Communication Do’s and Don’ts

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By Arlene Malone, LPC

If it seems that you and your spouse have grown apart or are struggling to connect, the problem may be rooted in your communication styles. It goes without saying that conflict is inevitable in marriage, but how you handle conflict can either strengthen or weaken your relationship. 

There are certain styles of communicating that will make it extremely difficult for your relationship to thrive and can lead to the eventual destruction of your marriage.  Why?  Because communication is the key to building and maintaining relationships.  When communication is mishandled, every area of your relationship is negatively impacted.    

DON’T DO THIS

Don’t Mind-Read.  Don’t tell your spouse what she is thinking, what she “actually meant,” or what her motive is for doing a certain thing.  For example:  Your spouse says, “I’m sorry; I forgot to...” and then you say, “You didn’t forget; you just didn’t want to.”  While you may believe you know your spouse so well that you know her thoughts and motives for doing things, the truth is you can’t read her mind.   

Mind-reading only leads to frustration and can cause your spouse to shut down and not share or express things in the future because, “What’s the point? You’re only going to believe what you want to believe anyway.” Mind-reading prevents open communication and sends the message: “Your feelings and thoughts are not valued in this relationship.”

Don’t Criticize.  There’s a difference between launching a complaint and criticism. A complaint expresses dissatisfaction or disappointment about a particular situation while criticism expresses dissatisfaction or disappointment in the personhood of your spouse.  

For example, if you say, “I really don’t like it when you leave the lid off the trashcan outside, because rodents get into it and leave trash all over the yard.”  In this example, you‘re complaining about the situation.  On the other hand, if you say, “You’re such an idiot! Why can’t you get anything right? How many times do I have to tell you to put the lid on the trashcan? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know how to do that!”  In this example, you’re attacking the character of your spouse, who he is as a person - an idiot and inadequate (can’t get anything right).

Don’t Blame-Shift.  Just as it sounds, blame-shifting is when you point the finger back at your spouse when she confronts you with a complaint.  Instead of acknowledging or accepting responsibility for your contribution to the problem, you shift the blame onto your spouse.  

Blame-shifting is a defensive posture which keeps you and your spouse stuck in a vicious cycle of finger-pointing and prevents constructive resolutions.  This posture conveys an attitude that “Being right is more important than the relationship.”

Blame-shifting is a prideful stance, as it sends the message:  “How dare you complain about me!  I’m perfect and could never do anything wrong! You’re the problem!”  

Don’t Call Names.  Don’t use filthy language toward your spouse.  There is nothing more destructive than calling your spouse a derogatory name.  Not only is it destructive, defeating and disrespectful, it breeds distrust and insecurity in the relationship.  In fact, one of the long-term effects of name-calling is an increase in more serious conflicts in the future of the relationship. Name-calling includes profanity, insults, belittling, and saying means things to get a rise out of your spouse.  It conveys contempt and sends the message: “You are despicable! You’re not worthy of respect! You disgust me!” 

“Reckless words pierce like a sword” (Proverbs 12:18).  The wound is an emotional one, and it goes very deep.  With the tongue “We praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing.  My brothers, this should not be” (James 3:9-10).

Don’t Stonewall.  This damaging stance is also known as “the silent treatment.” Stonewalling happens when you refuse to engage in the conversation.  Instead, you shut down and withdraw physically and/or emotionally from her and the relationship.  While stonewalling gives the appearance of “keeping the peace,” it is an aggressive posture. You’ve “checked out” while building a wall of separation.  It prohibits intimacy and problem-solving and causes a palpable separation that is difficult to repair. 

Don’t Interrupt.  Don’t cut your spouse off or talk over your spouse.  If you have a pattern of interrupting your spouse as he is talking, you may find it challenging to break this pattern, but your relationship is worth the effort.  You may not even be aware that you’re doing it.  But if your spouse says, “You keep talking over me!” then you are interrupting.  

Interrupting prohibits the opportunity to connect and get to know your spouse on a deeper, intimate level. You can’t hear him as he reveals his thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires when you’re talking.  You’re also at a higher risk of having more escalated arguments as your spouse attempts to get you to listen so he can get his point across. Interrupting sends the message: “You don’t know what you’re talking about!  Listen to me; I’ve got it all figured out!”  

Don’t be Defensive.  Defensiveness typically occurs when a person feels attacked, criticized, or wrongly accused.  As a result, she immediately offers excuses or justifications and casts herself as the innocent victim to ward off the attack.  When you become defensive, you relieve yourself from accepting responsibility for your contribution to the problem, and reverse blame.  Now, your spouse is at fault.   

