Maverick Life Op-Ed

Seven mood-changers in conversations

By Stefan Blom 17 May 2019

Tired of fighting about the way you’re speaking, instead of what you’re talking about? Here are a few tips that may help.

If you’ve had enough of going around in circles in your intimate conversations and get so lost that you don’t even know what you’re both talking about anymore, consider these seven essential relationship skills to change the mood of your conversations. They might just calm the situation down, and move you in the direction of in-depth understanding.

Showing interest and understanding instead of trying to fix

Your focus in a conversation is, firstly, to show interest in your partner’s real experience and, secondly, to understand what they’re saying to you. Your focus should be less about being right or trying to fix things and more about real interest and understanding. If you have a problem-solving mindset, you might be looking for solutions, rather than listening to your partner.

A solution will usually come when you both feel seen, acknowledged and understood. That moment is a relief for most – the moment in which you notice that your partner is trying hard to hear you, and showing real interest in what you’re saying. Being seen makes us feel deeply loved, so even if you’re not getting it right, your willingness will be appreciated, and a willingness to try to understand each other’s experiences of life is, after all, an act of love. You show your interest in understanding, and your willingness to understand by, for example, switching off your television or phone, giving your relationship your undivided attention and looking each other in the eye when you speak. Trying your best to show real interest and understanding of what is shared is the best conversation you can have. Doing so will make you feel more connected to each other.

Quite opposite to business outcomes, personal and intimate relationships are seldom about finding solutions. In work relationships, there might be right and wrong — problems that have “positive” solutions. But you cannot treat your intimate relationships like work relationships, as your innermost emotions and thoughts are profoundly personal and influence how you perceive and feel things. In this way, intimate or close relationships are very different. Bringing your problem-solving or “work mindset” does not bring you closer to that private place called understanding.

It’s often calming to remind yourself that it’s okay to have different perceptions, that how you perceive the world reflects your different identities and that every “problem” does not always need a solution, but just a little acknowledgement that speaks of understanding.

For most couples, this might be difficult to implement. They see a problem in their relationship and want to find a solution to it, to fix what is wrong. In therapy, I often see how one person’s good intentions to problem solve and repair are met with negative emotions that speak of the frustration of not being understood. When you’re thinking of solutions to make it better, you might be working “too hard” in a conversation, rather than listening and acknowledging.

Keep it kind and gentle

A taken-for-granted commitment in any relationship is often speaking to each other with kindness and respect. Easier said than done if you’re upset or stressed, but trying your best to bring it down a few notches and having your say with as much gentleness as you can master is often an emotional invitation towards a calmer place.

An intimate conversation is a process in which one or two people share their thoughts and feelings honestly and gently, begin to deepen their understanding of each other’s views and therefore start feeling closer to each other. This kind of conversation will move you from tension to closeness, from disconnection to connection. One of the best ways of getting to a warm closeness is to speak from your mind and your heart with sincere kindness and gentleness. Stick to your promise to keep it kind and gentle, no matter what you’re feeling and thinking.

Share your upsets responsibly

When we don’t feel seen and acknowledged by the people we love, we get upset or feel hurt. Being upset and, at times, hurting each other is part of being in a relationship. Having good intentions, and loving and caring for each other genuinely, does not mean that you’ll never hurt each other. Being upset is an important — and inevitable — part of being in a relationship; it’s giving your relationship direction. It’s speaking to you if you’re upset or hurt; that you have to make time to share your critical inner thoughts and feelings. An upset is your invitation to share, your moment of truth. Every upset that you sweep under the carpet and ignore is a missed opportunity for connection and closeness.

At the same time, not every upsetting moment is relevant to your relationship. The golden rule of sharing is that, if you have a thought or feeling that bothers or upsets you, sleep on it. Should you wake up the next day still feeling the same, then, it might indicate that it is relevant to your relationship. The sooner you share your upsets, the better for your relationship. This skill is called your “turnaround time”. The time between feeling upset and sharing your misunderstanding will determine the experience of your relationship. Most couples I meet remain upset for days, months or even years. But the truth is that every day spent with upsetting thoughts and feelings is a wasted one.

