Therapists, coaches, and “how-to” books offer a lot of excellent communication advice for conflict resolution. One recommendation is to use “I” rather than “you” statements: “I feel hurt” rather than “you’re so mean”. Another suggestion is to acknowledge the other’s point of view, with statements such as “I get how you would feel that way”. Additional skills include paraphrasing the other’s words, being specific with complaints rather than making blanket statements such as “always” or “never”, and avoiding “mind reading” (“I know you’re doing that just to manipulate me”).
One challenge with these valuable skills is that it can be hard to utilize them when conflicts are actually taking place. Arguments with one’s partner can “trigger” emotional upset that makes it hard to react thoughtfully. If your partner is critical, you might have learned to say something like `I know you have a point here, but I feel hurt”, but you might find yourself snapping back “Why do you always have to be so critical?!”
We find it hard to share our strong emotions during conflict for several valid reasons. When injured, we naturally defend ourselves. In fact, using an “I feel” statement can make us vulnerable to further hurt if a partner is unsympathetic. In addition, “proper” communication might not communicate the intensity of our feelings. “How the hell could you do this?!?” might be a more accurate description of our feelings than “I feel offended”, even if it perpetuates the fight.
So how can we find a way back to better communication when our partner triggers us? One solution is to talk about, or “report”, our triggered state. As couples therapist Dan Wile, Ph.D. writes, “reporting upset involves stepping back and talking about the state of mind that is blocking communication”.
Here are some examples, paired with what one might otherwise say or do if triggered:
“ I am just so outraged right now that I can’t think straight”, instead of “How could you do this to me?!”
“As you can see, I have very strong feelings about this” instead of “This is ridiculous!”
“I’m so devastated I just don’t know what to say. I’m scared it’s going to come out wrong” instead of “I’m just done!”, followed by storming off.
Reporting one’s upset can be helpful for a number of reasons:
-It can cool off the fight so that you and your partner can express yourselves with more compassion
-It demonstrates thoughtfulness, which may assuage your partner and make them more receptive
-Reporting upset offers the implicit message “I would say it better if I could” thus softening the impact of any words that follow .
-You are still revealing your inner state, so your words can serve as a “bridge” to a fuller expression of feelings.
Conflict is common in partner relationships in part because the stakes are so high: we depend on our partners for so many of our emotional needs. Conflict can be an opportunity for deeper intimacy if it illuminates each partner’s underlying feelings. But expressing feelings in a way our partners can hear can be difficult, and even impossible, when our strong emotions are triggered. In such moments, “reporting” one’s upset state can serve as a “bridge” to help partners stay connected as they find their path back to intimate, heartfelt communication.
-Posted by Jonah Green