Defensiveness sends the message: “Your concerns are not valid; you’re the problem; not me!” The problem with this posture is that it leads to escalated, combative arguments and severely hinders your ability to deal with problems and find solutions.  Additionally, when one person in the relationship is difficult to approach, is easily offended and becomes defensive, the other spouse will likely detach from the relationship because engaging with you proves to be disastrous and difficult.  

Don’t Minimize.  Don’t “poo-poo” your spouse by minimizing his concerns or wishes.  Examples of minimizing are saying things like, “Seriously?!? Oh, that’s ridiculous! You’re just being overly sensitive. You’ll be all right.”  Spouses who minimize or belittle are really only interested in getting their own way.  The message is: “There’s not enough room in this relationship for both of us.  Your needs are not important, so just sit down, be quiet, and let me run this show!”

DO THIS INSTEAD

When trying to eliminate an unhealthy habit, it’s important to replace it with a healthier one. The Bible is full of Godly wisdom in effective and constructive communication to help make problem-solving easier and to strengthen your relationship.  

“Speak the Truth in Love” (Ephesians 4:15).   Speaking the truth in love means being honest about your thoughts and feelings and conveying it in a way that shows loving intent. This is the key to being heard.  The idea is that you don’t have to tear your spouse down just to get your point across.  Just as you need grace for your mistakes, it’s important to have grace for your spouse when communicating your needs and concerns.  It’s about treating your spouse the way you want to be treated (Luke 6:31).  

“Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Colossians 4:6).  Thinking carefully and praying before we speak helps tremendously.  Ask yourself, “Is what I’m about to say going to bring us closer together or drive us farther apart?“  If it will bring you closer, go for it!  If it will drive you apart, stop, and pray some more.

 Slow Down.  Timing is everything.  Make sure it’s a good time.  It can mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful conversation.  Slow down and ask yourself, “Is this a good time?” Rarely is it productive to start an important conversation if neither party is prepared. Wait until you both are ready to discuss the matter.  It is often helpful to decide beforehand on a time to discuss an important matter and then commit to that time.  

Be Attentive.   Give your undivided attention.  Put away any distractions, phones, computers, TV, etc. Let your spouse know that her concerns are important to you and that she is the most important person to you in that moment.  

Be Quick to Listen.  When your spouse brings an issue to your attention, resist the temptation to take over the conversation.  Show him respect and hear him out.  Wait for the whole story before jumping in with your perspective and opinion.  Effective communication includes the ability to talk and the ability to listen.This requires a lot of self-control because you have to suspend your opinion and not respond with your thoughts in the moment.  But you’ll find that when you are disciplined to listen more than talk, you can learn a lot.  Naturally, you’ll learn a lot about the topic at hand, but you’ll also learn a lot about your spouse.

Being quick to listen is a beautiful gift to give your spouse, the gift of a listening ear.  It opens the door to greater communication and shows respect.  When people feel respected, they are more likely to return that respect and listen to us. Proverbs 10:19 says, “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.”

 Be Slow to Speak.  In most cases, it is not necessary to say everything that comes to mind.  Give yourself permission to just listen and consider the matter.  And when you do speak, be thoughtful about the words you choose.  Guard your tongue.  Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6).  Ask yourself, “Is what I’m going to say true (Exodus 20:16)? Is it kind (Titus 3:2)? Is it necessary (Proverbs 11:22)? Are you using words to build up your spouse or to destroy her? Are your words filled with hate or love?  Bitterness or blessing? Consider your body language and facial expressions as well.  Communication is not just limited to the words we speak.  

Be Slow to Anger.  Handling conflict well and resolving problems is difficult enough without adding unrestrained anger.  Anger can destroy communication and rip relationships apart, and the consequences can be irreparable.  James admonishes us about anger:  “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).  

Be Current.  We’re also told in Ephesians 4:26-27 that, “Anger also becomes sin when the angry one refuses to be pacified, holds a grudge, or keeps it all inside.”  It’s important to be honest and speak when problems arise.  Anger can be handled biblically when communicating to solve the problem instead of creating bigger ones.  Holding things in and letting them build can cause you to lose control, a recipe for disaster.  Stay current.  Deal with things before things become compounded and difficult to handle.  

Be Humble; Validate. Validation is life-giving.  It’s the gift that says, “You’re not crazy.  If I was in your shoes and experienced what you are describing, I would probably feel the same way.”  Validating is not agreeing with what your spouse is saying; it’s simply having a willingness to accept that her perspective is real for her. Your spouse will know that you heard her and will feel understood.  Then she will be more likely to give you the same curtesy and listen to your perspective.  

*To learn how to put these principles in practice, join us at our Heart to Heart Communication Workshop. Click here for upcoming dates and locations. Heart to Heart Communication Workshop   

Arlene Malone, LPC