SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim explains three things men need to know at the beginning of a conversation so they won't get defensive or annoyed. Read Part 1 here.
I read your article last week on communication. My husband and I do pretty well, but we often get into a fight when I try to tell him about something that's bothering me. I try not to sound attacking, but he always seems to get defensive and then I wish I hadn't said anything. Should I just keep my frustrations in and deal with them myself or is there a way I can approach him that won't create conflict?
I don't recommend that you just keep your frustrations in and try to ignore them or sweep them under the rug. There are kind, honest, healthy ways to discuss what bothers you that won’t create conflict. Hopefully you got the worksheet on Validating Communication Formula from our website last week. It is a great place to start.
It might also help to learn some basics about men and communication. According to Dr. John Lund, author and psychologist, men are naturally defensive all the time, which means when you try to talk to your husband about something that's bothering you, his initial reaction will almost always be defensive. They are subconsciously programmed to defend, which makes sense because of their protector role. They also have fear around not being good enough, like we all do.
If you have something you want him to work on, you might want to start the conversation with something he does well or that you love about him. Or start by asking questions about how he feels about the situation. Listen to him and honor and respect his right to see the situation the way he does. This will ease his fear and make him feel validated.
It's always a good idea to start every conversation with some validation.
96 percent of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first 3 minutes! A harsh startup simply dooms you to failure. So if you begin a discussion that way, you might as well pull the plug, take a breather, and start over.
–John Gottman, author
Then, most men want to know three things about a conversation before it starts. If you will tell your husband these three things up front, both of you will be happier with the outcome.
John Gottman, a leading authority on relationships, wrote the book "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work" (New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1999). In it he writes about 650 couples that he studied for up to 14 years and how starting conversations right affected their relationships. He found that "96 percent of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes! A harsh startup simply dooms you to failure. So if you begin a discussion that way, you might as well pull the plug, take a breather, and start over."
Try these three things the next time you start a conversation with your husband and see if it doesn’t go much smoother.
1. Is this going to be painful?
Nobody likes to be blindsided by criticism. Think about what you want to tell your husband and mentally rate it on a scale from 1-10, 10 being something he would be very hurt by. Let's say you decide it's a 4. You could approach him by saying something like, "Honey, I would like to talk to you about something and I would say it's a 4 (so it’s not a big deal and won’t hurt). When would be a good time to do that?"
He then has the option to talk to you now or giving you a time later that would be better for him. Asking a permission question will lessen his defensiveness and make him feel respected. If it's not going to be very painful, most of the time he'll want to talk about it right now, but if you've given it a pretty high score, he might want time to prepare himself emotionally to hear what you have to say.
He might also have a lot on his mind or be in the middle of a project right now, so no matter what the score, it would be better for him to talk about it later. However, if he decides to talk later, tell him not to worry or second guess what it is about and start getting defensive before he even knows. Let him know there is nothing to worry about until then. Ask him for a time within the next 24 hours and make sure it happens.
2. How long is it going to take?
Men use a third fewer words than women, so they hit information overload long before a woman is done talking. This causes them to tune out and even feel trapped by a long conversation. Decide beforehand how much time you think you'll need (keep it short) and let him know. So again, you might start your conversation by saying, "Honey, I would like to talk to you about something and I would say it's a 4. It will take about 15 minutes. When would be a good time to do that?" It is very important for you to stay within the time limit you give him. He needs to trust that when you say 15 minutes, you don't really mean an hour. Give him a realistic time frame and stick to it. If you do this every time you talk, he will trust you more and he will feel more respected.
3. What do you want from me when this conversation is over?
Men are also natural problem solvers, and this shows up in most conversations. When a woman talks to a man about something that's bothering her, he automatically tries to solve the problem or fix the situation. He even feels responsible to do this. Most men get bothered when their wife isn’t happy because they feel subconsciously responsible for it. Usually women just want to be heard and understood and don’t expect anything.
Be careful not to expect your husband to be able to read your mind on this though, and you also must know what you want before starting the conversation. Some ideas of what you might want are solutions, feedback, his opinion or even just to listen. Make sure you clearly communicate what you want up front. When you ask for something, make sure you are focused on future behavior (that he has control over) and not just complaining about his past behavior (which he cannot fix or control).
If you put these tips together, your conversation might now start like this, "Honey, I would like to talk to you about something and I would say it's a 4. It will only take about 15 minutes and I just want you to listen to how I'm feeling and do one small specific thing differently moving forward. Is this a good time or when would be better?" When the time comes to have this conversation, follow the communication formula worksheet step by step.
It would be amazing to reduce your misunderstandings from 40 out of every 200 to only three out of every 200, and Lund says that making sure you start this way and say exactly what you mean (using content communication from last week) can do that. Start practicing this with easy conversations about a topic that doesn't have too much negative emotion around it. Work your way up to the touchy subjects. You may even want to practice with visualization first.
You can talk about anything if you come from trust and love instead of fear and it won't create conflict. It just takes practice.
You can do this!
Kimberly Giles is the founder and president of www.claritypointcoaching.com. Lisa Stirland is also a Claritypoint coach. You can get more information about John Lund and his communication tips at www.drlund.com.