Elaine was leafing through a pile of mail when she found it -- a second notice for their mortgage (it was her husband Mike's responsibility to pay the bills), with the word "late" stamped in bold red ink. She stomped to the family room where she found Mike's eyes glued to the television set, in anticipation of a big football play. Before he could say, "Can this wait?" Elaine had launched her attack.
You can just imagine how their "discussion" went.
Fifteen years of research at my Center for Emotional Communication has proven that how you introduce what is bothering you will determine whether your mate is responsive to you or not. Obviously, if your mate is defensive or tunes you out, you aren't going to get past the starting gate, let alone make it to the finish line (resolving your conflict). This week, I offer six pointers for presenting your issues so that your mate will want to listen and work toward achieving a resolution.
1. Stay Cool: The cooler you are when you discuss your complaint, the easier it will be for your partner to hang in there with you. So remember, take a chill pill before you begin.
2. Don't Bite Off More Than He Can Chew: When addressing what's bothering you, make sure to discuss one issue at a time. When that issue is resolved, you can move on to the next subject.
3. Beware of Fight Traps Creeping onto the Scene: Remember, Open and Secret Warfare Fight Traps heat the climate and move you miles away from resolution. Both of you need to be a Fight Trap tag team. If either of you sees a Fight Trap rearing its ugly head, point it out and encourage each other to bury the Trap right away.
4. Think Before You Speak: Before you say a word, ask yourself, "Will what I intend to say damage my partner?" If your answer is yes, then button it. Anything that damages your partner damages you in the end. From now on, vow to say only what you know will be constructive and lead you toward a resolution.
5. Fight for the Team: Remember, your goal is to arrive at a resolution of your issue, not a demolition of your mate.
6. Abort Discussions if the Temperature Starts to Rise: Since no productive discussion can occur when you both are fuming, postpone the conversation until the dust settles. At a calm time, ask your partner for input on how you can represent your issue without infuriating him or putting him on the defensive.
Now that you have these general points under your belt, you are ready to learn my formula for presenting your issues. I want to remind you that my conflict resolution program has been proven effective for over 90 percent of the couples who use it. A cornerstone of the program is the following formula. Memorize it and use it whenever you discuss any issue that is troubling you. Even though your issues will continue to change, the formula for presenting them should remain the same.
Next page: Learn the Formula
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Formula for Presenting Your Issues
Let's apply my formula to the following hypothetical scenario:
Beth rushed home with a bag of Chinese food and a video. Tonight was "date night," and her husband Bob had promised to come home early. At 8pm, he still hadn't arrived. Dinner was stone cold and Beth was boiling mad.
Here's what she needs to do:
Step One: Cool-Off Before Talking to Him
Remember that when you are hot under the collar, you are more likely to resort to Fight Traps that will send your partner psychologically -- if not literally -- packing. If you come at him with too much heat, he will either be deaf to your words or he will leave for real.
Step Two: Drain off Your Anger
Use whatever method works for you -- punch your pillow, scream in the shower, call a friend and bitch, fantasize about beating up your partner (knowing that you won't actually act on your thoughts).
Step Three: Dig Up Love
When you are boiling mad, it's hard to remember that you actually still love your mate. Recall the early days of your relationship or a special day that you shared recently. The feelings of love will temper your anger.
Step Four: Wait for the Right Time
Approaching your partner to discuss a complaint when he's busy with work, hobbies or chores is a formula for failure. Wait until your partner is available.
Step Five: Deliver Your Icebreaker
An opening statement -- what I call an "Icebreaker" -- alerts your mate that you have a problem to discuss. If you come at him in the heat of the moment, you will be labeled another type of breaker, if you get my drift. Instead, you want to break the ice and show that you respect him and care for his feelings. This will set the tone for a productive discussion. Here are some sample Icebreakers: "I have something important to talk over. Do you have a few minutes now?" Or, "I have a problem that I need your input on. Is now a good time?"
Step Six: State Your Problem
First, offer a Disclaimer, which is a sentence that lets your mate know that you aren't out to deprive him of vital bodily parts. The Disclaimer reassures him that you are on his side and puts him in a receptive frame of mind for the discussion that will follow. For example, you could say, "I know that you would never intentionally hurt me ..." or "I know how much my feelings matter to you ..."
Next page: What to do next.
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Next, state your problem in two parts. Describe what he said or did and how that made you feel. For example, "I feel brushed aside when you arrive late for our date." Conclude your problem statement with a Future Suggestion, such as: "... and it would mean so much if you would call when you can't arrive on time."
Now let's put it all together. "I know that you would never intentionally hurt me (Disclaimer), but I feel hurt when you forget our weekly date (Problem Statement). And it would mean so much to me if you would call when you're going to be late (Future Suggestion)."
Until you are very familiar with the above process, it's best for you to prepare yourself before you present your problem to your mate. During the preparation, you will cool down, dig up love and choose the words you will use to present your issue. I know this seems like a lot of work. Remember that all new skills require effort. But rest assured, in no time the above steps will become second nature, and you will be able to address and resolve your issues as they arise.
If your partner tends to be defensive, he could easily blow an emotional gasket when you tell him, however expertly, that he screwed up. If you don't protect his fragile ego, he will need to pad himself with defenses. If all his energy is spent on licking his own wounds, he won't be available to listen to you and to focus on resolving the issue.
In order to keep him focused, you must help protect his ego. You can accomplish this by using neutral phrasing and by avoiding the word "you." For example, instead of saying, "I feel hurt when you forget our dates," reword the sentence so that the word "you" isn't said at all. For example, "I feel hurt when our weekly date is missed."
After your issue is properly presented, your mate should be willing to focus on resolving the problem. In many cases, his listening and understanding will be all that's required. In other cases, you may need to enter into a full-scale negotiation. Negotiation skills are thoroughly outlined in my book, Til Death Do Us Part (Unless I Kill You First).
That brings us to the conclusion of my Stop Fighting in 30 Days Love Lesson. In closing, let me say that an unhappy marriage is hell on wheels, but a happy one is heaven on earth. I urge you to give your marriage a fighting chance. Put my complete conflict resolution program into practice and find the path to peace and marital harmony that you deserve.
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