No matter how much you love someone, disagreements seem to be an unavoidable fact of life. Nowhere is this truer than on the family farm where the lines between business and personal relationships are blurred.
The good news is that it’s possible to eliminate 50 per cent of that conflict through better communication, says London, Ont. psychologist Dr. Guy Grenier, who specializes in couples counselling.
Grenier says one of the biggest problems is the way we approach conflict in our relationships. “We misunderstand the objective,” says Grenier. “We think it’s about winning. But if there are winners, then there are also losers and that doesn’t bode well for the long-term health of the relationship.”
We need to change the metric, to change what we’re measuring, says Grenier. When it comes to personal relationships, the objective should be to accommodate both sets of feelings. It’s not about winning and losing. Instead, he says you should be asking “Do we understand each other’s feelings, and what do we do about those sets of feelings? Not did one person get what they wanted?”
Focusing on feelings goes counter to what we often hear in the media from celebrity relationship gurus who tell us to “stick to the facts.”
Grenier insists “get to the facts” is bad advice. Marriages are founded on an emotional connection and are very different from business or military relationships, he says.
While facts are important, Grenier says that for couples, relationships are primarily about the feelings that exist between them and thus, feelings are more important than any facts. “Facts can be disputed while feelings are simply what someone says they are.”
Focusing on feelings is the first of Grenier’s 15 Rules of Good Communication. “It establishes a tone for everything that gets talked about.”
Grenier says the most powerful of the 15 Rules of Good Communication is to only use “I” language instead of “you” language. “You are NOT an expert when it comes to your partner’s thoughts and feelings, so don’t waste your time speculating or talking about them,” he says.
Instead, focus on your own thoughts and feelings and make all your communications about the things you actually know: “I think…” or “I feel…” or “I want….” If you use only one of the 15 rules, make sure this is the one, says Grenier.
The most challenging of Grenier’s 15 Rules is the one that urges couples to restate what they think their partner is saying in their own words before they offer their own perspective on the issue. “This rule is the most challenging to put into practice because it requires great patience,” says Grenier. However, it is extremely effective because it essentially eliminates the possibility of misunderstanding.
While it can be scary, Grenier recommends being honest over telling soothing lies. And stick to one issue at a time, he adds.
Grenier’s other rules include:
Remember to take turns. After three minutes, it’s the other person’s turn to speak. This prevents one person from dominating the conversation, says Grenier.
Choose a good time to talk. Give your partner notice that there is something important you want to talk about, says Grenier. Don’t ambush them by springing it on them and avoid “door knobbing” which is when someone has their hand on the door about to leave and then you say “By the way… ”
Use the “24 Hour Rule” if things become too heated. Grenier explains that when the “24 Hour Rule” is called, the discussion or argument stops but the person who called it must resume the conversation within the next 24 hours. “This is like a grownup time out,” says Grenier. It helps partners choose a better time for the discussion and reduces yelling and bullying.
Watch your body language. Our bodies convey messages so avoid crossing your arms, rolling your eyes or using other hostile body language. Instead, face your partner, maintain eye contact, and nod as an indication of attention and understanding.
Avoid using absolute terms such as “never,” “always,” “everyone,” “no one,” “must,” and especially “should.” “Don’t SHOULD on your partner,” says Grenier.
Grenier also recommends checking in every three or four months with each other so that problems don’t go unmentioned. “Putting it on the calendar or programming it into your smartphone increases the chances that these conversations will happen,” he says.
Finally, Grenier warns that our use of texting can lead to misunderstandings. “Don’t have important conversations by text,” he says. Texting strips the emotional content from a message increasing the risk of misunderstanding.
Grenier wonders why we don’t teach the fundamentals of good communication in high school. This is something we use every day, he says, yet very few of us ever receive any formal training. “You will learn to play a guitar a lot better and a lot faster if you have lessons than if you try to figure it out on your own,” points out Grenier. “You don’t learn to play guitar by watching someone else play. It’s not something you can just pick up by osmosis.”
It’s the same for mastering good communication skills. Grenier says almost all couples would benefit from communications training. In his decades of counselling experience, he’s only ever met one couple who didn’t need help in this area.
With the divorce rate hovering around 40 per cent, it makes sense to invest in your relationship. Once a couple has developed good communication skills, they typically make much better progress on other issues, says Grenier.
When he works with couples on communications training, he typically spends a couple of sessions discussing the rules and how to apply them, and then a few sessions practising them.
Once you have mastered good communication, all of your personal relationships can benefit. These rules of good communication don’t only apply to spouses, says Grenier. They apply to any personal relationship between adults including siblings and parent-adult child, as long as there is equality and a fundamental respect for the feelings of the other person in the relationship.