting on them and allowing ourselves to take one step further toward change puts more overall goodness into the world and generally soothes our central nervous system.
"Love and happiness
Something that can make you do wrong, make you do right.'
- Al Green