The last time my partner and I got into a memorable fight, we were standing outside of a crowded ice cream shop, and I was sternly shout-saying, “Oh my god, I get what you’re saying! I hear you loud and clear! I just don’t agree with you!”
The content of the fight is irrelevant, but after I passionately expressed that I could see his point, we were able to resolve the argument. But yelling something like, “Oh my god, I get what you’re saying!” is not the kindest, most effective way to communicate that you understand someone — even though it might be your first instinct.
The key is to develop a set of skills that will help you and your partner reconnect and restore empathy. You just have to follow the three distinct steps: mirroring, validation, and empathy.
Sit facing your partner. To start, one person in a couple acts as the “sender” and the other one is the “receiver.” The sender has the floor first, and can talk about their perspective on whatever the topic or issue is. For example, they might say, I got really upset the other day when I was trying to help you, and you raised your voice. Then, when they’re done, the receiver has to summarize exactly what the sender said, without offering their own analysis or interpretation. They would say, So you’re saying you were upset because you were trying to help, and I raised my voice. “The person listening has the hardest job, because they have to listen carefully and repeat it back to see if they got it.”
Sometimes, the listener doesn’t get it. If the receiver misunderstands what their partner said, or gets defensive and critical, then have a third neutral person be there to interject and help steer the conversation in the right direction. You don’t want someone to mirror that they were being a jerk. It might sound stilted to have rigid roles like this, but that’s kind of the point: By embodying these roles, you’re hopefully able to get out of your own head and into a more neutral mental space where you can empathise with your partner and really communicate.
When you’re having an emotional, free-for-all conversation with your partner, the slightest impetus could trigger you to get angry or upset. That’s how conflict gets out of control. But, when you mirror someone, the conversation always stays safe, structured, and controlled, she says. So, to make sure that couples really are hearing each other, at the end of the mirroring phase, the receiver will ask something like, Did I get that? or Is there more? If there is more, you’ll go through another round of mirroring until you get to a point in which you’re both on the same page.
From there, you move into the deeper, more complicated step, which is validating, or expressing that you understand where your partner is coming from, regardless of whether or not you agree with them. So, the receiver would say something like, It makes sense that you were upset that I raised my voice, when you were just trying to help. Again, you aren’t expected to agree with what your partner did, but you just have to validate their perspective.
The goal of all this chit chat is so that you can ‘cross a bridge into your partner’s world.’ In other words, you go through this exercise during conflicts so that you can feel empathy. Oftentimes, after these discussions, couples feel open to expressing that there are other aspects of their life, like how they were raised, that might be contributing to how they feel and behave in the relationship. The goal is to move from a defensive power struggle, to a place where the brain can get calm enough to see where your partner is coming from.
It can work for all kinds of couples, and at any stage of a relationship. It is a great exercise for people to be able to talk openly about their feelings and feel it’s safe, because they’re just being mirrored.
You might not be sure if you’ll be patient enough to employ these techniques everywhere, every time in your own life. But, at the very least, the next time you’re frustrated with your partner and shouting outside of an ice cream store (or wherever), try consider giving this exercise thing a try. It might be just the Jedi mind-trick your partner and you need to get on the same page.
If you need any professional assistance with respect to your marriage or relationships, do not shy away from seeking professional help from expert counsellors/therapists. There are also online counselling portals available such as Askmile.com that focus on marriage and relationship issues where you can have your queries addressed anonymously, for free.