We all have those moments when it becomes very difficult to communicate with a loved one. Maybe we’ve had a bad day and are in a terrible mood, maybe it’s a really sensitive subject, or maybe the other person just cannot see our side of the story. It doesn’t seem to matter how much we respect or love someone; we can still lose our composure and end a conversation with zero resolve- sometimes we may have even made matters worse.
Below are five tips for effective, assertive and respectful communication that can be used for those particularly difficult conversations:
Tip #1: Slow it Down
First and foremost, S L O W D O W N. It seems simple or maybe too obvious, but when our emotions are heightened, our usual urge is to speed up, interrupt, get our point across, raise our voice, etc. If we act on these natural impulses, there is no time for regulating emotions, thinking about what to say or truly listening to the other person. Slow down, take a few deep breaths, ask for a moment to consider what the other person is saying or ask to gather your own thoughts before responding. Its awkward and uncomfortable, but well worth it if you can potentially avoid saying or doing something that could permanently damage an important relationship.
Tip #2: Listen and Reflect
Another impulse often experienced during an “argument” is to begin formulating a response in our minds while the other person is still talking. Again,
S L O W D O W N. It is hard enough to formulate a response under pressure and it is even more difficult to formulate a convincing and effective response without all the information or with incorrect information. Slow down, take a deep breath, calmly reflect or reiterate what you understood and ask for clarification before responding.
The moment the person you are speaking with starts to notice you are not hearing or understanding exactly what they are trying to say, their ears typically shut off. Why would they be motivated to listen or understand your point of view if you are not doing the same for them?
Tip #3: Empathize and Validate
If we are feeling frustrated or angry, empathizing with and validating the other person can be the last thing we want to do. In fact, sometimes it even seems counterintuitive: “If I empathize or validate they will think they are right!”
First, I’d like to be clear about what I mean when I say “empathize and validate.” I am referring to empathy as the process of attempting to view the situation from the other person’s perspective. How are they feeling right now? What about this conversation is important to them?
This type of empathy often gives way to validation. Validation is the process of acknowledging someone’s right to their emotions and their perspectives- even if we disagree or do not completely understand. To be clear, validating someone does not always mean we agree or fully understand, it just means we acknowledge the other person’s right to their own emotions and perspectives.
Some validating phrases include: “I can see that you feel really frustrated,” “It sounds like that is really important to you” and “I can understand how this would be difficult.” However, it is important that we do not validate the invalid. For example, it is valid for someone to feel upset or angry, but it may not be valid or okay for them to call you names. In this case, we would validate the emotion, but NOT the behavior.
Tip #4: Express Emotions
I think a lot of us probably equate emotional expression to weakness or vulnerability. However, I believe emotional expression can help us communicate our needs in a direct and clear way.
For example, if I say, “You are being so rude,” the other person is likely to immediately get defensive and argue their point further. This would be a good time to stop and ask, “What am I really trying to express in this moment?”
An alternative might be, “The way you are talking to me makes me feel hurt and disrespected.” Instead of expressing a judgment, I can share how the person’s behavior affects my internal experience through a simple shift to direct emotional expression. Side bar: Yes, this is why “I feel” statements are all the rage in our field. This gives the other person clear information about what is upsetting me and is less likely to result in their defensiveness.
Just another reminder that this skill can be difficult to employ in the middle of an argument and is another reason to S L O W D O W N and take a deep breath. You got this!
Tip #5: Be specific
Direct emotional expression is a good start to being specific about what is upsetting you. To take it a step further, try being very specific about what it is you are looking for from the other person. Another way to think of it is presenting potential solutions rather than just highlighting the problem.
Here are some examples of vague versus specific communication:
“Can you stop being such a jerk?”
“If we are going to continue this conversation, would you please lower your voice when talking to me?”
Even more assertive:
“I’m not going to continue this conversation unless you lower your voice.”
“You just never think before making a decision!”
“Next time, I would really appreciate it if you would talk to me first.”
“It doesn’t seem like we’re getting anywhere and I need some time to cool off. I’m going to go for a walk. Let’s try again later.”
Overall, you may have gathered at this point, my main recommendation would always be to slow down, take your time and breathe! These types of conversations are tough! But taking your time, regulating your emotions and choosing your words carefully can be a great way to show the other person that you care and this is important to you.