Disagreeing is challenging for many. How we express disagreement can harm or enhance a relationship, depending on how we do it.
How do you handle a difference of opinion with your spouse or others? Do you express yourself truthfully and respectfully? Become angry or defensive? Or do you try to keep the peace with silence or by changing the subject?
Virginia Satir, a social worker and founder of the family therapy movement, specified five types of communication people use when disagreement exists:
Below are paraphrased descriptions of each style:
Congruent messages are clear and direct. They convey respect for the speaker and listener. I-statements are congruent when the speaker’s tone and body language match the spoken words. They express our feelings, wishes, likes, and dislikes. Examples:[bh6] “I feel . . . ,” “I want . . . ,” “I would like . . .” The speaker is being assertive, not aggressive or passive.
This type of communication is an attempt to dominate the other person. You-statements of a critical nature are common in it. Examples: “You should (or shouldn’t)…;” “You always (or never) . . .” The speaker is basically saying, “You’re wrong.” Name-calling is a form of blaming.
Placating is an attempt to avoid conflict with someone by holding back from expressing oneself honestly. It happens when we “go along in order to get along.” But when we hold back from telling a partner our true feelings, beliefs, wants, or needs, we are likely to feel frustrated and resentful. Examples: “Whatever you say . . . ,” “Okay,” and other expressions of agreement when you do not really agree.
Someone who is being “reasonable” (in this context) focuses on logic and ignores feelings. Such people want things to make sense. However, feelings are facts. They do not need to appear logical. Examples: “You shouldn’t feel that way because . . . ,” “You should have gotten over that by now,” “How could you like (or want) that?”
The person whose communication is irrelevant deflects the conversation instead of responding sensitively. Uncomfortable hearing what a partner has said, he or she might make a joke or change the subject.
Congruent Communication is best
For a warm, loving relationship, strive for congruent communion. It’s the healthiest kind because it is authentic and mutually respectful. Other ways of dealing with disagreement create distance; congruent communication is more likely to result in feelings of intimacy and connection.
It’s easy when we’re tired, hungry, or otherwise stressed, to slip into an unhealthy way of communicating. When this happens, it’s helpful, of course, to offer a sincere apology. Also, your partner is likely to appreciate you for showing sensitivity by rephrasing your message into a congruent one as quickly as possible. For example, if you caught yourself having made a blaming comment like “You never bring me flowers,” you can preface your new statement, with “What I meant to say is…” and then say, “I’d love for you to surprise me with flowers.”
Changing a habitual way of behaving takes time, determination, practice, and if necessary, professional help. The important thing is to start now.
Because you can succeed!
Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You've Always Wanted (New World Library, 2014), is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist. A former executive director of a family service agency, she previously worked child welfare, alcoholism treatment, and psychiatry. She teaches continuing education classes for therapists and counselors. www.marriagemeetings.com