How to Have an Emotionally Supportive Argument

Making space for your feelings and your partner’s feelings during heated moments

Do you ever have an argument or discussion with your partner and think, 'I have no idea what to say right now' or 'I'm so mad that I can't even hear you'?  This post is meant to help guide you through a difficult conversation and manage feelings between you and your loved ones.  I will use the word "partner" because communication between couples can be particularly difficult, but it could apply to a family member, a colleague, or a friend.

Step 1: Put yourself on hold, temporarily

When you're in the heat of the moment or don't understand your partner or loved one, it can be difficult to step outside yourself and hear your partner's needs.  It is particularly difficult to hear those needs if you feel criticized, blamed, or inadequate because of the language they are using (which we will discuss at length later) or because of your own internalized feelings, history and unique makeup.  In short, many people talk about their needs and desires by criticizing what the other is doing rather than asking for what they would like for their partner to do.  Perceived (or real) criticism often triggers feelings of inadequacy, anger and distrust which inevitably creates disconnection and neuro-chemical shut down (fight, flight or freeze responses.)

I would encourage you to momentarily put your feelings aside next time your partner complains or criticizes in order to find the need behind the complaint. You can start by taking a breathe and saying something like, “I really want to hear you right now but I’m feeling ______ (criticized, blamed, sad, scared, angry) and I need to breathe/take a 15 minute walk/ask you to be more gentle with me.”

This shift alone can defuse relationship bombs instantly and can lead to fuller understanding of one another. It can also make one or both partners very angry. If this is the case, establishing a routine in which you both have a “cooling off” period when things get heated could make or break your relationship. If this is a pattern when you have disagreements, have a conversation with your partner when you’ve calmed down about making space during heated moments. Make an agreement that at any time either of you feel overwhelmed you can take some space to calm down and come back to the discussion. Set a time limit, tell your partner how long you’ll be cooling off and what you’ll be doing. Oftentimes, partners can feel abandoned in moments like these unless they know that you are intentionally taking action to be more present and available - take a walk, leave the room, move your body, or any other activity that helps you discharge emotion. It is healthy to take a break in these moments when you know you’re not available to be compassionate and empathic.

Everyone, and I mean EVERY one of us, is entitled to our own experience and perception. One of the gifts of a relationship is having more than one outlook or experience on any given situation. We do not have to feel or think or experience the world in the same way to connect with each other. Try to see that your partner’s unique experience of the situation does not need to be right, wrong, factually correct, or the same as yours. Your partner’s experience does not invalidate your own - it simply means you are two different people.

Step 2: Inquire about the problem or need of your partner.

After taking a breathe or a walk, here are some suggestions that can help clarify and deescalate the conversation:

a) "I want to understand how you’re feeling. I want to meet your needs/be a good partner/listen/help you.” Be open, loving and clear. Don’t jump into “fixing” the problem. You are here to listen and understand.

*If you feel defensive, try telling yourself that the way that your partner feels may have nothing to do with how you have acted or spoken, but rather how they perceived the situation. Perception is not an insult, it is our unique way of seeing the world. We only have our perception to go on until we are really connected to another person. This process of making space for your partner’s feelings and understanding their perception builds trust and helps both partner’s know that no matter what they are perceiving, their partner’s intentions are good. It helps us give the benefit of the doubt in tough situations. And over time, it makes these conversations less and less charged.

b) Ask your partner how he or she is feeling.  After an "I feel..." statement.  "Tell me more about how you feel."  Explore what it is like for your partner and trade places in your mind.  Focus on their experience of the problem. Imagine what it would feel like to be them.

c) Repeat feelings back to your partner.  "So you felt lonely when I left and went to the party without you." Think of a time when you felt lonely and if you feel compassion say, “I hate it when I feel lonely and I hate that you feel that way. That sucks.” Be open to correction or elaboration.

d) Have an attitude of curiosity and openness.  "I want to understand how you're feeling." Be open to the idea that we all feel and express emotions differently and the only way for you to really know how your partner feels is to listen as they describe it.

e) Avoid talking about how you feel or perceive the situation until your partner is finished explaining their side.  Avoid at all cost becoming defensive - "you do the same thing," "I only did that because you told me to," etc.  Just listen and take it in, not as a criticism of you, but as an unmet need of your partner.

*Important note: Everyone, and I mean EVERY one of us, is entitled to our own experience and perception. One of the gifts of a relationship is having more than one outlook or experience on any given situation. We do not have to feel or think or experience the world in the same way to connect with each other. Try to see that your partner’s unique experience of the situation does not need to be right, wrong, factually correct, or the same as yours. Your partner’s experience does not invalidate your own - it simply means you are two different people.

Step 3: Address the need

By this point, hopefully your partner has been able to articulate what need is driving his or her feelings. The need may have simply been the need to be heard and understood. If there is another request (e.g. do the dishes or put your phone away while we’re talking) try to hear that request and let your partner know if you think you can meet the request or not. If you intend to make a change in your behavior in service of the relationship, let your partner know that you might need reminding or how you would like to be approached if you forget.

Your partner may say, "I need for you to be here more often," but get more specific.  "I'm hearing that you want to spend more time together.  What would you like to do during that time?  When would you like to spend that time together?"

Underlying most complaints is the need for companionship, love, or support.  Try to get to the underlying need, not just the complaint. Vague complaints like, "I want you to care more," or "I want you to want to be with me," leave no room for specific adjustment.  Ask for a concrete solution to the problem like going to a movie together, snuggling on the couch, talking openly, hugging, touching, or spending time with family.  Ask how often your partner needs those things and ask them to continually speak up when they need it.

*Important note: You are never obligated to meet the need of a partner if you don’t want to. It is important to tell your partner if/when you feel as though you cannot do what they are asking.

Step 4: Make an agreement

Agree to meet the needs of your partner in a way that feels good to both of you.  Again, make the agreement specific and realistic. Assume that you won’t do it perfectly and be clear that you will need help/reminders/gentle words when you falter. Let them know that you are trying when you’re trying. Let them know that you forgot when you forgot but you care and are committed to this task.

Step 5: Taking care of your needs

Through this process of communicating about your partner's needs, you may find that you have unmet needs as well.  After you have resolved your partner's issue, approach your needs in a way that models healthy communication to your partner.

"When we disagree, I often feel badly about myself when I hear statements like 'you do this all the time' or 'you never do this.'  I would appreciate it in the future if you could just tell me what you are needing from me in the moment rather than telling me that I do things wrong all the time.  It just makes me feel [insert feeling]."

Or...

"I'm happy to give you the time that you are asking for and agree that we should spend quality time together.  I also think that we need time apart and with our friends.  Can we have an agreement that on Mondays we do our own thing?"

Relationships are not easy and communicating is a learned skill.  Be patient with yourself and your partner.