Move from speaking to doing

When you share what’s upsetting to your relationship and you’re trying to keep it gentle, but it escalates, and you’re not hearing each other, consider “doing” rather than speaking. Circular or repetitive and reactive speaking is a sure sign that you stopped listening to each other. Heavy topics often need more than one visit, so don’t speak to the point of exhaustion. Agree to limit your time for talking, pack it away and focus on doing rather than speaking, with the clear intention to pick up the topic later.

Bridges are not built on talking alone and, often in the process of doing things we love, we show our intentions without words. Enjoyment, sex, intimacy and gentle conversations are some of the most significant gifts you can give your relationship. Relationships need to share enjoyable experiences, and doing things you both enjoy can bring some relief and time for reflecting, as well as prepare you for the next round of hard talking.

Speak only for yourself

In couples therapy, I notice that being spoken for by their partners is a major cause of fighting or an escalation in tone or volume. We don’t like to be spoken for, as we often feel misrepresented and misunderstood.

Speaking your mind means sharing your ideas, thoughts and feelings, not your partner’s. Be careful of telling your partner what they’re feeling or thinking, as you’re not the carrier of their heart or mind.

One of the most obvious ways of trying to speak for yourself is to start your sentences with “I” instead of “you”. Instead of saying, “You don’t know what you’re doing … or … you always say this to me,” consider speaking for yourself by saying, “I need you to look at how you speak to me. I would love it if you …” In other words, when you speak for yourself, everybody stays in their lane.

While you have the right to your observations of each other and your relationship, it can become quite disrespectful to speak for someone else; when you speak for another person, you could be assuming that you know best, or that you’re always right. But you do not live in his or her body or mind, and you cannot know what the person next to you is thinking or feeling; claim what’s yours and speak for yourself — you know yourself best.

Talk about what you need

If you’ve tried your best to have a calm, honest conversation, but have struggled to speak respectfully and started to fight, here’s a tool that can restore instant calm to your relationship.

Instead of fighting to be right, blaming each other for what’s wrong and not hearing each other, change the topic — talk about what you need from each other by asking the simple question: what do you need from me?

When you feel distant or disconnected in your relationship, it often means that you’re not getting what you need and are keeping quiet about it. If you speak your mind, you might get what you need and expect. From that moment of truth — when you become truly honest about what you need — you should start feeling better, as you give each other a chance to participate in meeting each other’s needs.

Be grateful when your partner tells you what they need from you, even if it upsets you, because then you know exactly where to focus and invest. Most disagreements and fights are about not getting what we need. A relationship is about two people’s needs, and the happiness of your connection will be determined by how often you play in each other’s needs. Knowing and expressing what you need from each other steers your relationship in the direction of happiness.

Show some compassion

Having compassion for the person who is treating you in damaging ways means that you have to look beyond your own experience and have a deeper understanding of why that person is behaving this way. The person who is speaking to you in painful ways is most likely in pain. Look beyond your distress and think, with kindness, about what this person might be going through.

Compassion does not mean accepting each other’s damaging ways — it merely allows you not to take all the damage that comes your way so personally, but rather to see it as the struggle of a partner where you might offer some kind of support or gentle understanding.

Practising some compassion while you’re on the receiving end of another person’s damaging ways may help you to see a problematic interaction in a new way. It may shift your internal focus away from “What am I doing wrong?” to “Is this person okay? I wonder how he or she is really doing…”

In a problem-saturated world, where deceit is the new epidemic, and it seems complicated to find honest relationships, maybe we’ve forgotten that we’ve built our relationships on simple human experiences and that we’re supposed to help each other along the way. Interest, understanding, kindness, sharing and compassion are the building blocks of a healthy relationship. ML

Stefan Blom is a clinical psychologist who specialises in relationships. He lives and works in Cape Town and is the author of The Truth About Relationships (translated into Afrikaans and Romanian) published by Human & Rousseau.


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