Dialogue With Difficult Partners

Communication problems come in all forms, from the partner who simply walks away from discussions to the couple who constantly rehashes old material to the point where they’re virtually running lines like actors. Here are some ways to break these self-defeating and painful patterns:

Start With You
It may seem odd, but if you want build a solid, long-lasting foundation for real, heartfelt, and honest communication in your partnership — or in any relationship — you need to begin by looking at yourself.

Especially when real communication has been difficult for a long time, it’s likely that you’ve been arguing for what you believe is possible, or saying what you think will be safe to say, rather asking for what you really want, or talking about what’s actually troubling you.

The most important question is what do you truly want, short- and long-term? Unless you’re clear about these things at the beginning, you can miss real opportunities for growth and resolution when they occur.

It’s also important to start from where you actually are. Thinking about how it ought to be is a waste of time. Instead, rummage around inside yourself to find out what you really want to accomplish with dialogue — bottom line — and what you’re really asking for. Are your blowups really about picking Johnny up from soccer once a week, or are they about the fact that you miss the closeness you used to have with your spouse, or that you’re afraid they’re cheating?

Blanket Dialogue Rules
The art of dialogue is about breaking communication patterns that lead to misunderstandings, anger, unhappiness, broken trust and … further lack of communication.

This can’t be just about what you want to accomplish. While it’s better to set up the time and environment for a dialogue ahead of time, if you can’t, start your spontaneous discussion by clearly stating what you want, and then immediately asking your partner to do the same.

Dialogue only works among equals, so you can’t go into this convinced that you’re more wounded, virtuous, or right than your partner. This can be tough, but the rewards are worth it.

Speak of “I”, not “you.” Speak of your feelings, your desires, your dreams, your goals. This simple trick takes a lot of the dynamite out of a difficult discussion, because you have to focus on your thoughts and feelings, and not on what your partner has or hasn’t done or said.

The most important ingredient for successful dialogue is trust, or at least the goal of establishing trust. This usually means it’s best to start small and safe with things where you know you share common ground, and save more volatile subjects for later.

Here are some more tips:

– forget that you’re not perfect either
– spend the time your partner is talking only thinking about what you’re going to say next
– lie or even tinker with the truth — you don’t have to blurt out what isn’t asked for, but every response needs to be completely honest, if tactfully phrased
– try to have real dialogue when you’re angry, miserable, or hurt
– hurl accusations
– assume
– demand
– issue ultimatums
– use sarcasm
– indulge in button-pushing
– deliver threats (at least not empty ones)

– focus on what you do want, not what you don’t
– remain calm
– ask simply and clearly for what you want (don’t demand)
– state clearly and simply which of your partner’s behaviors and conditions (if any) are problems for you, without evaluation or commentary
– be specific
– encourage your partner to use equal time to say what they want, what they observe, and what they feel
– really listen
– try to put yourself in their shoes
– use all your senses, closely observing things like body language and tone of voice, as well as hearing words
– suspend judgment, remembering that actions and words don’t necessarily indicate intent, or belief. Does being gone a lot mean they don’t care? Ask!
– be willing to learn something
– be kind
– be willing to compromise

A good place to look for more information about successful dialogue techniques is with the Center for Nonviolent Communication, both their books and their website. But the best place to look for guidance regarding successful communication is in your own heart.

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