The need to be “right” is a recipe for resentment and arguments. Vulnerability can be the antidote.
After a year of choosing to be consciously single, I’ve started dating again. This time around, I’ve tried to be more intentional about navigating “tough” conversations productively and gracefully.
We’ve all had those conversations that somehow take a wrong turn… the ones that open up a Pandora’s box and leave you asking what you were fighting about in the first place.
Fortunately, being a sexuality coach involves reading a lot about communication. Here are five tips that I’ve learned along the way (some from experts, some from trial and error) that can help set the stage for constructive dialogue.
Write Your “Shitty First Draft”
Before you try to compassionately articulate your feelings to your partner, give yourself permission to verbalize all the unproductive thoughts going through your head. This can be done in a variety of ways. It might mean writing what Brené Brown calls your “shitty first draft” - an uncensored, stream of consciousness journal entry. Or it may mean calling a friend or physically releasing your feelings through exercise (my best runs happen when I’m working through tough stuff).
We’re not given a lot of models for how to constructively express anger, so acknowledging the feeling may be uncomfortable (especially for those who are raised as girls). That’s why it’s so important. If that discomfort isn’t processed before we talk to our partner, it can manifest in passive aggressive ways that create a barrier to empathy and productive communication.
Own Your “Story”
To avoid making accusations you’ll later regret, take a minute to reflect on the assumptions you're making about the situation.
"If I could give (people) one hack, I would give them, ‘the story I’m making up.' Basically, you're telling the other person your reading of the situation — and simultaneously admitting that you know it can't be 100% accurate.”
The beauty of starting the conversation with “the story I’m making up” is that it models vulnerability by acknowledging that our perspective is limited. This helps facilitate a dialogue and invites our partner to share their reading of the situation to "fill in the blanks."
Learn to “Mirror”
It’s a natural impulse to deflect when faced with tender topics, so being asked to deepen the conversation can require some practice. Fortunately there are some tools to make the process easier.
We’re fans of the book, Getting The Love You Want by Harville Hendrix. He suggests that you state your thought or feeling in a short sentence starting with “I.” Your partner then rephrases the sentence and confirms whether the message was received correctly.
Example: "I feel hurt that you didn't acknowledge the effort I put into making your favourite dinner."
"You worked hard to make a meal that would I enjoy and I didn't show my appreciation so you feel hurt. Is that right?"
This “active listening” technique is used by a number of practitioners. However, Hendrix offers an interesting addition. He suggests following up with “is there more?”
This invitation sends a powerful message about your commitment to understanding your partner’s experience. Because the question is asked after the initial mirroring process (which is designed to foster a sense of safety) it may uncover feelings that were initially held back because they felt too vulnerable to share the first time around.
It’s Not Your Job To Fix It
When someone we care about is struggling, the natural inclination is to try and fix it. We don’t want to see them in pain!
The temptation to fix your partner’s problems is often strongest when it feels like the issue impacts you as well (financial challenges, etc.). If that’s the case, it might be helpful to suggest they seek support from someone who isn’t invested in the outcome. An outside ear may be better equipped to listen without inadvertently projecting their own fears onto the situation (especially if a problem is new and you're both freshly processing). Sometimes the best way to support our partner is to be honest about our limitations.
Frame Your Need As A Request
The book Nonviolent Communication provides a great four-part framework for how to structure a request:
- The actions we observe in others that affect our well-being
- How we feel in relation to those observations
- The needs, values, desires, etc. that are influencing how we feel about those observations
- The actions we request from another in order to enhance our well-being going forward
The power of this technique lies in the absence of judgment and the distribution of responsibility. It’s up to us to observe our feelings and request a concrete action – it’s up to our partner to listen and decide if they’re willing and able to implement the request.
Example: “We haven’t had dinner together this week. I feel disconnected because I value quality time with you. Would you be willing to come home by 6pm tomorrow?”
I’m not going to lie – this process can be really, really hard.
But I’ve seen over and over how reframing the conversation to focus on my feeling (I feel disconnected) and a request (rather than an accusation) is far more likely to result in me having my needs met. Moreover, the process of having my needs met can help foster a deeper connection and respect with my partner. So the work feels worth it ;)
Discussions about sexual pleasure can be particularly tough. Click below for our one page guide on how to broach the subject.
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Kim & Amy Sedgwick love to discuss sex, periods, and all the other things we’re not supposed to talk about. The co-founders of Red Tent Sisters, they’ve been featured in every major Canadian news outlet and have become a trusted resource for people seeking natural (effective!) birth control, a more joyful sex life, and an empowered journey to motherhood.