Don’t Be a Defensive Listener, and Other Ways to Fight ‘Better’ With Your Partner

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Photo: eldar nurkovic (Shutterstock)

It’s natural to get defensive when we feel misunderstood, especially in romantic relationships. Open communication is key to any relationship, but a defensive reaction—which likely reads as hostile to your partner—will quickly shut down any hopes of overcoming misreads and misunderstandings. Luckily the same simple communication tips that can help you in the workplace can apply to your romantic relationships, too. Here are some tips to overcome miscommunication and have a healthier, happier relationship.

Remember that you and your partner are a team

Dr. Lisa Firestone makes a case in Psychology Today for “collaborative communication,” a technique typically used in workplace settings that she argues is useful in romantic relationships, as well. The tenants of collaborative communication all boil down the fact that while different parties may be expressing their own perspective, everyone involved is working toward a common goal.

With collaborative communication, Firestone writes, “we often have to fight our own impulses to come from a more reactive, defensive, or combative place in ourselves.” The idea is that you’re all on the same team. That belief might be contrived when you’re communicating with coworkers, but it should be a genuine guiding force with your romantic partner. You’re a team, so here’s how to communicate like one.

Cultivate a teamwork mindset

Rather than approaching a fight with your partner as “every man for himself,” try to establish the fact that you’re both working toward a common goal (even if that goal is ultimately “let’s avoid breaking up”). You can advocate for your own feelings without getting combative. This doesn’t mean you both have to agree on every point—that’s unrealistic. Instead, it’s about trying to understand their perspective as deeply as possible. That way, you don’t feel attacked and can open up pathways to communicate in ways that encourage coming together, rather than pushing each other away.

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Listen without getting defensive

One of our best hacks to improve your listening skills: Pretend you’re a hostage negotiator. Obviously talking to your partner is not like talking to a terrorist (and if it is, consider getting out of your relationship ASAP).

To avoid sounding defensive, you have to show your partner that you’re truly hearing them. Remind yourself to slow down and process their words. Use body language like nodding to indicate that you’re actively listening, and clarify how you’re interpreting their words right back to them. Ask questions, too—whatever feels natural and actually helps you understand your partner’s perspective.

Invite the other person in

Express yourself in a way that allows the other person to understand where you’re coming from. The easiest way to do this is cliché but necessary: Using “I” statements. For instance, rather than saying something like, “You always do ___, you never listen,” you might frame it like, “I don’t feel listened to, and that hurts and makes me want to shut down.” In order for collaborative communication to work, both parties have to buy into the idea that you care for the other’s point of view.

The takeaway

When you’re in a fight with someone you care about, it’s easy to let a small miscommunication spiral out of control. Sure, the people we love the most have the power to make us the most combative; at the same time, if this is really the person you love, then it shouldn’t be too big a leap for you to empathize with them on a deep level. Put yourself in their shoes and actively try to understand their perspective before you get defensive with your own.

In most run-of-the-mill fights, you can advocate for your own thoughts and feelings without undermining your partner’s. The key is to zoom out and remember that, ultimately, you and your partner are on the same side.

    

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