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Jennifer Priem Ph.D.
Jennifer Priem Ph.D.

Best Practices for Having Meaningful Conversations

An introduction to the series on conversations that will save your relationship

Relationships can be tough. Most of the time, we are trying the best we can to keep ourselves and our partner happy. The problem is that we don’t always know the best ways to do that. We might try what we think will work to keep our relationship where we want it to be. Or, we may keep trying what we’ve done in the past, hoping for a better result. In the end, we get frustrated or feel resigned to accept that our relationship just is the way it is. But there is another way.

This is the first in a series of posts on “Conversations That Will Save Your Relationship.” This post provides a structure for how to have meaningful conversations with your partner. Subsequent entries cover conversations that every couple should have but probably aren’t. For this series, I have chosen topics central to a healthy and happy relationship. They include ways of loving, providing support, understanding your partner’s needs, and using technology to enhance, rather than damage your relationship. Each of these conversations will strengthen your relationship, create feelings of closeness and intimacy, and provide new ways of approaching your relationship that will be easier and give you more of what you want.

© Melis82 | free stock images
Effective conversations create connection
Source: © Melis82 | free stock images

As with any relationship discussion, there are best practices on how to approach and engage in the conversation. You can use these tips for the conversations I discuss or apply them to any conversation you’re having with your partner. These tips create the most conducive environment for a fun and productive conversation in which each person is able to learn about the other in a way that doesn’t create hurt feelings or conflict.

Setting the Stage for the Conversation

With any meaningful conversation, it is best to set aside a time where neither person is distracted and you both have the physical and emotional energy to talk. These should be fun conversations, but they could create conflict if both people aren’t willing or able to engage in that moment. Things you should think about are when you will have the conversation and where it will take place. Avoid cornering your partner when they are busy or tired, like when they first get home from work. Assess the situation and be mindful that the timing of the conversation will greatly impact its outcome.

Starting the Conversation

When we approach a partner to talk, it is best to clearly tell them what you would like to talk about. Then, ask them if they are open to talking about it. If they say no, you can ask if they would be willing to talk at another time. You could even set up a specific time if that is what you and your partner prefer.

It is important to realize that how you introduce the conversation sets the stage for how your partner will respond. If your partner feels attacked or on trial, they will respond defensively, which eliminates the ability to have a fun and productive conversation. One tactic for starting any deep or challenging conversation is to approach it with a sense of curiosity. If your intent is to get to know how your partner feels and thinks, they are more likely to engage in the type of conversation that will be beneficial to both of you.

If you’re engaging in one of the conversations from the post, one tactic to starting effectively would be to explain to your partner that you read an article about fun conversations that couples can use to get to know each other better (or insert whatever plug for the conversation that you know will appeal to your partner). Keep in mind that however you approach starting the conversation, you should emphasize that this is not a test or a hard “relationship talk” – it’s a get to know your partner better conversation. Then ask if they are open to trying it. If they say no, you can ask if they would be open another time. Remember that a no at one moment doesn’t mean no forever. It is completely acceptable for your partner to say they aren’t in the mood or don’t have the energy in the moment – just assess if they may be willing at another time.

During the Conversation

As with any deep or challenging conversation, you want to think about how you express your feelings and how you respond. According to John Gottman, a prominent researcher on conflict and marital success, the masters (couples that engage in positive communication behaviors that are likely to sustain a successful long term relationship) are gentle with how they approach such conversations. And when their partner says something, even if it may be difficult to hear, they respond with curiosity and say things like, “That’s interesting. Tell me more.”

Then, while starting the conversation (and during it), avoid criticism – statements that attack the person. Gottman states that criticism is the first of the detrimental behaviors that he calls the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Any statement that makes the listener feel attacked, assaulted, or rejected is likely to lead to other problematic patterns of communication, including defensiveness. As Gottman describes on his website1, there is a difference between criticism and a complaint. A complaint focuses on a behavior, whereas criticism focuses on the person. In order to create a communication climate that is conducive to positive and engaged conversation, make sure any statements you make focus on how you feel and specific behaviors, and not attacks of your partner’s personality or behaviors.

Be a supportive listener. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by your cell phone, other things happening around the conversation or tangential thoughts that pop into your mind. Listen to understand, rather than to respond. Ask clarifying questions that allow you to truly understand how your partner feels. Try not to interrupt your partner – wait to respond until they have completed their thought. It may be that by waiting to respond, you will learn something new that will change how you respond.

When speaking, be aware of the nonverbal feedback your partner is giving you. Sometimes it is helpful to engage in metacommunication – communication about communication. For example, you might say, “It seems like you are uncertain about what I’m saying. Is there something I can clarify?” This strategy is better than a more critical and defensive statement like, “you never understand me,” “or “why is this confusing for you?” Rather than assuming how your partner is feeling or responding to what you are saying, ask questions from a place of wanting to create a better understanding. Also, keep in mind that a conversation involves a balance of both people talking and listening. Try to avoid dominating the conversation.

Communication is an essential component of maintaining a healthy relationship. Without communication, relationships wither and ultimately die. When approached in the right way, conversations can lead to new discoveries about how you and your partner think and feel, create greater feelings of intimacy and closeness, and provide evidence that you can work through problems when they arise in the relationship. By following the strategies outlined here, you can set yourself up for success and make deep and challenging conversations easier and more fun. And when you’re ready, practice these strategies in the conversations I'll address in the “Conversations That Will Save Your Relationship” series.



About the Author
Jennifer Priem Ph.D.

Jennifer Priem, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communications at Wake Forest University who studies the interplay between interpersonal communication, stress, and health.

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