Assertive communication and reflective listening are essential to healthy relationships. Often, when we do not use these skills with our loved ones, we end up having the same disagreement over and over, never feeling truly understood and never finding a resolution that works for both partners.
The objective of this communication technique is to get comfortable talking about and listening for emotions when you discuss difficult subjects. Ultimately, both partners should feel able to discuss their vulnerable, underlying emotions and trust that how they feel is important to the other partner (this is a product of effective empathy). Your goal is to understand how your partner is feeling, not why s/he is feeling that way. Remember, feelings are not logical, so it is useless to try to make rational sense of them.
Though this technique might feel forced and silly at first, it will become more natural once you get the hang of it. Practice these skills at home when disagreements arise, and see if you don’t find a new level of understanding with your partner.
Ground Rules for Healthy Communication:
- No hitting below the belt. That means no name-calling, yelling, insults, and especially no physical abuse.
- Allow both partners to come prepared to the conversation. If one person wishes to discuss something, s/he should come to the other and ask to set a time and place for discussion, so that both partners have time to consider how they feel, what they’d like to say, and nobody feels blindsided by an expectation that they engage in a conversation without being able to prepare.
- Focus on one partner’s feelings at a time. Whoever takes the role of “speaker” gets everyone’s full attention. As the listener, set your own feelings aside temporarily and just concentrate on your partner.
- Participate with the goal of understanding, not being understood.
Step 1: Assign roles. You will take turns as the speaker and the listener. The simplest way to decide who speaks first is to ask yourselves, “who owns the problem?” The person who is feeling upset about something should take the first turn as the speaker, while the other listens first. Then you’ll swap roles so that both of you have a chance to express your feelings.
Step 2: Speaker — Focus on Feelings! The point of this exercise is to help each partner feel truly understood by the other. In order for your partner to understand your experience, you’ll have to talk specifically about your feelings. When you’re speaking, remember to:
- Use “I” statements – focus on your own experience, not what you believe about your partner’s behaviors, thoughts, or feelings.
- Avoid using “you” – it tends to make the listener defensive. It’s difficult, but there’s usually a way to avoid it.
- Keep your message short – no more than two sentences at a time. Any more than that is hard for the other person to take in and reflect.
Focus on three components of your message:
- Emotion: I felt [insert feeling word here]… (e.g., “I felt disappointed…”). Note: that third word MUST be a vulnerable feeling — not an angry one. Be careful not to start with “I feel like…” or “I feel that…” — these will lead you to beliefs, judgments, etc., rather than talking about your emotional experience.
- Event: …when [what happened, from your perspective]… (e.g., “when I had to clean the kitchen every night this week…”)
- Effect: …and that resulted in [what’s going on for you right now, or how has this experience impacted the broader relationship dynamic]. (e.g., “…and that has led to some resentment about the way we divide responsibilities.”)
Step 3: Listener — Reflect with Empathy! After your partner has said her/his message, it’s your turn to show that you understand by repeating it back in your own words. Make sure that you capture all three pieces! When you’re reflecting, remember to:
- Avoid discussing your own emotions and perspective. Instead, focus on your partner’s feelings and experiences right now. Don’t worry, you’re going to have a chance to speak next.
- Use the word “you” to reflect what you’re hearing from your partner.
- Don’t apologize or explain. Apologies come later, and explaining moves the focus from your partner to yourself.
- Listen actively – use open body posture, eye contact, non-verbals that show you’re paying attention.
- Be empathic – show your partner that you truly understand her/his unique and personal experience — this is different from sympathy, which is imagining how you would feel in their shoes.
Focus on three components of your reflection:
- Emotion: I hear/understand that you felt [feeling word]… (e.g., I understand that you felt disappointed…”)
- Event: …when [what happened, from your partner’s perspective]… (e.g., “…when you didn’t get any help with cleaning the kitchen this week…”)
- Effect: …and that resulted in [what’s going on for your partner right now]. (e.g., “…and that has left you feeling some resentment about the way we divide responsibilities”)
Step 4: Speaker – Provide Feedback, continue if necessary. After your partner has reflected your message, it’s your job to say, “yes, I felt understood,” or “no, you didn’t quite get all of what I was saying.” Clarify if necessary, or continue if there’s more to what you need to say.
Example: “I think you got most of what I’m trying to say, but there’s one more thing I want to emphasize… I felt [start again with Step 2]…”
Example: Well, you’re on the right track. I also felt [start again with Step 2]…”
Step 5: Swap Roles. Once the speaker has said everything that s/he needs to say about the specific incident or phenomenon that you’re discussing, you should swap roles. This gives the listener a chance to discuss her/his experience of the situation, so that both perspectives can be understood by both partners. You may want to trade back and forth several times until you’ve said everything that needs to be said about a given situation. You’re not done until both people feel confident that they’re understood.
Remember, you are working to understand that your partner feels a certain way, not WHY s/he feels that way. If the conversation heads toward asking each other to justify feelings, you’ll have a hard time reaching a resolution. Feelings are tricky, not logical, and often hard to explain. Just be empathic and open with each other, and the rest will fall in line. Once you’ve achieved understanding, you’re ready to move on to Problem Solving.