Dr. Howard Rankin, a psychotherapist, creator of www.scienceofyou.com and founder and president of the American Brain Association, has shared his relationship advice with thousands of clients as well as viewers of "The View," CNN and ABC's "20/20." His "Communication Secrets of a Great Relationship" video and workbook will be released in May and will be available on his website. In the meantime, just in time for Valentine's Day, here are 10 tips readers can use right now to improve effective communication with their life partners.
1. Ask yourself: Do I want to be right or do I want to be happy? In many, many arguments, there is no right or wrong, merely different perceptions. But couples will often get to the point where they are just trying to prove their point and win the argument, rather than genuinely listen and try to solve the problem. This is a failing tactic for two reasons: 1) Even if you come up with a brilliant, winning point, your partner's not likely to accept it - at least not right away. The really effective communicator gets the other person to own the idea, not force it down his or her throat. 2) Trying to win merely polarizes the partners and feeds their anger and resentment, making the discussion very unproductive if not downright destructive.
2. In general, try to create a positive environment for communication. If you want anyone, your partner in particular, to talk about his innermost feelings and thoughts, you have to create an environment in which he feels safe doing so.
"Early in my career I was working with a couple where the wife complained that her husband didn't communicate with her," Rankin said. "And sure enough, he sat silently through several counseling sessions. During our fourth session, he finally opened up and his wife immediately attacked what he was saying. He promptly stood up, said, 'That's why I never say anything,' and left, never to be seen again."
3. Don't take arguments at face value. Few arguments are what they appear to be about on the surface. This is important to realize, especially if you and your partner are having the same argument over and over. The truth is that arguments about trivial things, like laundry, are generally about control. Even conflicts about sex and money are really about control when you get down to it. Once you know that control is a problem issue for you, said Rankin, you'll at least have a clue as to how to address it.
4. Let your partner finish what she is saying. Having observed many heated "discussions" in his therapy sessions, Rankin said he knows firsthand things are headed south when partners start interrupting each other. It's a sign that at least the interrupting partner is out to win and has stopped listening.
5. Don't bring other people's views into the argument. It can feel good to hash out your relationship issues with your mother, your best friend or around the water cooler at work. But it's not helpful to drag their opinions into a heated discussion with your spouse or partner. Consider this: It's unlikely your friends will disagree with you, especially as you almost certainly presented only your side of the incident. (Chances are you've never had someone say to you, "I polled 100 random people I don't know, presented both sides of the argument in a balanced way, and 63 percent of those polled agreed with me.")
"It just isn't helpful to drag other people into a discussion that should be between you and your partner only," Rankin said. "What you are doing is trying to create witnesses for your point of view as if you were in front of a judge. And as you'll see in my next tip, that's not what a healthy, productive discussion is about."
6. Remind yourself: You're not in front of a judge. Some people argue with their partners as if they were addressing the judge and jury. This tactic will not get you very far, and here's why: Your partner is not a coolly objective third party or a computer. Your Spock-like logic is wasted on him, especially in the heat of the moment.
7. Don't bring up ancient history. To some extent, this argument tactic reflects a gender difference, said Rankin. Typically, women are more likely to see the patterns in events with emotional significance so that today's transgression resonates with many similar occasions in the past. Men don't get this and think their partners are being irrelevant and overly critical. Here's the bottom line: Given that memory is imperfect and influenced by the present, unless this transgression is an exact repetition of past behavior and represents a destructive pattern of behavior, leave past events out of current discussions.
8. And speaking of gender differences - realize they exist. No doubt about it: Men and women are made differently, and this truth is the source of many pitfalls. In general, women see the world in terms of connections and relationships, and men see the world in terms of status and power. This leads to some interesting differences in communication - even in the meaning of words. For example, the word "sorry" to a woman often connotes empathy whereas for men it is more likely to mean a confession or an apology.
"I've seen a well-intentioned man make a sarcastic comment to his wife, which among his male friends would be the cause for laughter and bonding," Rankin said. "Unfortunately, said to his wife, his words created anger and hurt."
9. Extend the fuse. Once the brain chemicals that underpin anger and frustration get going, it's hard, if not impossible, to stop them. So one mutual goal in sensitive discussions should be to "extend the fuse," because once it's been lit, the argument is going nowhere productive.
"The longer you can stay respectful and manage your emotions, the better the outcome is likely to be," Rankin noted.
10. Avoid abuse and threats and NEVER use the D-word. It should go without saying that the first signs of abuse or threat end any chance of a useful discussion. Constantly bringing up the threat of divorce in every argument isn't helpful. And constantly making threats as an arguing tactic but never following through on them is likely to backfire as they lose any potential power they might have after a while.
"Talking things out is the best and most effective way of resolving conflicts," he added. "If you can't do it, you'll surely resort to less effective and more destructive ways of expressing your feelings."