Building bridges: How to have a tough conversation with your partner

16 February,2024 08:20 PM IST |  Mumbai  |  Ainie Rizvi

One effective approach is using ‘I’ statements, where individuals express their feelings, needs and perspectives without blaming or accusing the other person while engaging in tough conversations with your partner

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Having tough talks with your partner can be a hard nut to crack. Chances are you might stumble upon a favourable path or be caught off guard by an unpredictable response. When 23-year-old Kausar Hameed (name anonymised) attempted to broach the topic of finances with his girlfriend, he recalls how he was met with erratic tantrums.

In a conversation with Midday, he opens up about this conundrum: "I feel like I have to navigate a maze just to have basic conversations with her. It worries me when we have to talk about children and other important aspects of life. We just don't seem to be a team and I neuter anything I have to say that may be controversial or problematic. Honestly, this has begun to bog me down."

Do others also experience this? Aashmeen Munjaal, a Mumbai-based mental health and relationship expert, remarks that it is common to mistake communication for the art of effective speaking. Often, we try to articulate our emotions/concerns to our best capacity and yet fail to convey the message.

Which brings us to our next quandary - how does one navigate the complexities of tough conversations with their partners? To dig deeper, sat down with three relationship experts and racked their brains on how to delve into complex discussions safely and pragmatically.

What not to do while having a complex conversation with your partner

One common mistake couples make while engaging in complex dialogues is to approach it with a confrontational tone, which often leads to defensiveness and escalation, remarks Suman Agarwal, mental health counsellor, president of The Image Management Professionals' Association, image mentor and TEDx Speaker.

"Usually, one has a counterargument ready for the other person's statement before they even finish speaking. This is being responsive and not listening to what the other person is trying to put across. Practice caution as it is one of the major pitfalls that lead to communication breakdowns," Munjaal highlights.

This preemptive readiness to rebut can actually hinder genuine listening and understanding. It creates a dynamic where one person's focus is more on defending their own perspective rather than truly comprehending their partner's viewpoint. This habit can erode communication and trust within the relationship, as it prioritises being heard over active listening and empathy, she adds.

Secondly, it's essential to maintain a respectful and empathetic demeanour and try to understand each other's perspectives rather than assigning blame, shares Agarwal.

Another pitfall is avoiding the conversation altogether due to fear of conflict or discomfort. Munjaal emphasises that ignoring issues can lead to unresolved tensions and resentment in the long run. Additionally, rushing into the conversation without proper preparation or consideration of the other person's feelings can also hinder effective communication.

Taking the time to plan what you want to say and anticipating potential reactions can help facilitate a more constructive dialogue. Finally, failing to actively listen to your partner's concerns and emotions can impede progress and prevent meaningful resolution.

Listening vs. Understanding

There are various layers to listening remarks Munjaal. The initial one is hearing everything that is said verbatim - that is, without any words being added or removed. It is about listening to the person fully in the present, free from any preconceived notions or assumptions.

The first step in developing better listening skills is to start a new discussion with every voice that comes into your field of hearing. Communication breakdowns typically result from the other person's tone or your own, even slightly negative, judgment of them. This is because, more often than not, observations show that these issues are not the reason for communication breakdowns.

For instance, someone may say, "Aww, they care so much about my quality of life," while another person may respond, "Who are you to talk about my life?" to a comment such as "You are not serious about your life."

Another method to counteract the impacts of prejudice in hearing is to take a few minutes, sit down in a quiet place, and list at least ten positive attributes about the person you are having a breakdown with. Munjaal asks that we do this for three weeks. "Take steps to maintain your positive attitude and express your gratitude to that person, and you'll see a noticeable improvement in the caliber of your conversation," she adds.

What to do while having a complex conversation with your partner

When discussing sensitive topics like finance, fidelity and future planning with a partner, timing and place gain primary importance, remarks Agarwal.

Choosing a time when both individuals are calm and free from distractions allows for focused attention and open communication. Secondly, opting for a private setting allows both parties to engage openly without fear of interruption or judgment.

