The problem with these rules is that you can’t use any of them when you’re angry—which, of course, is when you most need them. Communication skills trainers are sad about it and I’m sad about it, too. You can’t use any of them when you’re angry because they’re telling you in essence, “Don’t be angry.” They’re telling you not to do what every fiber in your body is pressing you to do.
If the rules of communication are impossible to obey—if they fly out the window just when we need them most—are they any use at all? My answer is yes. We can use them when we’ve calmed down after the fight as part of a recovery conversation. And we can point out to our partners when they violate these rules. “There you go again, bringing up grudges from the distant past.” Or, “You just said ‘never.’” Or, “That’s a ‘you” statement.”
Okay, maybe that’s not such a good idea, since it would just provoke our partners. In fact, maybe we need an additional rule: Don’t use the rules for good communication as weapons against your partner.
The best use of these rules is paradoxical. We can master them so we’ll be able to realize—if not during the fight at least afterwards in retrospect—that we violated them. If we realize we’ve violated them, we won’t be surprised by our partner’s angry or defensive response and we won’t get stuck concluding that there’s no way to reason with them.
I’m going to take ten of these rules and show what’s behind the breaking of each of them.
Communication Rule 1. Make “I” Statements not “You” Statements. Your partner’s going to like it much better if you express feelings (“I feel unlovable”) rather than make accusations (“You’re selfish and unloving”). Okay, sure, we know that. But sometimes—especially during a fight—nothing but a good “you” statement will do. And, anyway, we usually don’t think we’re really making “you” statements. We think we’re just saying what’s true—that, for example, our partner is a jerk—and it wouldn’t be hard to prove.
When we’re angry, parts of our brain shut down and other parts open up. We become “you” statement generating machines. We lose the ability to make “I” statements or do anything other than attack or defend. We forget what an “I” statement is. Even if we were to remember, it wouldn’t matter, because we’d have absolutely no interest in making one.
“You” statements are often first approximations of “I” statements. “You’re completely selfish and irresponsible coming home late like this,” may be a rough first draft of, “I wish I didn’t get so upset when you’re late. You know me, I take it personally.” “You” statements indicate that something needs to be talked about; “I” statements provide the means to do so.
Communication Rule 2: Don’t Say “Always” or “Never” since it raises your partner’s hackles and can easily be refuted by his or her pointing to an exception. If you say “You never lift a finger around here,” your partner can bring up how at times he has emptied the dishwasher, set the table, or made the kids’ lunch. What you really mean is, “I’d like you to do a whole lot more around here and I have a great deal of resentment that you don’t.” “Never,” “always,” and such words are at once too powerful (they are exaggerations that make the other person less likely to listen) and too weak (they are typically easy to refute).
But it’s difficult to avoid using them. When we feel that words are failing us—when we feel that we are not getting through to our partners—“always” and “never” spring naturally to our lips. If these words didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.
So we’re going to say “always” and “never.” But here’s what you can do. When you find yourself saying one of these, know that you’ve got a frustrated person on your hands, and that person is you. And know that you’re likely to end up feeling even more frustrated because your partner will likely point to an exception.
Communication Rule 3: Don’t interrupt your partner, since it frustrates them, prevents them from having their full say, and makes it less likely they will listen to you. Also, you might be jumping to false conclusions about what they are planning to say. (I’m not talking about those people who like being interrupted because it shows that their partners are really engaged in what they are saying.)
But the more you force yourself to sit there quietly while your partner misrepresents you, lectures you, or makes unfair charges, the angrier and more dispirited you become and the less you’ll be able to listen. By the time you get a chance to talk, you may have built up so much resentment that you throw a tantrum. Or you may have become so demoralized that you no longer feel like saying anything at all.
So here’s the problem: If you interrupt your partner, he or she may become an angry or dispirited person who can’t listen; if you don’t interrupt your partner, you may become an angry or dispirited person who can’t listen.
Occasionally you can resolve this dilemma by making a limited interruption—breaking in but immediately giving the floor back to your partner: “I’m having trouble listening to you right now, but go on” or “There’s something important I’ll want to say about that as soon as you’re done.” For some people, commenting like that—registering that they have an objection—may make it possible for them to listen. And it may only briefly interrupt their partners.
Communication Rule 4: Paraphrase what your partner just said. State it in your own words and check it out. Say, “I hear you saying that you feel … Do I have it right?” or “Let’s see if I understand what you’re saying. You’re saying … Am I right?” The purpose of this rule is to get you to listen to your partner when you hadn’t realized you weren’t and to get your partner to realize that you’re listening when he or she hadn’t thought you were. Also, it’s to make sure you’re not mishearing.
But people feel least like paraphrasing when they need to do it the most, that is, when they’re angry and feel misunderstood. At such a time, they don’t want to listen; they want their partners to listen to them.
Furthermore, paraphrasing and checking back seems to most people artificial and stilted. John Gottman reports that even skillful couples don’t do it. On the other hand, the paraphrasing rule reveals something important about couple life, which is that partners often feel unlistened to by each other. So I recommend devising your own more informal, less stilted version of paraphrasing (active listening):
- “I’ve been so busy trying to get you to see … that I hadn’t noticed that what you’re trying to get me to see is that ….”
