THE BLOG
12/16/2014 02:01 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

5 Ways to Communicate Directly and Effectively

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I'm always entreating you guys to express yourselves directly to your spouses about everything from housework to childcare to therapy to sex.  I've even humorously told you what not to do when expressing yourself.  But in case you still are having difficulty with saying exactly what you mean, here is a quick and dirty cheat sheet on communication that isn't passive aggressive or vague. Expressing yourself directly, non-attackingly, and non-defensively gives you the best chance of being heard, having a meaningful conversation, and ensuring that the same interactions don't keep recurring endlessly in the future. So let's learn the steps.

1.  Use "I feel" statements.

Example: "I feel sad when you say I gained weight."

Not: "You're so mean. I can't believe you said that."

Only "I feel," and then the third word needs to be an adjective emotion word, like "sad," "angry," hurt," etc.  Here's a list of emotion words to help.

2. When describing what the other person did that upset you, use only objective language, no interpretations or value judgments.

Describe their behavior like an objective bystander would report on it if they saw it on video, without condemning or criticizing.

Example: "I felt hurt when you laughed when I said I was tired."

Not: "What the hell?  I was up five times last night?  You think just because I don't work outside the home that nothing I do is hard."

3. Empathize with their perspective.

Genuinely make a concerted effort NOT to take your partner's perspective personally, and instead, to be genuinely curious about their point of view.  Further, unless they are outright saying they don't love you, don't interpret their words to mean this.  Try to view their behavior through a positive and not a negative lens.

Example: "I get that you were trying to say that you think I look fine no matter what I wear, but when I asked which dress you liked and you said you didn't care, I felt disappointed." (That's putting all of the three preceding steps together; it also shows you that the order of the steps can vary.)

Not: "What kind of a man doesn't even care what his wife looks like?  Joe always tells Liz which of her outfits he likes best and that's probably why they seem happier than we do."

4. Self-reflect.

Explain why a specific behavior may have triggered you, by relating what just happened to your own upbringing, prior to your spouse coming onto the scene.  According to imago and attachment theories, we are drawn to what is familiar and then we try to change it to make it what we always wanted (e.g., you unconsciously choose a cold/avoidant partner because your mom was cold/avoidant and then you devote your life to trying to make your partner warm and attentive, by nagging and pursuing him and other strategies that work terribly). This step is the game-changer, and can make an empty-feeling interaction into one where your partner actually becomes interested and engaged in learning more about you.

Example:"I think I am particularly sensitive to you saying you need time away from me because my dad always was trying to peel me off of him so he could go to his office and work.  Intellectually, I understand that we need time apart from each other, but it still hurts to hear you say it."  (This time you combined self-reflection and empathy.)

Not: "Any woman would hate to hear that her husband needs time away!"

5. Ask for your needs to be met in a reasonable, concrete way in the future.

Tell your spouse exactly what would make you feel loved/heard/appreciated/understood in situations like this when they come up again, and why this would work.

Example: "I would really appreciate if you would hold me close and tell me that you love me before telling me that you need to be gone for a work trip.  That would make me feel better and more reassured."

Not: "You should know that's not how to tell me you need to be gone for a week!"

So, let's put it all together.  

Example:You got your hair cut and are insecure about how it looks.  Your husband comes home and says, "Whoa!  Big change!"  You burst into tears and tell him he's a jerk.  Marriage fail.  Now let's use our new skills....

You: Hey, I felt sad when you said "Whoa!  Big change!"  It made me feel like you hate my hair and you think I'm ugly.

Husband: Sorry.

You: Well, I get that it's a big change, for sure... but honestly, I am feeling pretty insecure about it and it's bringing up my insecurity issues from when I was younger, when I was overweight and my parents made all kinds of passive aggressive comments about me needing to lose weight.

Husband: Well, I didn't mean to do that.  I mean, honestly, you know I like it long, but I can get used to this.  I always think you're hot anyway.

You: Okay.  Well, next time if I do something you don't like with my looks, can you start with saying something extra nice before you tell me what you think?

Husband: Like I still like your ass?

You: Yeah, okay.

While you're still not making out passionately, you're also not hysterically crying and texting your best friends that your husband is a jerk, so this is a win.  Further, you made your point known, your husband doesn't feel like you're out to get him, and it is possible that this interaction may go better in the future.

Practice makes perfect, so go directly express your feelings today!  Right now!  Go!

Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Was Serious!  Go Practice!

Visit Dr. Rodman at Dr. Psych Mom, on Facebook, or on Twitter @DrPsychMom.