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Healthy Communication: Opening the Door

Most people have heard the statement, “If you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all,” mainly because it has been passed down from one generation to the next. What does this statement really mean, especially as it relates to relationships? As a kid, I found this particular piece of advice had real, practical value. I learned that saying only nice things to people made them treat ME nicely. They liked me more, were generous and tolerant towards me, and liked being around me. I made friends and I was able to influence people.

Because of my childhood experience this message has definitely become a part of my personality. For as long as I can remember, I have been able to pause and listen to my internal voice. In an instant, I can assess those thoughts before I let words fly out of my mouth…because I’m first checking to be sure that what I’m saying is not hurtful. I’ve always thought this was a pretty good way to navigate life, stepping carefully through the delicate gardens of other’s egos. In intimate relationships, however, where you must learn to cope with each other’s egocentricities, ignoring the “negative” to focus on only the “positive” is sometimes not quite enough to evoke change. In addition, many couples struggle with avoidance and explosiveness. In an effort to "be nice" they hold in and push down the un-nice things they feel until finally, they explode. Then it's like Pandora’s Box unleashed, all those suppressed emotions flood out, causing terrific damage to their partner and their relationships. Avoiding problems in the relationship does little to strengthen the relationship.

So, what's the solution? Should we restrict what we say to our partner if it will hurt their feelings? No! Should we blurt out every rabid thought that comes to mind? Certainly not! Instead, I believe couples can learn to strengthen their relationship through honest and supportive dialogue that embraces change. By the time couples seek counseling services, one or both partners already feel incompetent and defensive. These individuals, especially, need messages that are carefully crafted for maximum gentleness and support, but this is also important in healthy relationships! I’m scrupulous about how I talk to my own partner. I never say: You were wrong; instead I will ask: Would you be willing to share with me what you were thinking when you…? I don’t say: You’re not working on your part of the relationship; I ask: Is there anything that I can do to help you…? Notice, though, that with my partner I only adhere to the first half of the policy. I can’t “not say anything at all” about changes that will strengthen our relationship. I find more appropriate and supportive ways of saying difficult things. That’s very, very different from avoidance or caustic bluntness!

Another important component of communicating productively with your partner is empathy. It's hard to imagine that I would ever be unable to find something "nice" to say to my partner, but if this is ever the case, a little bit of empathy can go a long way. Instead of, "Wow, you’re really grumpy today," try a little empathy followed up with a question. "I know you didn't get much sleep last night. That's got to be rough! Is there anything I can do to help your day go smoother?" You'd be surprised at the affect a little empathy can have.

While the message from my mother was valuable, there are just some situations, especially in intimate relationships, where keeping your thoughts and feelings to yourself does more harm than good. The modified message for intimate relationships is, “If you can’t say anything nice, provide empathy and ask questions." This approach will open the door for improved communication and understanding in the relationship.

by David Carter, PhD, LIMHP

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