How many times have you gone to your partner to discuss something that is on your mind, only to be met with defensiveness? Or have you ever been advised by your therapist to open up to your loved one, but when you did, it just seemed to make everything worse? Have you given up trying to have certain conversations at all because you’d rather avoid confrontation or the chance of things escalating to a total showdown?
Healthy communication is an art in itself, and taking responsibility for our part in it is always the best starting point. Here are nine tips to help us communicate effectively with our partners so that they can best receive what we’re trying to express (without them getting defensive!):
1. Ease in Gently
When approaching a conversation with your partner, always ease in with some gentleness. This is so important if you want to really be heard: if you go in ready for a fight, they will immediately sense that energy and either shut it down or get into their defensive position. If you are feeling particularly enraged or angry with them, take a moment to breathe and process it yourself before you enter the conversation.
2. Choose Your Moment
What you say is important, but when you choose to say it is key. We all know how differently we react to situations when we are tired, stressed, or overwhelmed. (I actually cried the other day when I was told Starbucks had run out of soy milk. I was VERY tired, hence the slightly irrational response.) So, when your partner has had an absolutely awful day at work, is caught in the middle of a family feud, or has come home totally wrecked, then you can probably bet it’s not the best time to bring up how frustrated you are with something they did three days ago. If they are just feeling totally off in themselves, then they are much more likely to react defensively to anything that you come to them with. They will simply not have the same level of energy, patience, or compassion that they would normally. Give yourself the best chance to be heard by choosing a moment where they have the most capacity to respond in a healthy way.
3. Make It About You
Simply switching your language to make it about the way you feel in response to their actions, rather than what they have done, will help to remove their instinct to defend themselves. Instead of saying, “You never make me feel valued,” try saying, “I really struggle to feel valued in the relationship when you don’t show your appreciation.”
4. Ask for What You Need
Sometimes we go to our partners, tell them how pissed off we are with something they did, and then expect them to know exactly how to make it right. Then a month later we find ourselves having the exact same conversation with them. That’s because no one can read our mind or know what we need (not even the people closest to us!). If you need something, ask for it, because you deserve it. So, rather than just telling them what they’re not doing or not providing you with, tell them clearly what you need from them going forward. Doing this will help them to see what the solution is, which will also prevent them from feeling attacked with no way out. If you say, “I really need you to say thank you more often and express more gratitude when I do little things,” then they have a chance to take action in an effective way.
5. Work Together
Ask your partner how you can work together to address something. See the two of you as being united against the issue you want to discuss. Rather than saying, “You need to change this,” say, “How can we get better at this?” This is an easy and effective way to prevent your partner from reacting defensively.
It is so easy to go into a conversation with your partner and just end up telling them all the things they don’t do, and all the ways they fail you. This can create a feeling of hopelessness in your partner, which can make them want to shut down or walk away. Try to express gratitude for the things they do offer you, while simultaneously discussing the things that you are struggling with.
7. Remove All Expectation
Before having a chat with your partner, you’ve probably run through the conversation in your head a dozen times—we all do it. But whenever we do that, we also play out their response. This means that we go in with an expectation of what we want them to say, or how quickly they should respond. When they (inevitably) don’t follow the script, we can get increasingly frustrated, and the conversation can quickly spiral. Be aware of when you’re placing expectations on your partner and try to be patient with them. Everybody processes things in their own ways and in their own time, so don’t be alarmed if they take a little longer than you expected to come back to you with an answer.
8. Hold Space for Them Too
If you want somebody to hold space for you, then lead by example. We can’t expect our partners to really hear us when we communicate if we don’t do the same for them.
9. Know When to Walk Away
Sometimes, no matter what we do, they just don’t want to listen to what we are trying to say. If your healthy communication tactics are getting you nowhere, and you are still being met with defensiveness, or you feel disrespected by your partner, then honor yourself by making the choice to walk away.