Emotional safety leads to safe conversations. When you know that you can share anything with your partner because they will not judge or criticize you, the quality of your romantic relationship will increase significantly. Similarly, if you have a relationship competency skill, you will provide that emotional safety for your partner and they will be easily able to share their world with you. Relationship competency is a skill that can be improved by following these safe conversation guidelines:
1. Honor Your Partner’s Boundaries
Often, when one partner wants to address an issue in a relationship, the other partner may not want to engage in a conversation. You can honor your partner’s boundaries by asking them to identify another time when they could talk. When they initially say “No”, not interpreting this answer as a sign of rejection or unwillingness is extremely important. Your partner may not be ready to talk about it or may not have the emotional resources to give their undivided attention to you to listen to you for that specific time and day. Having a long workday, or other external stressors developed outside of your relationship can be emotionally draining. When your partner is telling you “It’s not a good time to talk about it”, keep in mind that they may not be emotionally available even though they seem physically available. You can always ask them when they can be available to address the issue when you are both ready, available, and willing to do so.
2. Always Take Accountability
I-statements are effective, and they should be your best friends in a safe conversation. Taking accountability is about speaking with responsibility. It’s about sharing your own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; as well as communicating through your own needs and wants.
One misconception about I-statements is often we think “I feel, I want, I need” are confrontational, demanding or selfish statements. They can be when they are misused. “I feel you ignore my needs and never make me feel special” is not an I-statement. In fact, this statement includes criticism and contempt and will have an adverse effect on the quality of the conversation. On the other hand, “I feel ignored and I want you to make me feel special. I need you to show me more affection and intimacy” is addressing your feelings, desires and needs without initiating guilt in your partner.
Note that utilizing I-statements will take time and practice until they become a part of your daily conversations in all your personal relationships
3. Mirror Your Partner Back Rather Than Counter Them
Relationship competency requires the skill of using reflections. We call these reflections “mirroring”. Reflecting what your partner is telling you without adding your own interpretation can be challenging. When your own emotions and thoughts are involved, what you hear may be different than what your partner is telling you. Note that mirroring does not mean imitating. Eye rolling and imitating your partner’s voice or gestures are not mirroring; they are mockery and a form of disrespect. Mirroring will help you to be in tune with your partner and will show them that you are present and fully engaged.
For example, your partner is telling you:
“I feel disrespected when you don’t follow the rules that we mutually set for our children. I want you to support me a little bit more and I need you to be on the same page with me in parenting”.
An ideal mirroring to this statement would be:
“I hear you are telling me that you felt disrespected because I didn’t follow our rules. You are telling me that you need my support and you want us to be on the same page in our parenting”
Here is a statement that is not mirroring:
“So, you are telling me that I am disrespectful, and I don’t support you. You never ask for my help and I thought you are happy to do things by yourself. I did not know you are this sensitive and would make a big deal out of this”
Note that your partner is not telling you that you are disrespectful. This is what you are hearing and it is your own interpretation. Also, even though you use phrases like “I hear you are telling me …”, the rest of the statement is still not mirroring. Further, it includes blame, criticism and contempt.
4. Engage in an Accuracy Check
This step immediately follows mirroring. An accuracy check requires you to make sure that you understood your partner correctly. You cannot possibly be sure of this without asking your partner. Once you reflect what you have just heard, a follow up statement can be, “Did I understand you correctly?” or “I want to make sure that I understood you completely. Is this what you were telling me?” An accuracy check is a perfect opportunity to correct any potential misunderstanding. If your mirroring is not accurate, your partner will tell you, “I didn’t tell X, what I was telling you was Y”. At that point, you can tell your partner, “Thank you for clarifying” and you can both continue focusing on Y.
5. Be Curious
The simplest, yet most effective, guideline for a safe conversation is being curious and showing interest to what your partner is telling you. Is there more to what your partner is telling you? Asking follow up questions and requesting your partner to tell you more will show your partner that you are in an empathetic state and you genuinely care about their feelings and thoughts. Note that curiosity is not judgment. Not every statement that starts with, “I wonder” implies being curious. “I wonder why you didn’t tell me this before” can easily include judgment and can be perceived as criticism depending on your tone of voice and your intention of asking this question. “I am curious to learn more about it. I am curious what makes my partner feel in this way” is a genuine way of expressing your care.
Bonus Tip: Keep in mind that reality is subjective, and everyone has their own logic. What your partner says make sense. If your automatic response to your partner’s comments is “Hey, this doesn’t make any sense!”, you won’t be able to follow these guidelines and therefore it is more likely that your relationship will fail to create safe conversations. Here, the solution is going to your empathetic state and being able to tell yourself, “Hey, it makes sense!”.
If you or your partner are struggling to follow the safe conversation guidelines, please feel free to contact me for more information.