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Download Audio: How to Communicate Complaints Effectively
You are always going to have differences, you’re always going have challenges, there are always going to be things that you don’t like about your partner…you are always going to need to have difficult conversations, including when you have a complaint about your partner.
So, an essential skill in having a quality relationship is being able to communicate complaints effectively.
Couples with undeveloped communication skills will deal with complaints in one of two ineffective ways:
- They’ll pretend the problem doesn’t exist and sweep it under the carpet… where it will fester unresolved until it re-emerges down the track in much worse form.
- They’ll go into full-on confrontation mode, with aggressive accusations… leading to full-blown war and generally no resolution, only, at best, capitulation.
Neither of these approaches are effective ways of communicating complaints. So how do you do it well?
If you are the person with the complaint:
- Be gentle, make sure your partner is in a receptive mode and not distracted or busy, ask if this is a good time to talk and if not, when would be.
- Start the conversation with a positive comment, use ‘us’ language. Then share what behaviour is causing you problems and why it is a problem for you. Keep in mind the issue is not the behaviour, it’s why it’s a problem for you. So, no accusations or telling your partner what they’re doing wrong, instead, share how you’re feeling about it.
- Allow them space to reflect back to you what they are hearing and to ask questions to clarify that they understand you.
If you are the person being complained about:
- Woah, that’s hard! It really is! No-one likes hearing their partner say they’re not happy with you. But it is necessary, so take a deep breath and go in with open-heart and open-mind.
Now, there are five likely responses you will feel when you hear the complaint. Be prepared for this so that you can have the self-awareness not to succumb. The five are:
- Going on the offensive and attacking back
“How dare you, you do it too, in fact you’re worse than me, blah blah blah”
- Going on the defensive and explaining yourself
“Well, what do you expect, I’m busy/tired/etc, I can’t blah blah blah”
- Dismissing your partner’s concerns
“Don’t be ridiculous, that’s not important, it doesn’t matter.”
- Fixing the problem
“Right, what you need to do is blah blah blah”
- Apologising for the problem
“Oh, you’re so right, I’m such a terrible person, I’m so sorry blah blah blah”
Now, there might well be a place for apologising, fixing, explaining and even letting your partner know they do it too. But not too soon. Find out what the problem is first, not the behaviour but why it’s a problem, and once you are sure of that, then you can if necessary apologise, fix, explain or point out that they do it too and then address that side of things.
There is never a reason to dismiss. That’s the worst thing you can do. You can defer a conversation if you’re not in the right space to discuss then – as long as you set a time to discuss and honour the timing. But never, ever dismiss.
When you can manage these reactions, when you stay curious and seek to truly understand your partner’s experience of what’s bothering them, then you can stay calm, co-regulate, and understand and resolve even the most challenging of issues.
That’s what makes a great relationship.
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