Do you ever walk away from an argument and feel completely baffled or so angry you can’t think straight? This is a likely sign you were in an argument with extremely poor communication. Here are 8 tips to change your relationships for the better.
As mentioned in the previous blog Clear Communication (Effective Communication Part 2), it’s important to do your best to be clear in communication. Clear communication is important, and you need to be in a centered and self-regulated place to achieve that, as mentioned in Part 1- Active Listening and Mindfully Engaging. However, people often get flooded with emotions and just start to react to what others are saying, which can result in escalating what could have been a discussion into a downright brawl.
Here’s a few things of what NOT to say or do during communication:
“Calm down” or “Relax”
This has typically NEVER been a good thing to say to anyone who is getting flooded and in a dysregulated state. Ask yourself, how does it make you feel when someone says this to you (as I’m sure we all have at some point)? I know when I have heard this, typically I have felt unheard, like my point isn’t valid, or misunderstood.
If you find that you’re at a place in a conversation that would be a point where you might say “calm down” to someone, that is a perfect time to slow down, and take that break/time out so everyone can re-regulate and get back to normal (i.e. get back to calm!). *Revisit Effective Communication part 1 for more on taking breaks appropriately, and further down in this article*.
Any form of gaslighting
Even if it’s accidental or maybe feels like the truth to you, it still is a form of communication that ends up making the other person not feel heard or starts raising the defenses. If you notice yourself gaslighting intentionally to get out of something, then we recommend you work on that in individual therapy to process that. This behavior can cause a lot of harm in relationships and can be seen as an abusive tactic.
Here are some small examples of gaslighting that maybe everyone has said at some point in their lifetime: “That’s not what I said”, “You don’t remember things correctly”. At a minimum, communication breaks down and becomes a “he said, she said” type of situation, which isn’t helpful.
Work to understand and acknowledge the other person’s *feelings* about what they are telling you. Listen closely to what they are saying and work to identify the softer, more vulnerable feelings they might be trying to articulate. This works to help diffuse an argument because the other person will likely feel more seen and understood in that moment.
Bringing up old fights in an argument
Even if it feels the same (you’ve had this argument before about something similar) now is probably not the time to dig into all those other times. If issues keep being repeated in different ways then it’s important to start a conversation about that repetitive behavior independently of whatever happened now. It’s important to make space for that issue separately, OR to attempt to address that in a calm way (again, clear communication is key). Example of this might be you’ve expressed to your partner frustrations about their cleanliness, and you see that the dishes still aren’t done.
It would be best to address the dishes in that moment and you can attempt to broach the larger topic, or check-in for a good time to discuss that:
“I feel a bit annoyed that you left your dish on the counter, so it would be nice if you could take care of it. This does feel related to similar issues we’ve talked about before. We could talk about how to make sure we are working on cleanliness together now or would you feel more comfortable if we tried to discuss that later tonight (or a time with little to no distractions where you both/all have enough time to attempt to cover this larger topic)?”
This gives the other person time to consider how to approach the discussion, time to regulate their emotions, and gives them some control and self-determination in the discussion and when it starts.
Throwing things or physical violence to “get your point across” or show your upset.
At the end of the day, this would be considered a form of physical violence. It doesn’t matter that an object was thrown and didn’t harm anyone, because fear was still likely inflicted. If anyone was doing this in my couples work, I would insist that this behavior stop, and if it doesn’t seem easily accomplished, then individual therapy will be required in order to effectively continue couples therapy (or any other type of relational therapy).
This is a behavior that verges on the cusp of greater physical violence and will not be tolerated and is contraindicated for successful relational work. If you don’t have safety, security, and consistent behavior, then we cannot effectively build to repair or improve a relationship.
If you find yourself tempted to throw anything, or feeling out of control then you need to engage in more robust emotional regulation or seek therapy (CBT, Anger Management, and others). This behavior needs to stop before it even starts, but if it has started then you need to hold yourself accountable to not further harm those you love.
If you’re with a partner who is engaging in this behavior, then you need to seek safety. Don’t isolate yourself or be isolated by them – tell those you can trust about what’s going on so you’re not alone in trying to stay with this person, or so you can more easily plan an exit strategy.
Raising your voice and insults/name calling
This is similar to the example above – name calling and insults is not a way to gain trust or repair a relationship. When you are attacking the other person’s character, you are not only harming them, but yourself and the relationship.
Here’s an example “You’re never going to change because this is how you want to be, you’re so lazy for not even trying to be better!”
This could convey the following to the listener:
- You believe they truly can’t change, so why should they bother?
- You are pigeonholing them into a labeled behavior, and potentially convincing yourself that they can’t or won’t even try to make a positive change.
- At a certain point, you start to believe this is true, so what’s the point in seeing them as capable of doing anything different?
Simply put, don’t do it. Raising your voice and name calling is unhelpful. In fact, speaking like this to another person is unhealthy, and can cause so much damage that you’re no longer focused on the original issue. Once this occurs, you’ve now been sidetracked from the original point to the point that now you must also heal from this new injury.
Stonewalling is something that was coined by Dr. John Gottman when describing common problems that couples have when their relationship was worse. This is an aptly named behavior as the person engaging in it acts like a stone wall – they shut down (physically, emotionally, verbally), they give the silent treatment and refuse to engage. Sometimes this is used to punish the other, but more often it’s an extreme form of self-protection.
The person who engages in stonewalling may have found that this form of behavior will result in a better outcome. They don’t react due to an emotional trigger and may highly value being calm or logical instead of saying something hurtful. Potentially their hope may be that the other person will stop arguing and drop the issue, so they won’t have to deal with their partner’s volatile emotional response. Ultimately, this option feels safer to them.
Both people need to engage differently in these interactions. The stonewalling partner, who has chosen to retreat from the disagreement, needs to work on being able to communicate what’s going on with them in order to communicate more effectively in an argument.
The partner who is being shut out, to give the stonewaller the space and short time that’s needed for their partner so they can regulate behind their wall. This also helps create space for the non-stonewalling partner to work on responses that don’t further reinforce the wall. If you yell at someone who is trying to protect themselves, why would they want to come out from their safe space?
Taking space provocatively, instead of proactively
Simply put – storming off mid argument, or right after an explosive comment (mic drop). This is highly toxic and can create a lot of damage to your partner’s emotional and mental security, as well as create or worsen an attachment injury.
Taking space proactively goes back to slowing down, taking a moment to communicate where you are mentally and emotionally at that time. For example, saying something like, “I’m feeling upset right now and need a break before I say something I regret”, and putting a time limit on it. You can start small with a 20 minute break to self-soothe, to remember your partner is your teammate and they probably didn’t mean to hurt you. If you try 20 minutes and you’re finding yourself still dysregulated and ready to fight, then still go back to your partner and say you need another 20 minutes, or an hour!
It’s vital to put time limits, to stick to your word, and to continue to return even if you’re not fully ready. That way, if your partner has an anxious attachment style, they can hold onto and at least trust in those actions (you returning at the time you stated) in the moment you’re apart.
The bottom line
You’ll notice that most of these fixes address the person engaging in this behavior and taking accountability for your own actions. You can’t make your partner do or say anything you want, so we all need to work at improving ourselves first.
If you’re on the receiving end of these behaviors, and it’s a pattern you notice, then I encourage you to seek your own help and work on keeping yourself safe.
We at Holistic Couple & Family Therapy are here to help, with individual, relational, and family therapy. Seeking therapy is not a sign of weakness, but rather it’s working to strengthen different muscles in your body, mind, and nervous system to help improve your life.