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How to Have Difficult Conversations With Your Partner — Even When You Have Different Communication Styles

Experts weigh in on the art of feeling comfortable discussing uncomfortable topics.

Even with the people we trust most, having difficult conversations can be, well, difficult. Often, this stems from a difference in communication styles.

You know how it goes — you try to broach a sticky subject with your S.O., and instead of clearing the air, your efforts to talk only yield a vague answer, or worse, no response at all. Maybe you’re actually the one who prefers to let things sit for a while, and when your partner urges you to talk about something uncomfortable, you feel suffocated.

At the very least, an unhealthy approach to managing mismatched communication styles can create stress, spark arguments, and make hard conversations even less appealing; at worst, it can actually harm your relationship.

Luckily, there are some things you can do to help both yourself and your partner feel comfortable navigating difficult moments, and become more mindful communicators. Here are some expert-backed tips to improve your communication and diffuse tough conversations.

Be honest about how you prefer to communicate, while respecting your partner’s feelings.

It’s often said that communication is key to successful relationships, and (ironically) this rings especially true when communicating doesn’t come naturally. In other words, if you’re not on the same page as your partner, tell them!

“It is useful for both partners to acknowledge their partner’s style of communicating and to make allowances for this,” Gal Szekely, M.A., M.F.T, psychotherapist and founder of the Couples Center, says.

When approaching a partner with a “cold” conflict style (which means they prefer to cool off and think through a situation before acting), Szekely suggests respecting their space and, when you do discuss the issue, take it point by point to avoid overwhelming them.

If your partner has a “hot” conflict style (which means they prefer to address issues right away) and you don’t, Szekely recommends telling your partner that you do want to talk about the problem, but need some time to gather your thoughts first.

Being open about your needs while respecting those of your partner helps ensure that both of you feel heard and understood, and allows you to work together on finding a method of communication that you’re both comfortable with.

Interpret conflict as a problem with communication — not with your partner.

During a heated discussion, it can be easy to lose track of the real issue, and start making assumptions or statements that cause your partner to feel attacked and misunderstood. To avoid this, Preston Ni, M.S.B.A., author of How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People, recommends steering clear of “tough on the person, soft on the issue” approaches, which place blame on your partner while minimizing or ignoring the specific action which upset you in the first place. (An example of this approach would be saying, “You never help me clean up!” rather than the more effective, “I noticed that you didn’t help with the laundry this week.”) These kinds of comments also are deliberately indirect, which is unlikely to help your cause.

“Being tough on the person and soft on the issue can easily arouse negative reactions from people, who are likely to take what you’re saying more personally, and as a result feel angry, resentful, hurt, or resistant,” Ni writes for Psychology Today.

Instead, he suggests avoiding accusatory “you” statements and generalizations, and orienting your statements specifically within the context of the situation, rather than globally on your partner. This paves the way for a civil discussion in which neither person feels attacked, and both feel more comfortable with sharing their feelings.

Take a break.

If it feels like the conversation is spiraling into unproductive territory, step away.

“If you feel yourself or your partner starting to get too angry to be constructive, or showing some destructive communication patterns, it’s okay to take a break from the discussion until you both cool off,” Elizabeth Scott, M.S., says.

She suggests going for a walk, sleeping on the issue, or otherwise distancing yourself from the conversation in a way that works for you and your relationship. However, Scott emphasizes that it’s important to return to the conversation when you feel ready — with mutual respect, a willingness to be compassionately direct, and a constructive attitude.

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