Most married couples I work with say they don’t communicate well. The word “communication” gets tossed around frequently and endlessly. Amazingly, we’re never taught how to have healthy communication in a relationship. So, we do what we’ve learned in our families, which often isn’t helpful, or we just wing it. Either way is a high-risk strategy.
But what do we really mean when we say we need better communication? The essence of this need is being able to resolve your differences in a healthy, positive way without judgment, criticism, or defensiveness. In a way that actually promotes growth and connection.
Having differences is normal and healthy. That’s not the issue. The issue is how you talk to each other about those differences. Differences are opportunities to grow by learning more about each other. They actually make your marriage stronger.
There is a unique process called Safe Conversations that have been developed by Harville Hendrix and Hellen LaKelly Hunt that I’ve found very useful when I teach couples how to talk to each other. They’ve been improving and refining this process for many years and it’s based on research and actual practice. I’ve spent the time to become a trained facilitator in this process because it works.
There are three main steps in the process:
- Mirroring – repeating what you’ve heard until you are both crystal clear you’re talking about the same thing. Then asking, “Is there more?” Now you both feel heard.
- Validation – this is telling your partner “What you’re saying makes sense to me,” based on your experience. Agreement is not required. Now there is feeling understood and there is no need to be defensive.
- Empathy – “I imagine this makes you feel (emotion words). Is that how you feel? Do you have other feelings?” Now you’re tuned in to each other emotionally.
Here are some of the principles:
- A relationship is two people and the space between them. That space is sacred.
- We all want safety, connection, and aliveness.
- Objection to difference is the source of conflict.
- You must practice Zero Negativity.
- Shift from frustration to request. Ask for what you want.
- Shift from judgment to curiosity. Can you tell me more about that?
Two other points in the conversation process are the beginning and the ending. How a conversation starts is how it will go. If it starts off wrong, it will stay wrong.
If you initially approach your partner with criticism, you will get defensiveness in return. If you approach with frustration, that’s what you’ll get back. However, if you approach with respect and kindness, that’s what you’ll receive.
Perhaps the most important part is the resolution. Without that, the same issues keep coming up over and over again. Nothing gets settled. There are only four possible outcomes in resolving a difference.
- You can agree with one person
- You can agree with the other person
- You can find a compromise
- You can agree to disagree
Once you’ve done this, the issue is settled. If there is new information or circumstances change, an issue can be revisited. Otherwise, it’s not to be brought up again.
As an overall backdrop, you must remember the following:
- Both of you are acting in good faith.
- You would never say or do anything to intentionally hurt each other.
- You are both doing the best you can.
- Most importantly, nothing is personal.
Having a Safe Conversation is a skill that you can learn with practice. Obviously, it takes time and effort. But there is a big payoff. Imagine a marriage where you actually look forward to having a difference. No tension. No anxiety. No apprehension. Just safety, connection, and aliveness.