Early in our marriage, my wife, Joy, and I became embroiled in a heated discussion.

What came out instead was, "As hard as it is to say something nice about you right now . . ."

I hit the pause button and did an instant mental replay. The look on my face revealed that even I realized it was an exceptionally weird thing to say.

Silence filled the room. I gulped.

Joy cracked up. Her laughter turned down the thermostat of our conversation and defused a potentially explosive situation. Fortunately for me, she understood what I meant to say and not what I actually said.

During a conflict, healthy communication isn’t always easy. In our marriage, Joy and I have tried to practice three useful skills that keep doors open to positive communication:

Avoid "you" statements

Conversations go south in a hurry when the "you always" or "you never" phrases are thrown in.

"You" comments usually sound like blame and cause the communication doors to slam shut.

A positive alternative is "I feel" statements. Compare the following two sentences to see which one you would rather hear from your spouse:

  • "You always leave the dishes stacked up."
  • "I feel overwhelmed by the large stack of dirty dishes."

When you point a finger by saying "you always" and "you never," you risk escalating the discussion into defensive resistance, anger and retaliation. By honestly communicating how you feel, however, you open the door to a room filled with empathetic understanding.

Make a critique sandwich

Clear communication involves the uncomfortable task of critique. Critique, in its best sense, simply means to evaluate. But it’s all too easy to become harsh in our evaluation; when that happens, critique mutates into cutting criticism, resulting in damaging arguments.

By serving a critique sandwich – where you place a tasty compliment on either side of the critique – you create hearty communication filled with nicely flavoured words and a positive evaluation aimed at growth.

For example, Joy once complimented me on my clothing, saying, "You have a good sense of style." Then she added, "And because of that, I’m a little surprised you would choose that tie. It just doesn’t bring out the best in that shirt."

I chuckled. By the kind way she said it, I knew she wasn’t giving me a failing grade on every clothing choice. She was simply evaluating that particularly ugly tie. (As I recall, it was pretty hideous.) To finish her critique sandwich, she added, "And I must say that your hair looks fabulous today!"

How could I get angry at my wife when she told me how fabulous I looked?

Restate your positive intent

When negative emotions escalate to dangerous levels, beware of giving the impression that your sole purpose in communicating is to wound. If you really want to heal instead of hurt, why not say so?

In the middle of a discussion that starts to head in a hurtful direction, you could say something like, "Before we go on, I’d like to say that I don’t want this one issue to overshadow all the good things that I love about you." And it wouldn’t hurt to name a few!

A carefully worded statement of intent can stop the escalating anger and lead to productive conflict resolution. Even if the words don’t come out exactly right (like my odd statement to my wife), at least you can try to let your spouse know that you want to heal the relationship. And if you’re lucky, like me, your spouse will see through your muddled words to your loving intent.

By using "I feel" statements, making critique sandwiches and restating your intent, you can open doors to positive communication, mutual understanding and a happy, thriving marriage.

Clark Cothern and his wife, Joy, celebrated their 30th Valentine’s Day as husband and wife in Michigan at the time of publication.

© 2008 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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