Q: Why is it that when a couple is trying to communicate, the conversation can get lost when one spouse gets upset before the problem is resolved? The conversation then becomes about arguing and isn’t productive. How does one fix this?
Dr. Pepper Schwartz: It’s a great question. Not everyone says what they mean or means what they say — and it costs a lot of extra heartache. There is a style of communicating that you may want to look to for help. Perfected by the psychologist Harville Hendrix, it requires that, essentially, you slow down communication. One person holds a scarf or something that indicates he or she has “the floor” and it is his or her time to talk. While that person is holding the object, the other person cannot voice an opinion.
Here’s what a typical conversation might sound like:
The person with the floor: “I am unhappy about the way the house looks when I can’t keep up with the mess, and it upsets me that you don’t help me clean.”
The other person then interprets what the first person said and repeats it back to the person in his or her own words: “So, I heard you say the house is dirty and you want me to help pick up after you.”
That might not be what Person 1 wanted to get across. So he or she might say:
“No, what I said is that the house is messy, and I can’t keep it clean all by myself, so I need your help.”
Then, Person 1 passes the floor over to the other person.
Person 2 says: “ OK, now I get it. The house is getting away from you and you want me to help you clean it.”
Then, if Person 1 agrees with the response, he or she gets back the floor and says:
“Yes, that’s right. And I’d particularly like it if you made the beds in the morning while I make breakfast.”
You can see how it goes. You go back and forth — making sure you are understood until that point is handled. However, the other person may want to chime in occasionally. Repeat your point, but try to come to a compromise, such as designating a day where you both clean.
In any case, it’s a beginning. Slow down, make sure you understand each other, and offer concrete suggestions about how to move forward. It should help!