In my last post I discussed the fact that many people in close long-term relationships may have difficulty opening up about difficult topics – those topics that are potentially controversial, vulnerable, scary, or hurtful. I left you with the idea that having empathy for your partner about the difficulty of discussing certain topics is key. Let’s look at this in more depth.

What frequently occurs in difficult conversations is that a particular topic may be hard for both parties, but for very different reasons. Therefore, both people are “suffering” (ie, feeling hurt, angry, sad, etc.) and likely wanting comfort from their partner. However, because their partner is also suffering simultaneously, they are unavailable for comfort or understanding. This typically leads to both people feeling alone, misunderstood, and hurt:

  • “She doesn’t understand me at all”
  • “He only cares about himself”
  • “Can’t she see the way that I am hurting?”
  • “Why would he act this way? He must not care about me.”

You get the idea! If you are in a long-term relationship you probably recognize this type of interaction and you know it does not head anywhere good.

The only way out of this type of messy conversation is to TAKE TURNS! It usually is the case that both people have valid and important things to say, but it is almost impossible for both of you to be heard and understood when you’re both explaining your side of the story at the same time.

So how exactly do you take turns when you are talking about something difficult and controversial? It is something that takes practice and a concerted effort on both parts, but here are the general basic steps:

  1. Both recognize that this is a joint effort and you are working together to understand each other
  2. One person will be the speaker, one the listener (you will trade later)
  3. The speaker begins by making a clear, brief statement outlining how he/she feels about something that has happened
  4. The listener’s job is only to listen except to repeat back his/her own understanding of what the speaker has said
  5. This continues until speaker feels listener understands speaker’s concerns
  6. Switch roles<

Keep in mind this is a brief outline of this communication style. It has the potential to open up communicate significantly and make it feel safer to discuss difficult topics. However, this method takes practice and if your relationship has been stuck in significant conflict for long periods of time, you likely will still need the assistance of a counselor to work through communication difficulties. If this is the case, or if you would like further assistance with this communication exercise or any other relationship issue, please contact us. Also please free to explore the services section of our site or click here to schedule an appointment.