Sometimes you get into an argument about something stupidly small, like whose turn it is to do the dishes, that somehow gets completely out of control. Before you know it, a tiny dispute has become a blazing row, you’ve both said things you don’t mean, and everyone feels awful. Neither of you can even really remember what the argument was about in the first place.
My mother always used to tell me (and still does, sometimes): “It’s not what you say—it’s how you say it.” Small changes in how you say things can be the difference between making the other person defensive and angry, and actually getting them to appreciate your perspective.
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg is a psychologist who has spent his career trying to understand how we can communicate in ways that reduce conflict and improve our relationships. Taken from his bestselling book Nonviolent Communication, here are three things Rosenberg suggests to absolutely avoid saying in an argument—and what to say instead.
1. “The problem with you is you’re … (lazy, selfish, an idiot).”
It’s incredibly easy to end up judging and labeling people. We all do it all the time. If your boss asks you to do a difficult task you don’t want to do, he’s “mean” or “unreasonable.” If someone pulls out in front of you in traffic, they’re “an idiot!” If your partner wants more affection than you’re giving them, they’re “needy and clingy.” But if you want more attention than they’re giving you, then they’re “aloof and insensitive.”
Rosenberg calls these moralistic judgments: the tendency to imply that others are wrong or bad when they don’t comply with our values. But these kinds of judgments only make conflicts worse, by making the other party defensive and resistant. No one ever responded to, “The problem with you is you’re lazy!” with, “Oh, you’re right, I am—sorry!”
Rosenberg suggests that every time we judge someone else, we’re really trying to express our own values and needs. When I say, “You’re so needy!” what I really mean is that I need more space. The real problem with moralistic judgments is that, by blaming and labeling other people, we neglect what we are really feeling and needing.
2. “You make me feel … (sad, angry, like a natural woman).”
When we feel upset by something someone else does (or fails to do), we often say they “make us feel” that way. When you don’t pay me enough attention, “you make me sad.” When you won’t let me make my own decisions, “you make me angry.” When you don’t thank me, “you make me feel unappreciated.”
But no one really makes you feel anything—your feelings are your own. Rosenberg suggests that saying, “You make me feel x” is harmful because it’s a way of denying responsibility for our own feelings. While other people’s actions can certainly be a stimulus for our feelings, they are never really the cause—our feelings depend on how we choose to interpret others’ actions.
This doesn’t mean that it’s my fault if you’re horrible to me and I feel upset. But the reason I’m upset is that I have some desire (to have positive relationships with other people, for example) that isn’t met when you’re horrible to me. When we blame other people for how we feel, we don’t think about what we’re wanting or needing that’s really causing us to feel bad.
3. “You should … (wash the dishes, pay me more attention, stop saying ‘you should’…).”
When others aren’t doing what we want, we naturally slip into “should” speak: you should do more housework, you should trust me more, you should give me space. Rosenberg calls this “communicating desires as demands.”
The problem with communicating desires as demands is that it alienates people: Have you ever been told you “should” do something and felt good about it? “You should” sounds critical, implying you’re doing something wrong. It’s much nicer to do something because you want to help the person, not because they told you you “should.”
What to Say Instead
When we’re upset or angry, it’s easy to blame others: for having certain characteristics, for making us feel a certain way, for not acting the way we want them too. In doing this, we end up focusing all our attention on the other person, and neglecting what we really feel, what’s causing those feelings, and what we’d like to be different.
To shift our focus away from other people and towards our own feelings and needs, Rosenberg proposes the following four-step model of communication:
1. Observe and articulate what’s going on in the situation without any judgement.
“It’s been a while since you did the washing up.” Not, “You’re so lazy. You never do the washing up.”
2. Express how you feel when this thing happens, taking responsibility for this feeling.
“When I have to do all the housework myself, I feel unsupported.” Not, “You make me feel unsupported because you don’t do anything.”
3. Communicate the needs or desires that are connected to the feeling identified.
“I’d really like to feel like you support and are willing to help me.” Not, “You don’t support me.”
4. Make a request of the other person (not a demand) for what you want to make you happier.
“If you could help out with the housework a bit more, it would make me feel a lot happier.” Not, “You should help out more often.”
Of course, avoiding saying these things—the judgments, the blame, the “shoulds”—is easier said than done. It’s pretty hard to remember Rosenberg’s four-step model when you’re feeling emotionally triggered; it’s much easier to angrily blurt out whatever comes into your mind without thinking. So the first step to better communication is changing these habitual, automatic responses: learning to take a moment, take a few deep breaths, and really think about what you’re going to say next.