How to have difficult conversations, Part 2


Are you the shock absorber in your relationship?


This is what it that might look like: When your husband basically stops speaking to you for days at a time, you wait it out. When you realize your wife has avoided sex for over a month, you say nothing. When your partner announces he’s going to take a job for half as much money and twice as much travel, you bite your tongue and swallow your protest. You silently calculate how you can make up the difference.

In a vehicle, the shock absorber minimizes jolts and vibrations. In a relationship, the shock absorber accepts, ignores, or minimizes other’s unkind or thoughtless behavior in order to avoid conflict and lessen the impact on the family unit. This is often effective in the short-term. Certainly in every partnership there are times when it is best just to let something go. However, if there are repetitive, systemic issues going on, and you are not speaking up, you are communicating the following:

1. Your thoughts and feelings don’t matter and you have no expectation that anyone take them into account.

2. You are willing to accept any level of bad behavior in order to avoid conflict.

3. You don’t really believe you could have a connected, dynamic, honest relationship, so you are keeping your expectations low.

Of course, this isn’t what you are trying to communicate at all! The real issue might be that you just don’t know how to have productive conflict.

Here is a framework that can help: I notice, I imagine, I feel, I need. I first learned about this tool when studying Gestalt group therapy. I have found it even more powerful in couples work.

Here how it works:

I notice: This is where you state objectively what you’ve observed. Make sure not to sneak in a judgment. For example say, “I notice when you came home you went straight into the bedroom without even greeting me. This happened each night this week.” Instead of, “You have been acting like a jerk all week.”

I imagine: Here you take ownership of the story you are telling yourself about what is happening. Sometimes the stories in our head are true. Sometimes they are false. Either way, it is crucial to get these stories out into the open where they can be addressed. For example, “I’m imagining that you are really worried about all the layoffs at work, and when you get home you have nothing left to give. I’m imaging that you are not aware of how hostile you are coming across and how much this is affecting me.”

I feel: Say what you feel. Remember that feeling numb, confused or hopeless is often a cover for anger, sadness, and fear. In this case, “I feel angry that I am being treated poorly because of something that has nothing to do with me.”

I need: What do you need to feel like this conflict is moving forward in a productive way? Sometime you just need to have the conversation, other times you might need to get an expert involved or make a major life change. “I need to feel like your partner in difficult times. I need you to talk to me. If you need quiet or time alone, that’s fine, but I need to you say that instead of just shutting me out.”

Then it’s your partner’s turn. The counter experience to the example above might be something like this:

I notice that even though we both know I might be laid off, we have not adjusted our spending at all. Each night this week, I walked in the door and immediately ran into a bunch of packages from Amazon Prime. I imagine that you are expecting me to just figure this out. I imagine that you don’t feel like you have to make any adjustments or worry about money – that’s my job. I imagine you feel like I’ve failed you and our family. I feel completely alone in this stress. I feel like any suggestion that you go back to work or we downsize our lifestyle is completely off limits. I need to know that we will both do whatever it takes to get on track and ride out this tough time.

If a difficult conversation is looming, say one partner keeps spending too much money or things are dicy because one person wants another baby, take a few minutes write down what you want to say using the framework. This will allow you to be clear and focused. Set aside time to talk. Say something to set the stage. The old standby, “We need to talk” works great. Or you can be more specific, “I want to sit down and really address our money problems.” Give your partner a chance to orient themselves before you launch into, “I notice…”

This framework doesn’t mean that difficult conversations will always go smoothly. It is a way of getting important information out in the open. In the example above, both partners felt like they were the shock absorber, which was eye opening for both of them. Obviously this can be applied to all your relationships, not just marriage. What would it be like to address issues this way with your mom, or writing partner, or your kids?

Try it today on some small issue and see how it feels.

If you missed "How to have difficult conversations, Part 1," you can find it here.