How to Communicate During an Argument: 7 Quick Rules

As a San Diego relationship and couples counselor, I frequently run into couples who argue often. I never recommend arguing…ever. Instead, I recommend couples reaching for one another and resolving the issue in a loving discussion. If you have found yourself caught in an ongoing cycle of arguing, back-and-back bickering, and sometimes even yelling, you can take a proactive stance and try to decrease the battles. Here are some quick tips to decrease the damage that emotional blows can do to the relationship.

Avoid bringing up the past

When your partner comes to you with a concern or is upset, avoid bringing in the past as an example, to prove your point, or in an attempt to resolve the issue. If the past is brought up the argument just has more fuel to keep it burning. Bringing in other issues can ignite a variety of emotions and the discussion can get off track. Make a mental note of your concern and bring it up later in a new discussion. Stay on topic to resolve the specific issue at hand before addressing other unresolved issues.

Use positive pointing language

The way couples phrase their words during an argument can impact how either partner reacts. Pointing language is language specifically directed at your partner, and often uses phrases such as ‘You never,” You should,” or “You always”.” When pointing language is used, partners can become defensive and tend to automatically tune out what is being said. This may lead to a continued cycle where each partner does not feel like he or she is being heard. Instead, use positive language that targets yourself, not your partner (for example, “In my experience” or “I feel”). By expressing to your partner how you feel, instead of how he or she is, your partner will be less reactive.

communicate during an argumentBecome a “we”

Arguments are a you vs. me battle and almost always have the goal of one participant winning and the other losing. Relationships, however, are not built on opposition. Meaningful relationships consist of two players who are on the same team and should work toward a common goal. Try to make the goal be achieving resolution, rather than winning. Resolution cannot be accomplished without active participation of both partners, so do not forget your partner’s desires. Think to yourself, How can we solve this so that we will both be happy?

Claim your own role in the problem

No one is perfect, yet no one likes to admit when he or she is wrong. Do not be afraid to admit, both to yourself and your partner, when you have made a mistake. By acknowledging your role and claiming your involvement in the argument, you show your partner you are willing to work with him or her. Remember, It takes two to tango.

Calm your nerves

If your arguments seem to get out-of-hand and escalate rapidly, calm your own nerves so it won’t rub off on your partner. Calm your nerves by deep breathing, slowing down how you talk, and lower your tone. Reassure your partner that you care about them and that you are working on calming down. The more your partner knows you are working to help improve the relationship, it will help calm him down as well.

Don’t leave

Most couples try to leave to avoid conflict and many counselors will suggest to do so if the conflict begins to get heated. The problem with leaving is it can create more panic in your partner because feels as if you don’t care, and they have no idea when you are going to return. Leaving, or simply shutting down and going quiet, leaves the relationship with an unresolved wound. Instead, express to your partner that you really want to resolve the conflict and that you feel stuck when you get overwhelmed. Avoid leaving (as long as there is no violence in the relationship…if there is violence, absolutely LEAVE and seek safety) and reassure your partner that you are going to stick around and that they matter.

Bring down the wall

Many couples distance themselves, put up a wall, and sleep in different rooms after a long drawn out fight. The distance in the bond lingers around and both patiently wait for the other to make the first move or to reach out and connect the bond. Instead of waiting for your partner or sleeping with the distance, reconnect the bond by giving your partner a hug, say sorry, or acknowledge the pain. The quicker you bring down the wall, the less discomfort you will have to sit through.

Feeling Ignored? 4 Steps to Get Your Partner to Pay Attention

How many times have you asked your partner to be affectionate, stop nagging or put the toothpaste cap on securely? When our requests get blown off, we are often left with feelings of frustration that leave us feeling disconnected from our significant other. Before you jump to the conclusion that your partner doesn’t care, or is just plain lazy – give the following techniques a try:

  1. Describe the Situation Objectively – We want to help the people we love. However, when we are blamed for our loved one’s difficulties it is natural to defend ourselves (which often snowballs into an argument). So, how do you get around the defensive hurdle so your needs are heard? Present the situation in an objective way. This means describing the situation, without using the word “you.” Take the toothpaste example: “You never put the cap on the toothpaste” vs. “When the toothpaste cap is off, it leaks on the sink” conveys very different messages. It may seem like a silly tweak in grammar, but using objective statements will make a big difference to the ears of your partner.
  2. Identify the Feeling – The next step is to identify the feeling that comes up when this situation happens. When our requests are ignored, we are often left with feelings of frustration. For requests to pack a punch, we have to dig deep and identify the softer (or the primary) feeling underneath frustration. Primary emotions include fear, sadness, anger or shame. For example, “When I don’t receive regular affection, I feel scared like maybe I’m not desirable.”
  3. Get to the Heart of the Matter – We all have the core needs of wanting to feel important and that we matter to our partners. To identify your need, fill in the following sentence: If my partner responded to my request, I would feel like I ________________ to him/her.
  4. Talk It Out – Now that you’ve identified what you need and the primary emotions driving those needs, it’s time to put it all together. Sit down with your partner when you are both calm. Start with describing the situation objectively (see #1), then let your loved one know how you feel when that happens (see #2) and then communicate what you need (#3).

Communicate this to your partner objectively to get the best response to any request you have—from toothpaste caps to more personal issues. If you and your partner are in the San Diego area and need additional support with communication, consider making a marriage therapy or couples counseling appointment.

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It’s been nearly 20 years since I first became interested in studying psychotherapy. I began practicing the scientific approaches to psychotherapy in 1997 and I was hooked from then on.

I earned my Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family psychotherapy in 2004 and I am currently licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist MFT (LMFT#47653) with the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS).

I focus my practice upon the empirically-based and proven research methods of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

I’ve seen these techniques consistently get results and I truly believe they are the most effective at creating positive, long-term change.

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