The art of telling jokes effectively and using precise comic timing is an unusual gift. You have probably told a joke at a party and experienced listeners responding to the proper setup of the story. When you tell a joke in the right sequence, the tale holds the audience’s attention and they laugh in unison at the punch line. Stand-up comedians invest thousands of hours in crafting their careers to deliver their messages masterfully, accurately gauging the audience’s mood and receptivity.
When you begin an argument, your setup similarly predicts the way the argument will end. However, you can develop this skill relatively quickly. It takes a bit of practice, but cultivating this set of habits is a worthwhile investment in the health of your relationship. (These tools will also serve you well in the workplace. The ability to tactfully tell other people about concerns or dissatisfactions is a valuable skill wherever you go.)
When you talk about a problem, you are setting up a conversation, just like a comedian sets up a joke. Done well, this conversation goes in a productive direction and both of you feel satisfied by the exchange. If you start harshly, with criticism and irritation, this greatly diminishes the chances of improving the situation and finding a mutual solution.
Prepare yourself with an attitude check: Recognize that you may not be fully aware of the other person’s point of view. He or she may not realize there’s an issue. Perhaps he or she is not in opposition to you at all. The person could be quite willing to help address your concern, or already be feeling defensive about it. Considering your partner’s possible perspective helps you set the right tone.
When you start talking, keep your comments focused and simple. Stick to one issue that you’d like to see changed: “It’s bothering me that we haven’t worked on the budget we talked about yet. I’d like to look at this on Saturday morning. Is that a good time for you?” If you start ranting, even though you may feel righteous and experience some relief in unloading, it’s harder for your partner to listen.
Use good manners, just as you would with friends or strangers.
Complain by simply describing your experience. Tell your partner what’s bothering you. Start with at least one positive comment: “You’ve been putting in long hours at work the past few weeks. I definitely appreciate all the effort you’re making so we can catch up financially. It’s hard for me to stay on top of all the household stuff when you’re away this much, though. I miss you, and it can get feeling lonely to do this by myself.” Avoid the word “but.” When you deliver kind words followed by “but,” this causes defensiveness by creating a “sucker punch” feeling.
Include appreciation, even about small, everyday activities: “It was great to have you take care of the babysitting so we can get to the party this weekend”; “I noticed you picked up that thing to fix the garden hose—thanks for remembering.”
Avoid storing things up. Handle issues as they arise. Dumping a laundry list on your partner only leads to blow-ups and drama.
Offer “soft” emotions like feeling insecure, afraid, and sad. Making yourself vulnerable is often irresistible to your partner.
Refrain from blaming the other person. Talk about your own feelings and experience. Sentences that start with “You” have a greater probability of leading to “fighting words”: accusations, blame, and put-downs. Avoid the phrase “You’re the one who …” unless it is followed by praise: “You’re the one who saved us all that money by handling the refinancing!”
© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kate McNulty, LCSW, therapist in Portland, Oregon
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