- “I know you’re trying to tell me …. But I can’t listen because it makes me too mad.”
- “Okay, you’re telling me …, but here’s why I don’t buy it.”
- “You’ve said that eight times now. The repetition is driving me crazy. But, you know, maybe you’re repeating it because you don’t think I’ve heard—and, well, actually, maybe I haven’t.”
- “What particularly touched me in what you just said was…”
Communication Rule 5: Don’t Mind-Read. People mostly don’t like your telling them what they are feeling, thinking, or trying to do, especially if you’re implying that they shouldn’t be doing it: “You’re trying to punish me;” “You’re trying to make me feel guilty;” “You must want to be depressed;” and “You always have to be in control.” Mind-reading can trigger an argument as in the following famous example:
You’re angry at me.
No I’m not.
Yes, you are.
I know when I’m angry and I’m not.
Well, then you’re angry unconsciously.
(Voice rising): I already told you, I’m not angry.
(Voice rising) Listen to your voice. You sound angry to me.
Well, I’m angry now—because you keep insisting I’m angry.
When you mind-read, you jump to conclusions. But you might also just be drawing conclusions. And even if you are jumping to conclusions, sometimes you’re right. Therapists draw or jump to conclusions all the time, as in: “You seem angry” or “You seem depressed.” (Some partners enjoy a certain type of mind-reading—finishing each other’s sentences—because their guesses, which are usually correct, show how well they know each other.)
Mind-reading is often an expression of feelings put in the form of assertions about the other person’s feelings. It’s a fear or worry stated as a fact. “You’re bored to death” might mean “I’m worried I’m boring you.” “Why are you so angry at me?” might mean: “I’m worried that you’re angry at me. Iknow I’ve been withdrawn lately, and I’d be angry if you had disappeared on me that way.” Accordingly, you can use your mind-reading statement—this assertion about your partner’s feelings (“You’re bored to death”)—to track back to your feelings (“I’m worried I’m being boring”).
Communication Rule 6: Stick to One Complaint, since skipping from topic to topic makes it impossible to talk anything through.
But people skip to other topics because they feel that the topic presently being discussed places them at a disadvantage in the argument or because they just thought of a better way to make their point. In other words, they change topics to put themselves in a better position in their fight with their partner—to shift away from the good, possibly unanswerable, point their partner just made or to amass further evidence in their effort (futile as it may be) to convince their partner that they are right.
Communication Rule 7: Don’t Dig Up Old Grievances, since it provokes and demoralizes your partner, leaving them feeling you won’t let them live anything down or forgive them for anything.
But you may need to go to the past to find a clear example of what you feel is happening in more subtle ways today. Alternatively, you may be stuck in the past, feeling that your partner has never fully understood or expressed adequate remorse for something quite hurtful he or she did earlier in the relationship.
Communication Rule 8: Don’t Get Sidetracked Arguing Over Irrelevant Details. “It was in November that it happened.” “No, it was October.” “I remember distinctly it was November.” “You’re wrong. I wasn’t even wearing a jacket.” Arguing over such an irrelevant detail hijacks the conversation.
But the reason people get caught up in such side arguments is that every detail is a chance to express the outrage they feel with their partner and a place to make a stand against what they see as their partner’s need to be right. People argue about irrelevant issues because they are so upset with their partners that they don’t want to agree with them about anything. In such cases, there is no such thing as an irrelevant issue.
It’s useful to realize that whenever you and your partner get bogged down over irrelevant details, the argument is no longer about a particular issue (if it ever was) but about your general frustration with each other. And it’s useful to realize that whatever sense of good will (willingness to give each other the benefit of the doubt) may have existed between you and your partner before has, for the moment at least, disappeared.
Communication Rule 9: Don’t Label, Name-Call, Use Sarcasm, or Threaten to End the Relationship. You don’t need a rule to know that these things are counterproductive and that later you’ll be sorry you said or did them.
But that’s later and now’s now. And now the intensity of your feelings exceeds your ability to think things through. You feel so powerless that you are willing to resort to almost anything, even to statements that will make your partner even less likely to listen to you.
You’re lucky if you are the kind of person who, when angry, automatically edits out anything that you’ll be sorry later that you said. You’re unlucky if you’re the kind of person who, when angry, immediately goes to just those things.
Communication Rule 10: Don’t Dump Out Stored-Up Complaints (in fact, don’t store them up in the first place). Dealing with one complaint at a time is difficult enough.
But here’s the problem: Everyone suppresses complaints, although some people do it more than others. And suppressing them means storing them up. And storing them up leads, in moments of anger, to dumping them out. So we’re going to dump out stored-up complaints.
The middle of a fight is the worst possible time to dump out complaints, but it may be the only possible time. If you don’t dump them out, they may never get out. It’s only then that you’re freed from concern about having too much impact—about hurting your partner’s feelings or starting a fight. Your concern at such moments is only that you aren’t having enough impact.
Once your complaints are out, you and your partner have the possibility of a useful conversation later when the dust has settled.
The rules for good communication are useful to know. Equally useful is a recognition that everyone is inevitably going to break them.