Maybe you’ve had this experience: a friend, relative or significant other makes a complaint about something you did, and all of a sudden you are in a no-holds-barred war of words. It is very common for simple complaints to turn into a win/lose power struggle. Many times when we get into these situations, the importance of being proven right supersedes all other considerations. In these circumstances, something that probably could have been resolved in five minutes becomes a four-hour emotional ordeal. Not only is this bad for our relationship, but it’s also bad for our health as there has been a noted correlation between constant arguing and high blood pressure.
Because such circumstances are very common, interpersonal communication strategies have been developed to diffuse these types of win/lose arguments. In particular, there are four distinct communication skills that can be used together to help transform a potentially devastating argument into an opportunity for empathy and growth within a relationship.
The first tactic is paraphrasing what the other person says to you. This not only allows for clarity of what the other person’s concerns are but also demonstrates that we are listening as opposed to just reacting or getting defensive. It is also helpful if we add our guess as to how the situation is making the other person feel. An example would be ‘It sounds like you’re upset because I forgot to take out the garbage.’
The next strategy is the validation of the other person’s feelings. We do not necessarily have to agree with the other person’s perception of things to communicate an understanding of their feelings. We can phrase our response in a manner that expresses an understanding of their emotions without saying they are right or wrong: ‘I can see why that would be frustrating to you.’
Following this, we would then want to express empathy. Just like validating someone else’s feelings, you can offer empathy to someone whether you agree that they should feel the way they do or not. Something as simple as saying ‘I’m sorry you are feeling frustrated’ can go a long way to reduce negative feelings and resolve conflicts.
Finally, going into problem-solving mode can help to settle the dispute. Stating ‘what could we do about this’ opens the door to brainstorm solutions that will hopefully be mutually gratifying. Because compromise is important to any relationship, it is helpful to make sure that you both agree with whatever decision arises to resolve the conflict. This can be a great opportunity to grow within your relationships.
Although these skills can be helpful to improve communication within relationships, many people still might feel that they are right and the other person is wrong. Although this is perfectly understandable, it is important to note that what might be right for you as an individual may not be right for your relationship with the other person. In that circumstance, we need the other person’s input. When in doubt you can always ask yourself: Is it more important for me to be right in this situation or to be happy in this relationship?
Communication skills are incorporated in the Interpersonal Effectiveness component of the DBT Skills group provided at Specialized Therapy Associates. Should you have any interest in enrolling in the DBT Skills group, please call 201-488-6678 for details.