5-step way to talk about the hard stuff

I’ve posted twice on a “Clear the Air” technique that really works when you are upset about something and need to work through it with your partner. Here’s another way, with another h/t to Gaelen Billingsley.

1. Schedule the meeting. This isn’t as simple as it sounds. You want to sit down with your partner in a setting and at a time when both of you can focus on the issue. You may need to choose a “neutral” site. Should you be at a coffee shop, or is that too public? If you’re at the dining room table, be sure to clear it off. No TV, computer, cell phones, kids, or telephone. Just you and your partner. Think of it as if you’re planning a summit and the other world leader is sensitive to all kinds of protocol. You want this to be done right. You might need to set it out into the future a few days just to be sure.

2. As the meeting begins, state your fears. Tell your partner what frightens you about this meeting. “I’m afraid that we might start to fight, and I really don’t want that.” “I’m afraid I won’t say what I need to say very well, and you’ll misunderstand me.” “I’m afraid that what I tell you might make you feel defensive, and I don’t want to sound like I’m attacking you.” This step accomplishes a couple of things: a) it communicates to your partner that you are really in charge of your own “stuff,” you’re really taking control of yourself; and b) it’s a little bit preventative. If you tell me you’re afraid I’ll get defensive, I’ll feel motivated not to, if only to prove you wrong!

3. State your hopes. This might be the least wrenching part of the whole process. You say things like, “I really hope we can reach an understanding, no matter whether we agree or disagree.” “I really hope you can hear me out, but also that I can hear anything you need to tell me.” “I hope we can put this issue [which hasn’t been stated yet!!] behind us.”

4. Finally, state your business. By this time, your partner is doubtless pretty anxious. What a wind up! But that’s okay. Your partner can be anxious. That’s not bad or wrong. And whatever your partner feels, s/he is listening carefully now. So state your business. State the thing you really need to discuss, and do it carefully but clearly.

5. Thank your partner for listening. Whatever response you get–whatever response you get!–thank your partner for taking time to listen to you. It is not your partner’s job to agree with you or see things your way. In fact your partner doesn’t really have a “job” as far as you are concerned. If your partner listened to you today, then no matter what the ultimate response was, that listening was a gift. So thank your partner for this gift.

Important note: if you get off track anywhere in the process, go back to step 1 and start over. For example, if you’re at step 4 and your partner starts getting really defensive and reactive, soothe yourself and go back to step 1 by saying something like, “OK. I know this is hard. I do want to discuss it with you, but maybe we should stop for now and talk later. Can we do that?” You’ll notice that step 1 looks different the second time around. That’s because the situation is different. You got into the process and something went wrong. That’s OK. In fact, you should expect that to happen. So just go back to step 1 and try again.

A couple of tips: First, use your own voice. The quotations above are mine, not yours, so they sound like me, not you. Stay close to your own mind and heart when you’re thinking through what to say, and how to say it. Second, be flexible, with yourself and with your partner. If your partner is getting defensive, there’s probably an understandable reason for it. This is hard stuff! So hang in there and try to be flexible. Go back to step 1, and as you do, keep calming yourself down. Finally, be gentle but also firm. This is not the opposite of flexible! You have a real issue to discuss. Honor your partner and yourself by taking your issue seriously enough to engage in this process