Effective Under Fire (part 1)
I’ve talked a lot about how to talk to your partner, how to express yourself, how to communicate your feelings and wants while still being non-blameful and respectful. But what if your partner is the one who is laying into you about something. What do you do then?
The next few live videos, including this one, are about just that. Much of today’s content comes from the book, Feeling Good, by David Burns. It’s a classic book dedicated to helping people treat their own depression with cognitive therapy.
OK, so you are the one under fire. Your partner is laying into you. You are mad. You feel unfairly attacked. And what about your feelings? Your point of view? Besides, your partner has it all wrong, that’s not even how it happened! What do you do?
First off, PLEASE, take a deep breath and squelch that urge to immediately defend yourself or get your point across. This is hard but this is ultimately about being effective. So, again, deep breath. You will thank me later. I am about to tell you how to be more effective under fire.
So, step one, empathize. You basically ask your partner to continue expressing themselves. (Crazy, I know. It’s the opposite of what you probably want to do. But this goes a long way in diffusing the attacker) Here’s an example – Your partner is yelling at you about housework. And you say, “You are saying that you feel that you do all of the housework. Is that right? You are saying that I don’t care about you and take you for granted? Is that how you are feeling?” Remember, you are just reflecting their words back to them, so they are sure you understand what they mean. You are not correcting them or contradicting them. And you might not even be agreeing with them. Don’t forget to watch your tone. You don’t want to come off as sarcastic, because that really isn’t helpful. Next (still in step one), ask for clarification. “What do you mean? What makes you feel that way?” Ask for specifics. Ask for examples. Then you empathize, something like, “oh, you had to clean up all the dishes after the party you are pissed.” You don’t have to agree, you are just showing that you understand. Usually, your partner will say something like, “yeah, and it wasn’t just the dishes, it was putting all the food away and putting the dishes away.” If that happens, again, reflect that back. If they bring up another, completely different topic say something like, “I hear you and I want to address that, but I want to make sure we get this worked out first.
Step two, disarming your critic. You do this by finding something to agree with. I know this is tough. Here are some examples, “You are right. There certainly were a lot of dishes that night.” You can almost always find something, even a small grain of truth, to agree with. “You are right, you really worked hard that night.” As the conversation moves forward, keep finding small things to agree with. “yeah, the house was a disaster.” This is incredibly disarming. If you defend yourself, your partner just gets angrier. It’s a fact. We’ve all been there. But, the more things you can find things to agree with, the more your partner will become calmer. He or she will lose steam.
Then you can move on to step three, feedback and negotiation. That is when you can start to get your point across and develop a plan for the future. Let’s say your partner is just plain wrong. Instead of pointing that out, simply state your point acknowledging that you, yourself, may be wrong. “I may be wrong, but this is how I remember that night.” Acknowledging that you, could indeed, be wrong is so powerful. The less you defend yourself, the less your partner will dig in his/her heels.
You can then, define the problem and make a plan for the future. “You are right, there were a lot of dishes that night and you cleaned them up. I may be wrong, but I remember that I did a lot of cleaning as well. I feel like I remember cleaning up all of the trash and putting the basement back together.” Even if your partner tells you how completely wrong you are, simply say something like, “You may be right. I may be wrong, but I remember cleaning up the basement.” Again, admitting that there is a possibility that you are wrong, is so powerful. Then, if appropriate, negotiate a plan for the future. “OK, let’s make a plan so we can both enjoy the next time we have people over. Let’s make a plan for prep and clean up.”
Try this out. Empathize, Disarm (i.e. agree), then Give Feedback and Negotiate. You can use this any time you are under fire, not just with your partner. It works great with a boss, too. Let me know how it works out. It takes practice, so keep trying. The results may surprise you. Next week, what to do in between fights, so that you can be more effective next time.