This past week, I gained an insight into some communication skills that should be standard fare for all couples. For many years, I have been teaching some very basic principles on communication, but this past week I learned a little more and thought it was time to put it together into the following guidelines.
1. Follow the Rules
Bad communication habits come from everywhere—TV, dysfunctional homes, coping strategies—but that’s no excuse for failing to follow the simple rules of communication.
Rule 1: “I” to speak, “You” to listen.
During the heat of the moment in an argument, we want to say this sentence in slightly different fashion. We want to say:
“I’m talking here! You need to listen!”
However, that’s not what this rule is all about. I simply phrased it that way so it would be easy to remember. This rule actually means that when conversations are difficult and communication skills are weak, it’s even more important to identify who is the “speaker” and who is the “listener.” Then, once we know who is doing what, the speaker has the responsibility to use “I” language and the listener has the responsibility to focus on “you” rather than himself or herself.
- The speaker: “I felt unloved when you said Nichole Kidman was hot.”
- The listener: “You felt unloved when I said that?”
Rule 2: Shift speakers only after understanding.
Similar to Stephen Covey’s “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” this rule declares that the role of speaker and listener is not to be changed until the current speaker feels completely understood.
- The listener: “Did I understand you? Is there anything more?”
- The speaker: “Yeah, I think you got it all. What do you think?”
- The new speaker: “Well, I only meant…”
Rule 3: Specific Timeouts are Unlimited
The basic point of this rule is that either person in the conversation is allowed to declare a timeout at any point in the conversation for any reason so long as the timeout is defined specifically.
- “I’m starting to get mad, and I need to take a timeout for 5 minutes to collect myself.”
Rule 4: Violators lose. Winners dance!
This final rule is focused mostly on the elimination of all hurtful, derogatory, or attacking comments. If one person in the conversation resorts to an accusing word, “You’re such a ——!” or if one of the earlier rules is broken, the guilty person loses immediately.
This doesn’t automatically declare the other person to be right or that the other person’s will should be followed. It just means the other person has the right to declare victory. Additionally, the victory declaration should be loud, ostentatious, and filled with dancing!
The point of this rule is twofold. First, it is our natural human emotion that when we are attacked or when someone breaks a rule, we want to retaliate. Our sense of justice makes us feel as if we need to fight back and win for the cause of righteousness. However, this rule eliminates the need to retaliate, because victory can simply be declared. “I win!”
Secondly, this rule works to defuse the heat of the battle by encouraging silly victory dances. In the ostentatious declaration of victory, the tone of the moment can quickly turn to humor.
2. Build skills with “objective” topics.
The rules above are good for correcting negative communication patterns, but they cannot be learned or applied when the topic of conversation is emotionally heated. Therefore, I encourage couples to begin building these communication skills with “objective” topics.
Frankly, one of the most objective topics to discuss is money. I’m constantly amazed at how poor communication skills often dovetail with differing opinions on money when conversations of money should be the most objective conversations a couple can have.
The problem of course, is that too many people talk about money in terms of opinions and feelings rather than facts. The simple truth is that money comes in as hard numbers (even if the income fluctuates month to month, it’s still a single specific number), and it goes out as hard numbers.
Therefore, the simple objective topic is this: Given that we make [a certain amount], how should we split up our money this month, and how will we keep ourselves accountable? Working on a cash only system is a great way to keep money completely objective!
Another difficult topic is the topic of raising children, but there are a number of objective facts about child-rearing that even the most strained relationship can handle. Here are a few examples:
- When is bedtime?
- What is our bedtime routine?
- What are the family rules?
- What are the consequences for breaking the rules?
There are shades of subjectivity in these questions too, but by keeping the conversation objective as much as possible, skills will be developed to handle the more subjective stuff when appropriate. This is a segue to the next tip.
3. Objectivize the Subjective
Early on in communication skills development, it’s easy for conversations to slip into the realm of feelings and accusations when the skills aren’t there to rescue the conversation or take it where it needs to go. Therefore, it’s important to find ways to bring objectivity to what is ordinarily a subjective topic.
rate your day
For example, take the age old question “How was your day?” I have found great success in encouraging couples to objectivize that question this way:
- On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your day? Why?
- On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate yourself today? Why?
The scale means nothing by itself, but it gives a sense of objectivity to a question that is inherently subjective and opens the doors to communication more easily.
rate your opinions
During moments of subjective conversations and the airing of opinions, it’s quite easy for couples to find themselves on opposite sides of the fence, so to speak. One person says, “Our kids need to have greater discipline.” The other person says, “I think kids need to be given more freedom to be themselves.” Conversations like this easily devolve into accusations of being harsh or being lazy, because with the opinions stated, it seems to be an impasse. However, one simple question can bring some objectivity.
- From 1-10, how strongly do you feel about your position?
appeal to a shared authority
If there remains an impasse after talking through the ratings, the next step is actually not about communication as much as it is understanding the limits of your communication. Sometimes impasses will arise and the only way to deal with it is to appeal to a higher authority. That might mean reading the Bible, but it doesn’t have to. It could also mean appealing to a textbook, a wise counselor, or even for one person in the relationship to defer to the other simply because the other has more experience.
The communication skill regarding this is simply the ability to talk about that shared authority and objectively discuss what that shared authority says about the topic.
Which brings me to my final tip…
4. Talk about God
This last tip follows from the previous one in that God is the ultimate objective reality. Of course, many people subjectivize God and talk about him as if he is something they have created for themselves, but the truth is that God is God is God is God, and only God is God, so he is the only one with any right to tell us about himself. Therefore, our awareness of God is fully objective and written down for us right there in the Bible.
I especially encourage struggling couples to find something in the Bible each day to read and talk about before praying together to end their day.
Communication is a difficult skill to develop mostly because we speak from our hearts far more often than from our heads.
The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks. — Luke 6:45
However, by following these four tips (including the four rules above) we can stay level-headed as we develop the skills needed to discuss even the more difficult topics of conversation.
Just remember that even the simplest topic of conversation is always personal to the person who is sharing.