Anger Management

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Communication Skills for Couples

Communication skills in intimate relationships require much more than the abilities to talk and listen. It necessitates holding the right attitudes. Without the right attitudes your emotions will be adversely affected, which in turn will cause you to develop an unconscious relationship with your partner. Unconscious relationships lead to confliction and loss of love. Communication skills for couples involve learning the necessary attitudes that allow you to have a more conscious (understanding) relationship with each other. Such skills enable you to be reattached and in love with each other again.

Giving and Receiving Deep Empathy–Much of the need for communication in intimate relationships is about complaint making. Giving your partner a complaint can make him or her feel defensive. This defensiveness can cause communication to break down. What needs to happen in complaint making is an exchange of ideas that results in giving and receiving empathy. In order for that to happen two things must occur: (1) The one making the complaint does it in a manner that is non-judgmental and without an intent to hurt the other. (2) The one listening does so without being defensive or reactive. The focus in communicating is for the listener to mirror back (say back) what was heard. Communicating back accurately what was heard creates empathy, and empathy is emotional oxygen for relationships.

Sending a Complaint–When you want to send a complaint to your partner, begin by asking if now is a good time to discuss a concern. If the present time is not a good time, then schedule one that is. Keep in mind that you want your partner to listen to you patiently. When you do begin to send your complaint talk about yourself in the problem as much as possible and avoid finger pointing at your partner. Talk first about what happens to you in the problem. For example, “I worry and feel alone in the evening when you come home late and don’t call me.” Framing the concern that way is non-judgmental, as opposed to saying it like this: “You make me angry when you are late and don’t call.” Saying it that way is accusatory and will make your partner defensive. Basically what you want to do is to describe without evaluating. And remember that asking questions is also judgmental and it is better not to ask questions. Simply tell what happened and how it made you feel.

No Laundry Lists–When you need to make a complaint deal with one problem only. Bringing up problems or complaints from other times will hurt communication and make your partner defensive.

Focus On Reporting Primary Feelings–When you make a complaint it is important to report the feelings you experienced due to the problem. In order to do this effectively you want to make sure that you are talking about your feelings and not what you think. For example, “I feel it’s inconsiderate of you not to call me when you are going to be late.” This is a thought and not a feeling (and it is a judgmental comment as well). Reporting your feelings goes more like this: “When you are late and don’t call me I feel worried and worthless .” Additionally you should not talk about anger. There are many words for anger, including: annoyed, disappointed, displeased, frustrated, disgusted, irritated, peeved, angry, mad, steamed, pissed, furious, etc. Anger is a secondary emotion, meaning it is always preceded by some other emotion. The emotions that come before anger are called primary emotions. One of the biggest problems in marriages concerning communication is the expression of anger rather than reporting the primary emotion. Reporting anger to your partner will cause him or her to be defensive and reactive. Reporting your primary emotion will assist your partner in developing empathy for you. So when you communicate your feelings talk about the primary emotion and not the anger. These are typical primary feeling words: sad, afraid, lonely, rejected, worthless, abandoned, shamed, humiliated, ignored, embarrassed, uncared about, disrespected, devalued, unloved, unappreciated, hurt, etc. Avoid using “upset,” because it is vague and often communicates anger.

Take Ownership for Your Feelings–The best way to take ownership of your feelings is to use an “I message.” The opposite of an I message is a “you message,” for example, “You make me worry when you are late and don’t call.” You messages are accusatory (judgmental) and are like finger pointing. Instead, use an I message, for example, “When you are late and don’t call I feel worried.” To clarify, it is okay to use the word “you” when referring to the process, i.e. “When you are late and don’t call...” I messages focus on the outcome, i.e. “When that happens I feel worried.” Saying, “You made me worry,” is a you message, and “I worry when that happens.” is an I message. I messages take ownership for the feeling and you messages assign blame. You messages cause a breakdown in communication.

Communicate That You Are Not Looking for a Solution–Make it your goal simply to be heard. For example, “I”m not looking for you to fix this; I just want you to hear what I have to say.” Insisting on a solution can cause your partner to become defensive. Allow your partner time to live with your message. If you communicated in a non-judgmental and non-hurtful way, your partner will be more inclined to accommodate making changes in behavior. Allow your partner to internalize your message. This may take more than a few days. Be patient.

Tell What You Need for Things To Be Fixed–For example, “I need an apology.” “I need you not to do that next time.” Make your request reasonable and do this without being critical or disrespectful. And most importantly do not do it in a demanding way. Saying what you need does not imply that you required it to happen. It is an expression of what you would like. Again, remember you just want to be heard.

Listen without Being Defensive–When you are receiving a complaint make it your goal to communicate deep empathy to your partner. In order to do this you need to listen carefully so you can accurately say back what you heard. You can do this in your own words or verbatim. For example, “What I heard you say is that when I am late and don’t phone you, you feel worried and uncared about. Is that accurate?”  If your partner answers, “yes,” then ask, “Is there more about this?” As you listen keep in mind that this is not about proving who is right and who is wrong. You want to stay focused on the single idea of being able to communicate back to your partner that you truly heard what was said. This means give up thinking about how you want to defend your point of view while listening to your partner. Keep in mind that to the extent that your partner experiences you as understanding his or her concern, the bond of attachment between the two of you will be enhanced.

Do Not Interrupt–Listening and mirroring back what you heard is the rule you should follow. This involves listening without interrupting. It does not mean you agree with or approve of what you are hearing. It is your willingness to let your partner speak and for you to listen.

Don’t Add to the Message–When you mirror back what your partner said, do not add to the message or ask questions about it. Adding thoughts to what your partner reported or asking questions can take away from you demonstrating that you are genuinely interested in understanding your partner. Empathy will can suffer if you do this.

View Complaint Making as Constructive–Communication skills have more to do with your attitude than with your words. Do not view complaint making negatively; see it as something that is constructive.

Pay Attention to Non-verbal Behaviors–Both, when you are making a complaint and when you are listening, give attention to what you are doing with your non-verbal behavior. Non-verbal behavior includes facial expressions, body posture, and voice volume and tone. Rolling your eyes, making a “ta” sound, arms folded, frowning, smirking, and other forms of negative non-verbal expression should not be used. Additionally, it is important to maintain good eye contact with you partner while you talking, especially when you are listening.

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