Communication Rules (Revisited)

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Communication Rules (Revisited)



(1) You statements. Make “you” statements when you feel like nothing else will do, but know that you are doing it, so that you won’t be surprised by the effect… namely your partner getting defensive.

Know how to make I statements so that you will be able to make them effectively when you want.

Recognize you statements as clues to hidden I statements.


(2) Always or Never. “Always” and “never” are likely to slip out of your mouth even when you are trying mightily to suppress them.  You are likely to feel even further frustration since it will be easy for your partner to point out an exception.  Always and never are stand in words for important feelings and are clues to those feelings.


(3) Don’t Interrupt.  Interrupt your partner if that is what you want to do, but know the danger exists that your partner may become angry or dispirited and can’t listen.  Refrain from interrupting your partner if that is what you want to do, but know the danger exists that you may become an angry or dispirited person who can’t listen.  Strive to become more effective in interrupting: find ways to express your objections without completely cutting off your partner.


(4) Paraphrase what your partner just said.  The problem here is that people often don’t feel like paraphrasing, acknowledging their partner’s feelings, when they feel like their partners aren’t acknowledging theirs.  On the other hand, the insight about paraphrasing is that we often slip into not listening to the other, the adversarial mode, and to repeat back what your partner just said can stop this unhelpful stance.

Appreciate how important listening to your partner is, how quickly problems arise when you don’t, and how easy it is to think you are listening when you aren’t.  Realize you aren’t listening because you feel unheard yourself. 

 Realizing that your partner feels unheard, and that’s why she or he isn’t listening to you, will make you automatically try and listen and, trying to prove to your partner that you are listening.  You will learn your own unstilted version of paraphrasing.


(5) Don’t mind read.  It’s true that we don’t like others making guesses about our feelings and intentions.  Mind reading is jumping to conclusions about the others behavior and is a clear communication error…. but also a clue.  It is most often a worry or concern stated in terms of an assertion. 

Realize that mind reading may be an incomplete statement.  Recognize that mind reading is an expression of worries or fears stated too strongly.


(6) Stick to one topic.   Multiple issues on the table often leave us feeling hopeless about a seemingly unmanageable situation.  But there are good reasons as to why we don’t stick to one topic: the main one being that sticking to one topic can place us at a disadvantage.  We switch topics when we feel we are losing ground on the current one, and jockey for better position.

Know that shifting topics will frustrate your partner and make it even less likely you will be heard.

Know that you are doing this to either  (a) put yourself in a better position, (b) move away from a point your partner made you fear may be valid, (c) to amass further evidence to convince your partner you are right.

Try to remember that all efforts to convince your partner are essentially futile.  In an argument the point is to refute what the other says.


(7) Don’t dig up old grievances.  Grudges are difficult to deal with because they are about sensitive and unresolved issues from the past.

What we need to recognize is that grievances about the past are often about the present.  We bring up the past because we are having some difficulty justifying complaints we have in the present.

Know that bringing up the past is likely to offend your partner and make him or her less likely to listen.  Realize that you are defaulting to a past grudge because you are seeking a dramatized version or clearer form of an important concern now.


(8) Don’t get sidetracked arguing about irrelevant details.  We sometimes get bogged down in irrelevant details that make us seem ridiculous and child like to ourselves (and to others), stubbornly holding on to irrelevant details that have nothing to do with the main point. We hold on because as things exist between two people in the moment, any and every detail is a place to make a stand against what each sees as the other’s unreasonable, unyielding, know-it-all, or self-righteous behavior.  It is also a chance to give some expression to the general displeasure that each person feels towards the other.

When you and your partner get bogged down discussing irrelevant details, realize that the argument is no longer about issues (if it ever was), but is about your general frustrations with each other, and that whatever sense of good will that may have existed between you has for the moment disappeared.


(9) Don’t label or name-call.  When we name-call we are momentarily feeling so frustrated, hurt, or un-listened-to that we are willing to resort to almost anything, even to words that a moment’s reflection would tell you will get you exactly the opposite of what you want.  Know at those times you may not care to reflect, and may not care whether your partner becomes angrier and less likely to listen.  Recognize that name-calling is a clue that the intensity of your feelings has exceeded your ability to think through, sort out, and talk about those feelings.

Our ability to sort out and think through our feelings is imperative even in calm moments.  Recognize that quiet name calming; sub-vocalizing those words instead of yelling also demands an ownership of your feelings that have been disturbed.


(10) Don’t dump stored-up complaints.   We are taught to be polite, respectful, and tactful.  Being these things requires suppression of complaints, which sometimes works if the feelings seem to quickly disappear.  If feelings persist, suppression means that complaints are being stored.  Storing leads to dumping.

Expect that you and your partner will dump out stored complaints.  The suppression of complaints is too automatic a process to eliminate entirely.  Appreciate that dumping serves a purpose.  If things were not dumped they may not ever get out at all and be talked about.  This is a far more dangerous practice.



Prefacing Rule.  Prefacing is what goes on before a fight.  There are words we can use when we have a vague sense that what we are about to bring up is not going to go over very well.  Anything we might say to give our listener the idea that we are having difficulty making the complaint, that we are worried the complaint might be provocative, or that we are partly unjustified in having the complaint, or that the complaint is perhaps exaggerated because it has been held in will make it easier to be heard since it is a bid for empathy.




Recovery Rule

Expect yourself to make all the classic errors of communication but devote yourself to recovering from them.  You do this by becoming familiar with how each person makes their errors and the effect these errors have, so that after anger has subsided you can sit down and figure out what happened.



Don Crowe, PhD


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