22-point guide to understanding communication and negotiating for change

It can feel frightening to be in a relationship in which you don’t know what is going on — where hidden meanings and motives, contradictions, inconsistencies and sheer irrelevance are apt to crop up at any time. The captain of a ship who is navigating an unknown channel at night, certain that there are jagged reefs but having no idea where they lie, is in much the same fix.

The following simple guidelines for sound communication make sense whether you’re dealing with your partner, parents, children or friends.

  1. First, learn to LISTEN: Risk setting aside your point of view to understand and empathize (not agree or disagree) with another person’s perspective.
  2. Speak using the “I” POSITION: “I” statements deepen your understanding of yourself, take responsibility for your own attitudes, feelings and perceptions, and avoid assumptions regarding your partner’s motives or beliefs.
  3. ACTIONS speak louder than words: Your nonverbal communication is more powerful than what you say; when they contradict each other, it’s confusing. Expect that your actions will be attended to more than your words, so pay attention to your behavior.
  4. Be RELEVANT as well as congruent: Define in your own mind what is important and illustrate it by examples. Define what is unimportant and ignore it.
  5. Accentuate the POSITIVE: Without being phony or unrealistic, try to find the positive aspects in the situation or person (invariably there are some) and give it recognition in your message–that is, something which shows regard for his/her worth.
  6. Be CLEAR and SPECIFIC: Avoid vague terms and unclear expressions which so often create confusion and resentment — and request that your partner clarify as well.
  7. Be REASONABLE and REALISTIC in your statements: Avoid the amplification, coloration and exaggeration which can be legitimate and effective when relating a story or event but which can become habit-forming — and when it sneaks into a serious discussion it can cause havoc. Learn to listen to yourself as well as your partner.
  8. TEST all your assumptions verbally: No matter how “obvious” it might be to you or how “certain” you are about your partner’s views on the topic, if the conversation is important, check it out explicitly. Listen for intent, not just the words (the music beneath the words).
  9. Each event can be seen from quite different points of view: Realize that different viewpoints don’t have to lead to arguments. If you allow yourself not to get up-tight about them, they can lead to enlightening discussions.
  10. RECOGNIZE that your partner may be an expert on you and your behavior: You’re very important to him/her, a subject of endless observation and study, so listen to and consider what they have to say — each mood/gesture/tone might tell them something about your state that you haven’t yet realized/admitted to yourself.
  11. Learn how to disagree without destructive arguments or trying to win: Monitor and reduce the irritated/angry/complaining tones of voice that can turn a discussion into an argument –this can be easier if you form the habit of viewing your partner and his/her feelings/desires/self-concept goals with empathy and even if (or especially when) you do not agree with him or her.
  12. Learn to bring up significant issues even if you fear that it will cause an upset: The kind of “upset” that comes from the hypocrisy and repressed resentments of a phony truce is often worse.
  13. Choose an appropriate time and place to be open and honest about your feelings and needs. Don’t choose public places where embarrassment is probable.
  14. Use TACT and TIMING: Don’t bring up important issues where there is neither time nor energy to resolve them. Request a time that will work for both of you and stick to it..
  15. Don’t use unfair or dirty tactics: Don’t go for the jugular (the “Achilles heel”) just for the joy of hurting — it can boomerang! In any case, DON’T:
    • Use the atom bomb: scream, explode or intimidate as a tactic;
      Pretend that your partner has made an unreasonable statement or request;
    • Mind-read or “psychoanalyze” your partner or jump to conclusions;
    • Switch the subject by using counter accusations or diversions;
    • Bring up more than one issue or complaint at a time;
    • Use the self-pitying “numbers game” (“Just look how
      often I’ve…”);
    • Use impersonal logic to hide from emotional reality;
    • Interrupt;
    • Blame your partner for something he/she can’t help or do anything about;
    • Use humiliation: insults, rubbing-in old faults, comparing unfavorably;
    • Use “crazy-making” tactics — e.g., trying to make partner doubt his/her senses, denying the obvious, being inconsistent or deliberately obtuse;
    • Use sarcasm or ridicule;
    • Use the “cold shoulder” treatment — silence, pouting, ignoring, etc.
  16. Accept all feelings and try to understand them: You needn’t accept upsetting actions but you should try to understand them.
  17. Be tactful, considerate and caring: Show respect for your partner and his or her feelings through your language and behavior.
  18. Don’t preach or lecture: Ask questions instead — but make them honest (not prejudging or sarcastic) and be sure, first, that you want an honest answer.
  19. Don’t use or fall for “excuses”: Face-the-music — don’t use statements that pretend to be explanations but really hide/disguise the real reasons. Don’t play games or try to manipulate.
  20. Don’t nag, yell or whine: Like water on a rock, they can erode the best relationship.
  21. Learn when to use humor and when to be serious: No destructive teasing.
  22. And, finally, continuously go back to Step #1 until you consistently respond to others by first listening and seeking to understand.

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