Compassionate Communication

I can handle your telling me
what I did or didn't do.
And I can handle your interpretations
but please don't mix the two.

If you want to confuse any issue,
I can tell you how to do it:
Mix together what I do
with how you react to it.

Tell me that you're disappointed
with the unfinished chores you see,
But calling me "irresponsible"
is no way to motivate me.

And tell me that you're feeling hurt
when I say "no" to your advances,
But calling me a frigid man
won't increase your future chances.

Yes, I can handle your telling me
what I did or didn't do,
And I can handle your interpretations,
but please don't mix the two."

~Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

Even with our best intentions when communicating in an intimate relationship, we often speak or listen from judgement and conflict. Social psychological research shows us that people do not like to feel attacked or blamed. They get defensive. They might lash back. And then we lash back. This can create a cycle of anger, self-righteousness, and irrationality. Marshall Rosenerg's quote above speaks to the value in separating observation from interpretation. This is a powerful first step to start breaking unhelpful cycles in a relationship.

When broaching a painful or upsetting topic, first state the facts you observed, without any other meaning attached. Be careful not to use any "loaded" language, but just state the objective facts. Then state how you interpreted it (i.e., what it meant to you) and how you felt about it. Although we often conflate observation and interpretation, they are quite separate entities. Making this separation allows you to own your emotions and reactions, without making them "facts" about what occurred. This gives your partner the space to hear you, with less chance of defensiveness.

Jennifer Gunsaullus, Ph.D.

Sex Therapy & Relationship Counseling
~Healthy Sexuality & Happy Relationships in San Diego~
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