Have you ever struggled for days (or longer) with how to approach your partner about a difficult topic? We’ve all been there with sensitive issues. Waiting anxiously to pick a moment when s/he may be more likely to listen, thinking about the best way to raise it, wondering how to say it in the clearest way. Difficult topics are tough to bring up!
More often than not, if you haven’t prepared what you’re going to say or rehearsed how you’re going to say it, you’ve probably approached your partner when you’re feeling pretty keyed up about it. Then the inevitable happens. They react, don’t listen, get defensive, argue with you or totally shut down.
Your worst expectations come true. It all goes wrong. And you end up feeling misunderstood, hurt, rejected and/or frustrated. You’re probably also thinking “Why can’t s/he ever let me finish what I’m trying to say? Why is s/he so reactive? Why can’t we ever talk without getting into an argument?”
Don’t worry. There’s a way out of this dilemma. Most people in relationships aren’t aware that there’s a way to bring up sensitive issues and difficult topics which makes it more likely that you’ll have a successful interaction. Naturally there are no guarantees. But if you try this simple technique, you’ll have a better chance at succeeding in a healthy conversation.
This technique was taught to a group of us who attended a lecture given by Stella Cornelius in 2009, when she was 90 years old. Until her death at the age of 91, Stella was a peace activist, a Peace Prize winner, and founder of the Conflict Resolution Network. I frequently teach this technique to my clients and am forever grateful to Stella for having taught it to me.
I call the technique The Six A’s. It goes like this:
Abide by the
Here’s a practical example of how to put it into action.
Let’s say you’ve been stewing for days about your partner not getting back to you about where you’ll be spending Christmas day. She promised you that she’d do it by Friday last week and it’s now Wednesday in the following week. Christmas has become a hot topic between you because she’s always preferred that you and the kids spend the day with her parents. And yet last Christmas you both promised your parents that this year you’ll all be going to their place for a change. She promised to tell her mother and she hasn’t yet done it.
You’ve gone round and round in your head about how to bring it up. You know her mother’s very sick and that this could well be her last Christmas – ever. But you think it’s not fair because for the last 10 years you’ve all been going to her mother’s place. You both promised your mother that it’ll be her turn this year. Your mum’s really been looking forward to it and has asked you several times to confirm whether your promise still holds.
OK, something’s got to be done, and soon. You really want to avoid antagonizing your partner because you know you’ll never get an answer that way. And you really want to let your mother know what’s happening on Christmas day.
So you remember The 6 A’s and decide to put them into action.
In preparation, you do something to self-soothe so that you can think and plan clearly. You then decide on a name for the agenda and choose “Where to spend Christmas day”. You aim to have a short title for the agenda, like the subject line of an email, which gives your partner a heads up about the agenda you’re bringing up for discussion. You make sure it’s an agenda item that isn’t about your partner. Do not start with “You ….” That’s a recipe for failure, right from the start.
You know that your partner had a very important meeting with her CEO today, so you avoid ambushing her an soon as she walks in the door after work. You again practice self-soothing, even though you’re nervous and impatient. You wait until the kids are in bed and when you’re having a quiet cup of tea at 9.00 pm, you bring the subject up. (Notice how much preparation and planning is involved before you even bring the subject up).
Using her pet name and a softened start-up, you arrange an appointment:
You say: “Sweetie, I’d love to speak with you for 10 minutes about where to spend Christmas day. Is now a good time for you?” (You give her a heads up that it’ll be a short 10 minute discussion, not a marathon argument. And you wait for her answer).
She says: “Oh darling, I’ve had a hell of a day. Now’s really not a good time for me”.
You: “No problem sweetie. When would suit you for 10 minutes? I’d really like to get this cleared up between us.”
She says: “How about tomorrow night at 9.00 pm after the kids are in bed?”
You: “OK, done!” (You’re working like mad to self-soothe here, because you’d hoped it could be talked about tonight. You breathe slowly and deeply. All the next day you keep rehearsing how you’ll bring it up and what you’ll say).
Then tomorrow night at 9.00 pm you go to her, because it’s your issue and your agenda, and say:
You: “Hi sweetie, it’s 9.00 pm. Would you please speak with me for 10 minutes about where to spend Christmas day? I’ve been really concerned about it.” (You remind her of the agenda – Christmas day, and the length of the appointment – 10 minutes. And you speak in “I” language, avoiding blame and criticism).
She says: “Sure honey.”
You: “Thanks, I appreciate you making time for this. I’d really like you to listen until I finish. Then I’ll ask for your ideas. Would that be OK?” (Ideally she says yes).
You then set a timer (seriously!) and start speaking about your thoughts, feelings and desires about Christmas day. Only speak about Christmas day. That way you abide by the agenda.
If you stick to this process, you’ll be surprised how much easier it is for you to explain your thoughts and feelings. At the end of 10 minutes when the timer sounds, ask your partner if she’d like to reply. Let her know you’re ready to listen to her thoughts, feelings and needs about Christmas day.
If she does want to reply at that time, switch roles and you be the listener. If she doesn’t want to reply just then, ask her when she’d like to set a time for 10 minutes, using The Six A’s, so you can listen to her perspective.
If she responds with negativity, Dr. Julie Gottman explains what you can do. Practicing good communication skills is essential for working through difficult topics in relationships.
I hope you found The Six A’s a useful skill for you to practice. It’s excellent in combination with listening and speaking skills. I’ll be writing about these in future blogs.
In the meantime, if you’d like personal help with any relationship issues, there’s no need to wait, call 0421 961 687 or email us to schedule an appointment. International callers should call +61 2 8005 1742.
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