One effective approach is using "I" statements, where individuals express their feelings, needs and perspectives without blaming or accusing the other person. Active listening is another essential technique, allowing partners to fully understand each other's viewpoints and validate their feelings.

Setting ground rules for communication, such as avoiding interrupting or criticising, can create a safe and respectful environment for dialogue. Additionally, utilising frameworks like the "XYZ" technique (Express, Your and Zinger), where individuals express their feelings, state their needs, and propose solutions, can help structure conversations and keep them focused on finding solutions rather than dwelling on problems.

She sums it up by highlighting that it's essential to approach these discussions with empathy, actively listening to each other's perspectives and validating feelings. Setting aside dedicated time and creating a supportive environment fosters productive dialogue, enabling both partners to address concerns and work towards mutual understanding and agreement.

Be mindful of these factors

Talking about delicate subjects like money, loyalty or making future plans with a spouse necessitates great care and consideration to have an effective conversation. Here are some tips shared by Dr Pavana S, consultant psychiatrist, relationship expert and sexologist from Bengaluru:

Acknowledge the emotional climate that exists between you two before raising these issues.
Place yourself in your partner's shoes. By understanding their viewpoint and fears, communication becomes more compassionate and effective.
Some time should be taken to clarify assumptions and correct any early miscommunications in this discussion process.
Prioritise emotional safety, avoid harmful language and commit to ongoing communication to maintain trust and honesty in the relationship.

Managing one's emotions and reactions during difficult conversations

During difficult conversations with their partner, Agarwal shares the following strategies to manage their emotions and reactions effectively:

Recognise and acknowledge your own emotions before engaging in the conversation. Being mindful can help declutter your thoughts and understand how you feel and why you might be feeling that way. It also helps in being present in the moment and focusing on the conversation at hand. Avoid drifting into past grievances or future worries.

Additionally, physiology also plays a role in controlling how one reacts. Practice deep breathing exercises to calm yourself and regulate your emotions. Take slow, deep breaths to centre yourself and reduce stress. At the emotional level, try to understand your partner's perspective and empathise with their feelings, even if you disagree. This can help you approach the conversation with compassion and understanding.

Another important act is to pause and reflect. If you feel overwhelmed or triggered during the conversation, take a pause. Step back, reflect on your emotions and consider how you want to respond before continuing the discussion.

Improve your communication with these 5 gestures

"Love is a word, often misunderstood and love in itself means when you are keeping yourself in positive and good feelings about someone or something irrespective of the other person's behaviour or response," Munjaal elucidates.

So technically, one usually has a romantic relationship, married relationship, caring relationship, being there for each other relationship, but to reach a place of having a "love" relationship, where there is joy and meaningfulness, you must practice the following tips:

Quality time together: Spend quality time with your partner regularly, engaging in activities you both enjoy. Whether it's going for a walk, cooking together or simply cuddling on the couch, nurturing your bond through shared experiences strengthens your emotional connection.

Show appreciation and affection: Expressing gratitude and affection towards your partner reinforces their value in your life. Small gestures like saying ‘thank you,' giving compliments, hugs, kisses or surprise gestures of love can make your partner feel appreciated and loved, deepening the emotional intimacy in your relationship.

Respect and support: Respect each other's opinions, boundaries and individuality. Show support for your partner's goals, dreams, and aspirations, and be their cheerleader in both good times and bad. Mutual respect and support create a safe and nurturing environment where both partners can thrive and grow together.

Resolve conflicts constructively: Disagreements are inevitable in any relationship, but how you handle them is key to maintaining a healthy bond. Approach conflicts with empathy and understanding, listen to each other's perspectives, and work together to find mutually beneficial solutions. Avoiding blame, criticism and defensiveness fosters a sense of unity and teamwork in resolving issues.

Continual growth and exploration: Relationships thrive when both partners are committed to personal growth and exploration together. Keep the spark alive by trying new things, setting goals as a couple, and continuously learning about each other. Embrace change and adapt to the evolving needs of your relationship, ensuring that it remains fulfilling and meaningful over time.

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