This piece originally published on May 15, 2020.
Whether it’s talking about money or any other topic that has the potential for awkwardness, communicating with family members and loved ones is always a challenge. But now that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, the stress seems to be making it worse for a lot of people. With many adult children returning home and partners moving in with significant others for the first time, there are sure to be relationship hiccups along the way. Tight quarters, limited in-person social interactions, and a disrupted daily schedule can compound the problem of poor communication. With all that said, now is a good time to brush up on your communication skills, whether it’s with your partner, a parent, or your roommates.
1. Remember: Your feelings are valid.
“Your feelings are valid” is a beautiful mantra in the mental health world. That phrase is powerful because it reminds us that we can be objective about our feelings. If you’re angry, jealous, annoyed, hopeful, or any other emotion, that is perfectly understandable and valid. And it’s a first step toward managing those feelings and making sure you don’t take them out on others. I’ve learned over the years that guilting myself for feeling the way I do doesn’t help anything.
2. Use “I” language when discussing tough topics.
Whenever you’re preparing to have a tough discussion, it can be helpful to talk yourself through what you might say. When you do so, think about what it is you’re feeling that you’d like to discuss. For example, if you feel like your roommate leaves too many messes in communal spaces, it might be tempting to say “you’re being selfish when you leave your dishes in the sink.” Instead, try saying something like, “I feel frustrated when I finish the workday and there are still messes in the kitchen to be cleaned.” Using “I” language shifts the focus from blaming the other person and allows us to take ownership of our feelings.
3. Avoid hot-button issues.
While you’re home it can be tempting to bait your mother into a political discussion or dig up family drama with a sibling, but we all remember how these situations went in the past. If political chats with your family always leave you feeling frustrated or disappointed, quarantine is not the time to bring it up. Of course, this isn’t true if an issue is urgent or about your overall well-being, but avoiding unnecessary spats can help keep your entire home calmer.
4. Talk about your present feelings.
While it can be tempting to equate current behavior to systemic patterns, saying “you always do this” or “you never think about me” can turn your partner away from having a productive discussion. Psychologist Marc Schulman shares that “using these extreme terms to prove your point immediately puts someone else on the defensive and downplays or ignores the work that they did (or did not) do.” If you want to be heard and have a productive conversation, try sticking with the specific actions that you are upset about and how they made you feel, rather than making sweeping generalizations.
5. Don’t feel like you need to react in the moment.
Perhaps the most powerful lesson I’ve learned in my own therapy is: You aren’t obligated to react to a situation right away. If you feel put on the spot, don’t be afraid to say you’ll need more time. If I was asked to share analysis on-the-fly at a work meeting, I wouldn’t hesitate to say something like, “I would want to pull those numbers to give you something completely accurate. Can I get back to you later today?” The same can go for relationships. If a partner gave me some news I found upsetting, I might say, “I’d like to take some time to digest what you just said. Let me think about how I feel about it and then let’s revisit.” While it can be challenging to pull yourself out of the heat of an intense moment, it can make for a more powerful, productive discussion later on.
With many of us spending far more time with roommates, partners, or family members than usual, it’s natural for disagreements to arise. However, to resolve such disagreements in low-stress ways, try engaging in communication strategies that are most helpful and grounding for you.
Simplicity Bryan is deeply entrenched in the worlds of self-help, gratitude, personal finance, and organization. She’s happiest paddleboarding with her pup and storytelling with a purpose. You can follow her here.
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