Originally written for Mind Body Green –https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/how-to-have-a-productive-argument-according-to-a-couples-counselor
The No. 1 complaint couples bring into my therapy practice is an inability to communicate. They aren’t able to work through conflict in a way that moves their relationship and their understanding of each other forward. They argue, they get defensive, they shut down, or they escalate the tension. As a result, they end up repeating the same fight with their partner over and over again.
To successfully wade through the challenges that inevitably come up in all relationships (not just romantic ones), we need to learn how to make our fights more productive—meaning each of you is able to express your point of view, you understand and respect each other, and you work together to come to a mutually agreeable solution.
Difficult conversations require certain skills. Below are six techniques I recommend to couples to help them transform the way they handle their disagreements into productive conversations that actually put the arguments to rest once and for all. These strategies can be used in any argument with anyone in your life, whether with a significant other, friend, co-worker, or family member. No matter who you’re talking to, the mechanics of empathetic dialogue and productive conversation never change.
1. Differentiate between thoughts and feelings.
Many people get these two confused, especially during conflicts. They label their thoughts as feelings and then feel entitled to them, insisting to their partner, “You can’t tell me my feelings aren’t valid; they’re my feelings!” This statement is true about feelings—but not about thoughts. Your feelings can’t be invalid, but your thoughts can. Discriminating between the two can be especially difficult, but this distinction is crucial if you want to stay grounded and want your partner to participate in the conversation.
So how do you tell the difference? Feelings are emotions that fall into one of four broad categories: sad, mad, glad, and afraid. A thought is simply your perspective, observation, or interpretation of a situation.
Let me give you an example. You might say, “I feel like you don’t value the contribution I make to the family,” but this is not a feelingstatement. You probably feel sad and resentful, but you think your partner does not appreciate you and think they don’t value what you do. This distinction can diffuse the tension because recognizing and acknowledging that you have added your own meaning to the feelings underscores that they are just your thoughts; they are not absolute and may not be correct. This is what opens the door to a discovery process about what’s really going on between you.
2. Understand your “filter” and own your reactions.
Everyone is influenced by their upbringing and experiences, and those affect how you respond to your partner. People develop what I call a “filter” that affects how they interpret what their partner says and does. That filter is especially at play during conflict. Your thoughts and feelings are a direct result of how you have been raised to view things. Acknowledging your filter gives you the opportunity to switch from blaming your partner or focusing on their behavior to talking about what’s going on for you.
Use “I” language as much as possible, describing your own experience and your reaction to it, without making it about the other person. Don’t label or judge your partner. Don’t be attached to the idea that what you think is right. Recognize and admit that you are making meaning out of events; this keeps your conversation in the realm of exploring what’s happening for you instead of attacking your partner.
So let me return to the example of “feeling like your partner doesn’t value your contributions to the family.” A better way to say that might be: “I realize I feel sad and resentful about how much I think I do for the family. I have this story that you don’t even notice all my effort or that you don’t care or value the ways I contribute. This belief keeps me distant from you, and I can tell it’s really in the way of our relationship. Will you explore with me what I’m thinking and feeling so we can move it out of the way?”
3. Empathize first; then respond.
If your partner is upset, empathize first. Listen to what they’re saying and make sure that you understand it, from their perspective. Don’t stop until you can get in their shoes and see it from their worldview. Do this before you start constructing your response. You don’t have to parrot it back or use elaborate communication tools, but you can make it clear that you really see why they are upset, given how they have experienced what happened. That doesn’t mean you agree with them, but you can see the situation through their eyes. Then you can proceed to communicate how you see it. That’s when they should show you the same courtesy of understanding your point of view. After you each empathize with the other, when both perspectives have been understood, then you can figure out how to handle those differences of opinion.
4. Master your own emotional regulation.
Self-soothing and emotional self-regulation are big parts of the work for each of you. It’s important to develop the ability to tolerate feeling unsettled and unsure. Instead of looking to your partner to change what they’re doing or to reassure you, you should work toward being able to settle yourself down and tend to your own reactivity. This is going to take practice, but mastering difficult conversations includes regulating your own emotional state.
So how exactly do you do that? You can take a break to get control of yourself, knowing it’s your job to show up and engage again. If you get triggered or escalated, it’s your job to notice that and do what you need to do to regain control.
Likewise, it’s also important to let your partner take a break when needed and not hold them in discussion against their will. It should go without saying, but don’t call your partner names or blame them. Avoid taking the bait or throwing fuel on their fire.
5. Schedule difficult conversations, and use a time limit.
It helps to be intentional about the hard talks. Avoid the tendency to ambush your partner, diving into an intense topic when they may not have the bandwidth to respond well. If there are persistent trouble areas in your relationship, go ahead and schedule a time to talk. Set a time limit too, so you both know what to expect.
Know that you may have to meet several times to get to resolution on the issue; you don’t have to settle it in one conversation. For the tenacious problems, it may take quite a while to fully understand each other and come up with a solution you can both accept.
All these tips will take practice if this isn’t how you relate to your partner now. While it may be hard to remember to use these tools when you’re upset, you can also come back to the issue later, once you’re calmer. As you get more adept at applying these concepts, you and your partner—or anyone you’re building a relationship with in your life—will eventually be able to handle difficult conversations with ease.