How to Have an Emotionally Supportive Argument
Do you ever have an argument or discussion with your partner and think, ‘I have no idea what to say right now’ or ‘I’m so mad that I can’t even hear you’? This post is meant to help guide you through a difficult conversation and manage feelings between you and your loved ones. I will use the word “partner” because communication between couples can be particularly difficult, but it could apply to a family member, a colleague, or a friend.
Step 1: Put yourself on hold, temporarily
When you’re in the heat of the moment or don’t understand your partner or loved one, it can be difficult to step outside yourself and hear your partner’s needs. It is particularly difficult to hear those needs if you feel criticized, blamed, or inadequate because of the language they are using (which we will discuss at length later). In short, many people talk about their needs and desires by criticizing what the other is doing rather than asking for what they would like for their partner to do. This can be an easy way to trigger feelings of inadequacy and lead to the other partner shutting down.
I would encourage you to momentarily try to put your feelings aside next time your partner complains or criticizes in order to find the need behind the complaint. This shift alone can defuse relationship bombs instantly and can lead to fuller understanding of one another.
Step 2: Inquire about the problem or need of your partner.
After taking a breath, here are some suggestions that can help clarify and deescalate the conversation:
a) “I can see that you are [insert adjective – angry, sad, etc.]. Can you tell me more about what you need from me?”
b) Ask your partner how he or she is feeling. After an “I feel…” statement. “Tell me more about how you feel.” Explore what it is like for your partner and trade places in your mind. Focus on his or her experience of the problem.
c) Repeat feelings back to your partner. “So you felt lonely when I left and went to the party without you.” Be open to correction or elaboration.
d) Have an attitude of curiosity and openness. “I want to understand how you’re feeling.”
e) Avoid talking about how you feel or perceive the situation until your partner is finished explaining his or her side. Avoid at all cost becoming defensive – “you do the same thing,” “I only did that because you told me to,” etc. Just listen and take it in, not as a criticism of you, but as an unmet need of your partner.
Step 3: Address the need
By this point, hopefully your partner has been able to articulate what need is driving his or her feelings. Address the need in the relationship head on by talking about how he or she can have that need met in the future.
Your partner may say “I need for you to be here more often,” but get more specific. “I’m hearing that you want to spend more time together. What would you like to do during that time? When would you like to spend that time together?”
Underlying most complaints is the need for companionship, love, or support. Try to get to the underlying need, not just the complaint. Vague complaints like, “I want you to care more,” or “I want you to want to be with me,” leave no room for specific adjustment. Ask for a concrete solution to the problem like going to a movie together, snuggling on the couch, hugging, touching, or spending time with family. Ask how often your partner needs those things.
Step 4: Make an agreement
Agree to meet the needs of your partner in a way that feels good to both of you. Again, make the agreement specific and realistic.
Step 5: Taking care of your needs
Through this process of communicating about your partner’s needs, you may find that you have unmet needs as well. After you have resolved your partner’s issue, approach your needs in a way that models healthy communication to your partner.
“When we disagree, I often feel badly about myself when I hear statements like ‘you do this all the time’ or ‘you never do this.’ I would appreciate it in the future if you could just tell me what you are needing from me in the moment rather than telling me that I do things wrong all the time. It just makes me feel [insert feeling].”
“I’m happy to give you the time that you are asking for and agree that we should spend quality time together. I also think that we need time apart and with our friends. Can we have an agreement that on Mondays that I go out with the guys/girls and we do our own thing?”
Relationships are not easy and communicating is a learned skill. Be patient with yourself and your partner.