Most of the couples I work with identify communication as their number one goal to work on. I’d like to spend a bit of time today talking about the difference between having a conversation, and having an argument.

In a conversation, both people are engaged in taking turns listening, validating, and responding. There is a general balance between partners and a tone of “I may not get what you are saying now, but let me keep trying.” Conversations convey a “we are in this together” vibe, and each partner has faith that their partner will eventually understand their viewpoint even if they ultimately disagree. There is open body language, respectful tone of voice, pauses to allow each to finish, check-ins to ensure that the message one delivered is the same message the other partner received. Conversations have lots of “I” statements that allow each partner to talk from their internal experience. There may be high emotion in a conversation that has conflict, but there is skill and mindfulness in how the message is delivered. Issues may or may not be resolved in conversations, or may be delayed till a better time to talk if one or both people need a break. The most crucial difference is that in conversations, there is respect.

In arguments, there is not a “we” philosophy; it is generally “me” versus “you.” It is often not a fair balance between listening and responding, and frequently there is invalidation, or a refusal to accept that the other person has a different but equal viewpoint. Arguments often involve closed body language, hostility, criticism, defensiveness, mockery, and/or shutting down. There are assumptions instead of check-ins, and talking over each other instead of listening. Many couples in arguments listen defensively rather than openly, and are only listening to respond, not to understand. Arguments almost always have high levels of emotion, but usually happen when one or both partners move quickly with feelings rather than taking some deep breaths and being mindful about how their message is being delivered.

According to Dr. John Gottman and Micah Brady, LICSW, the following are 10 tips for making sure you are in conversation mode.

1) Use “I” statements. While facts and figures are debatable, an internal experience or viewpoint is not.

2) Validate, validate, validate (See the blog on invalidation if you need more information

3) Make your needs known with an assertive statement. “I want to know you are okay if you are late. I get so worried when I don’t know where you are.”

4) Describe without judgment. A neutral tone of observation, “It seems like you have more hours lately” is more likely to start a conversation than “All you do is work and you don’t seem to care about my feelings.”

5) State what you would like to see in the positive, “I want us to agree that you will text me if you’ll be more than an hour late…..” rather than “I don’t want you coming in late.” It is not fair to expect your partner to be a mind reader. Give the gift of communication and say what it is you’d like to see instead. If you can only say what you don’t want, take some time to consider what you do want before talking with your partner.

6) Show appreciation and gratitude. Everyone wants to be recognized and valued “Honey, I know you have been working really hard and I appreciate all the overtime you are brining home. I get anxious when I don’t know where you are, so I’d like to see…”

7) Address things within a reasonable amount of time. This allows things not to be stored up and potentially erupt when suppressed.

8) Check in with your partner to make sure you understand that the message delivered was the same message received. This is useful to avoid misunderstandings.

9) An advanced skill in communication is to be able to recognize and communicate intent. When our partners try but don’t quite succeed, honor them for trying their best.

10) Conversations are more likely to stay conversations if you thank your partner not only for who they are, but how they helped contribute to this process of discussion in a respectful way.

Micah Brady, LICSW, LCSW-C, CTC, eRYT