Dear Alistair

Dear Alistair,

My husband and I have a big problem when a confrontation situation arises between us. No matter who initiates the confrontation, we both become very defensive and almost always end up shouting at each other. Are there any techniques that we can use to make these situations more productive?

You and your husband are certainly not alone in having a problem with confrontation! The most important first step is probably for both of you to engage in a bit of self-reflection. To aid you in this process I would ask you to think about what your goal is when confronting your husband about an issue. I ask this question because I firmly believe that your confrontation has the best chance of resulting in the resolution of an issue if your goal is both to help your husband understand you better as well as to help you understand him better. The goal should be to build understanding of each other rather than to apportion blame or, just as destructive, to make him feel guilty. Setting out with the goal in mind to build a better understanding of each other allows for an interaction that is usually highly productive.

The first communication technique is designed to help your husband understand you better. This technique is called giving “I Messages”. It requires that you practice and get into the habit of focusing on and expressing how you feel when your husband does things or says things that upset you… without making him feel you are attacking him. As an example, comments that focus on how you are feeling such as “I feel scared when you drive like that,” are infinitely more productive than “You’re making me feel scared because you are driving like an idiot!” When you structure your sentences such that you always begin by focusing on yourself, and especially on how you are feeling, you adopt a non-attacking approach, take ownership of your feelings, explain yourself clearly, and keep the lines of communication open.

The second communication technique is designed to help your husband feel that you understand him or are at least trying to understand him. This technique is called using reflective listening skills. When talking with your husband, listen closely for both the content (what is being said) and the feeling behind the content. Paraphrase what you hear back to check for accuracy. As an example, you might say something like “It sounds like you’re frustrated with me because I didn’t ….” Offer your observations tentatively to give him permission to correct you. Avoid the impulse to rush to solve the problem!! The most important part is for him to feel heard and understood or, at least, that you are trying to understand. This communication skill will also help your husband to accurately identify the ‘negative’ feelings he is experiencing.

In general, anything that you can do to help your husband identify and clearly express his feelings (while also expressing your own) will be very beneficial for the confrontation.