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3 Ways to Speak Up Without Starting a Fight

Keep your focus on what you want, not what you don't.

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The importance of expressing your feelings in an intimate relationship shouldn't be underestimated. Being honest about how you feel allows for bonding and emotional closeness, which improves every aspect of your relationship; withholding how you feel creates distance and disconnection. But even knowing how important emotional expression is, many people fear and avoid expressing their emotions—especially when they are upset. The most commonly cited reason: “I don’t want to cause a fight.”

How do you let someone know you're upset or unhappy without causing a fight? These three steps might help you more effectively express yourself.

1. Don’t assume you'll be met with a negative response.

Assuming that expressing your emotions will cause conflict is part of the problem. To be fair, most people jump to this conclusion because they've experienced trying to express how they feel and having it turn into a fight. But when you imagine something going badly, you prepare for it to go badly. When people expect a fight, they avoid expressing negative emotions until they are so upset that they can’t hold them in any longer. Feelings that may have been brewing for many weeks come out in an explosion that feels like an attack to the other person.

Instead of doing this, imagine what it would be like to talk to your partner in a way that would feel calm. When you don't expect a conversation to go badly and can anticipate a positive outcome, your approach and energy will be entirely different when you engage with your partner.

2. Use "I feel" statements without justifying them.

Expressing emotions can make you feel vulnerable. As a result, most people are naturally inclined to want to justify their feelings, often by blaming the other person in some way: "I feel upset because of what you said and did." But blaming the other person by stating that how you feel is his or her fault makes them defensive—and prevents them from hearing what you are saying.

Instead, try to state how you feel—and then put a period after the emotion and wait for a response: I feel annoyed. I feel frustrated. I feel sad. Most people find this much harder than it sounds, because putting an emotion out there without a justification can make you feel awkward and exposed. But if the person you are speaking to cares about you, their natural response will be "Why?" That person is now engaged and has invited you into a conversation.

3. Express what you want before what you don’t want.

Most negative feelings are generated because of something you don’t like or don’t want. On the other side of what you don’t want, though, is something you do want: "I feel angry because I don’t like being dismissed: I want to be heard." Or, "I feel hurt because I don’t like that you are always busy: I want you to spend more time with me."

Instead, skip over the part about what you don’t want, and go directly to what you do want to avoid putting the other person on the defensive. This way you empower the other person to identify what they can do to make the situation better—and you increase the likelihood that your needs and wants will be heard.

Old way:

You: I feel upset because you never spend any time with me. (blaming)

Your partner: What are you talking about? We are always together. (defensive)

New way:

You: I feel upset. (feeling without justification)

Your partner: Why are you upset? (inviting)

You: I love you and want us to spend more time together. (what you want)

Your partner: I would like that too.

Changing the way you express your emotions is harder than it sounds. I encourage you to practice first in your head and then on other people before trying it with your partner. The benefit of getting your needs met and increasing the emotional intimacy in your relationship is well worth the effort.

I am the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, the developer of Future Directed Therapy, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.