Ten Steps to End Tension in Your Personal Relationships

One of the key reasons for a breakdown in communication is because of this one principle: everyone lives by a different rulebook, but we all assume others live by our rules — or at least know our rules. For example, you notice that your friend isn’t as chatty with you and you’re not sure why. You were late to meet with her – again – but, you think to yourself, “She can’t be mad at me for that. She knows that I’m always late.” Meanwhile, your friend feels devalued each time you are late. Another example is when your significant other seems perturbed after seeing a sink full of dishes, even though you weren’t specifically asked to do the dishes. In both of these instances, each party failed to properly communicate to the other the rules that they had in their minds. As a result, the relationship was in tension.
The following ten steps are designed to help you communicate more productively in your personal relationships when you are experiencing tension with someone you care about .

1. Designate a time to talk. Believe it or not, failing to designate a time to talk can be a real barrier to communication. You may be an extrovert who processes things out loud and wants to talk immediately because it helps you figure things out. The other person may be more introverted and need time to figure out what they want to say before the conversation occurs. So while you may want to just start the conversation, you will inevitably put the productivity of the conversation at jeopardy. If both of you are comfortable talking about the situation immediately, then a simple “Is it ok to chat about this now?” will do.

2. Outline and agree to ground rules for the conversation. This does not have to be a long arduous process. Simply state some things that you need in order to make the conversation safe and productive and ask the other person if there are things that they need. (If it resonates, feel free to use the steps in this article as your ground rules.) I also highly recommend having these two ground rules:
a. nobody gets to be wrong; and
b. no one can speak in a manner that demeans, blames, shames, or is hostile toward the other.

3. Set an intention for the conversation. Think about how you want to show up and what you want to accomplish from the conversation. Do you want to be fully present? Do you really want to understand where the other person is coming from? Do you want to reach a particular resolution? Do you want to be more honest? When you set an intention to do something, you are more likely to act on that intention.

4. Start with an authentic appreciation. Find something that you genuinely appreciate about the other person and share that with them. This helps tear down walls and helps both parties to really listen. For example, you may express appreciation that the other person has taken the time to have the conversation. You could also let them know how much you love and value the relationship.

5. Only one person talks at a time. While that person talks, the other listens attentively and does not interrupt to state their point of view. If you think of something to say while the other person is talking, park your thoughts in the parking lot (see tip #7 below).

6. Mirror what you heard the other person say in your own words. IF YOU DO NOTHING ELSE, THIS IS THE SINGLE MOST EFFECTIVE TIP I CAN OFFER YOU. Mirroring a person’s words can immediately de-escalate a situation. You can move from anger to vulnerability within a matter of seconds by employing this technique. To mirror, repeat what you heard in your own words and ask if your interpretation is correct. Don’t get defensive if you didn’t quite get it right. Then ask if they have more to share. Sometimes when we hear our words reflected back to us, it leads to new insights that need to be shared.

7. Use a parking lot. If you start to have strong negative feelings (such as anger, irritation, judgment, etc.) come up while the other person is speaking, imagine that there is a parking lot behind you, and place those thoughts/feelings there until it is your turn to speak. You may also use the parking lot whenever you want to respond to something the other person is saying. Once you place an item or feeling in the parking lot, resume attentive listening.

8. Summarize what the person said. Once the other person is truly complete – meaning, they have nothing more to share – take a couple of moments to summarize the main points you got from what they shared.

9. Validate the person’s feelings. Once you summarize, validate the other person’s feelings. You don’t have to agree with their feelings or experience of the situation. You merely have to put yourself in their shoes and try to understand how they might have felt the way that they did. Start your validation with this sentence, “It makes sense to me that you felt ______________ because . . . .” Once you make the statement, ask if that felt validating.

10. Switch roles. The person who was talking now gets to listen, using the same ground rules and format. If the listener is not following these rules, don’t get upset. Simply redirect the conversation as necessary. Remind them of the ground rules. Take time to explain what you mean and ask the other person to clarify what they heard in their own words. Express your feelings without blaming or shaming the other person; merely express the impact that the statement has had on you. When you are complete, ask them to summarize the main points and to validate your feelings.

Following these ten steps should help you have a more productive conversation, where each person feels heard, understood, and valued.