What little words turn out to be provocative, with huge potential for undermining goodwill in a relationship?
The more couples use the words you and not, especially when they add should and shouldn’t, or never or always, the more likely their communication will sound negative, critical, controlling or otherwise off-putting. “You are not paying attention to…” “Why don’t you….?” “You should….” “You shouldn’t have…” “You always ….”
Complaints, criticism, disparagement, blame–they’re all comments about the partner. They start with you.
In addition, negative statements like complaints, criticism, put-downs, sarcasm and blame typically convey your displeasure via the word not . That tiny three letter word puts a damper on positive feelings and invites instead hurt feelings and defensiveness.
Pretty potent little critter, that not word. And sneaky too, when it hides as n’t as in “You didn’t….” or “How come you don’t….”
Then, with you and n’t already causing problems, adding fuel to the fire with shoulds and shouldn’ts can almost guarantee a negative response like defensiveness, anger, or blocked ears.
Lastly, add in always and never and you have a sure-fire recipe for a launching an unpleasant interchange. These over-generalization words almost always invite a defensive response of “That’s not true! I don’t always …. Remember that time when …..?”
Here’s four fundamental rules for keeping dialogue positive:
1) Talk about your self, sharing your thoughts and feelings. If you can say what’s on your mind, your spouse does not need to guess—and also will be able to be responsive.
2) Or ask about your partner. Good questions begin with What or How. “What do you think about …?”
3) Refrain from any guesswork about what goes on in your partner’s head. Telling your partner what you think he or she thinks, feels, or should do is, in the language of my Power of Two book and website (po2.com), is a “crossover. ” It’s an invasion into your partner’s space. Crossovers cause unnecessary tension and antagonisms.
4) Instead of guessing what you think your partner is doing, thinking, or feeling, ask open-ended questions. “What happened that you were so late tonight?”, “What did you feel when you realized that…” or “How can you be sure this won’t happen as a regular pattern?”
This basic rule of communication is like the basic rule of driving. I have to drive always in my lane. If I cross over the center line and start driving in the other lane, especially on a two-lane road, I’m going to crash into you. That’s how accidents happen. Starting sentences with you is like driving in the wrong lane.
What is the difference between the phrase, “I would like to …,” and “I would like you to…”? The second version crosses the center line, telling the other person what to do. Crash ahead!
Where is not especially likely to cause trouble? Notice that “I don’t like…” sneaks the not word in via n’t. Beware! Better to say what you would like than to talk about don’t likes. “I don’t like when you come home late” is far less inviting than “I would like so much to be able to count on your coming home on time.”
In sum, for consistently warm and loving interactions, change your you’s to I’s. Flip your not’s to what you do think, feel or would like. And screen out the shoulds/shouldn’ts and the always/nevers from your words before you speak.
© Copyright 2010 by Susan Heitler, PhD, therapist in Denver, Colorado. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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