Police Interview Newsletter - Speak Non-Defensively

Volume 2, Issue 6
June, 2003

We are in the middle of a series of articles addressing your marital relationship and how to improve it. The March '03 issue of Police Interview entitled Marital Distress, listed some possible early warning signs of marital distress. In April, we discussed the importance of Listening to Differences as we seek to interact with our mates with a greater awareness of how they think and experience the world. And, last month we learned how to Call A Marital “Time Out” (Gottman Strategy #1 - Calm Down) when strong emotions get stirred up and one of both partners feel overwhelmed or flooded.

In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, John Gottman, Ph.D. emphatically states that one of the keys to marital success is not whether or not you argue with your spouse but “how you argue - whether your style escalates tension or leads to a feeling of resolution” (p.173).

In this issue of Police Interview, we will take a look at the second of Gottman's four strategies for helping couples to break the cycle of negativity: He strongly advises that couples learn to Speak Nondefensively.


Choose to Be Positive

How often do you say appreciative things to your wife or husband? A simple and heart-felt “thank you” for cooking dinner, for watching the children, for working so hard to provide for the family, or perhaps for dealing so well with all the recent family stressors.

“The single most important tactic for short-circuiting defensive communication is to choose to have a positive mindset about your spouse and to reintroduce praise and admiration into your relationship. If your arguments are marked by defensiveness, it's likely that your marriage is being overrun by all four horsemen [criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling]. As the negativity in your relationship swells, the balance of positive to negative feelings and interactions between you and your spouse is thrown off. Depending on your particular personality and circumstances, this negativity will lead you towards being mostly a critic, an abuser, or a stonewaller. But, in any case, having and expressing a positive attitude toward your spouse is the most powerful antidote (John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, p. 181-182).”


Don't Be Critical

It is so easy to criticize and most of us are too quick to find fault with our spouses and to point out their shortcomings. Why do we do it? Oddly enough, we seem to believe that we can change our partners' behaviors and improve the relationship by highlighting everything that they do “wrong.” What craziness! It doesn't work. It only hurts feelings and creates defensiveness, rather than promoting positive changes and cooperation.

The late Mr. Fred Rogers got it right. “I like you just the way you are”, he echoed day after day to several generations of young TV viewers. Offering this climate of acceptance lets people know they are liked and valued. And, when we feel consistently appreciated in our relationships, we have more energy and good feelings to give back to others.

Adults need this acceptance and affirmation every bit as much as children do. So, let's stop pretending that we don't! If I really want my wife to feel special (and, she certainly is special), I will tell her so in various ways each and every day. Gottman suggests that we take the time to make a list of our partner's positive qualities, memorize that list, and then use the list in two ways:

(1) To challenge the negative and critical thoughts that we sometimes entertain about our spouses (2) To offer honest compliments, thanks, and praise to our mates on a daily basis


Gottman Strategy #2: Speak Nondefensively

Even marriages that are generally positive and supportive can get off track periodically. Tempers flare. Harsh words are spoken. Defensiveness usually follows. When relationship tensions are high and you feel a strong urge to express your displeasure to your spouse in critical and colorful terms -- -- STOP!

You have a choice to make. Ask yourself, “Do I want to relate in a healthy, constructive, rational fashion - or, give in to my hurt and angry feelings?”

“Your goal should be to simply complain to your spouse rather than make the attack personal (Gottman, p.189)”

So, how do we complain to our spouses in a constructive way? In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, John Gottman, Ph.D. clarified the differences between a complaint, a criticism, and contempt. These descriptions below are quoted directly from his book (p. 189) and help us to understand why criticism and contempt can be so damaging.

· A Complaint is specific, limited to one situation. It states how you feel (“I am upset because you didn't take out the garbage tonight.”)

· A Criticism tends to be global and includes blaming our partner. You'll often find the word always or never in a criticism. (“You never take out the garbage. Now it's overflowed and that's your fault. I can't ever rely on you.”)

· Contempt adds insult to the criticism. It is verbal character assassination in which you accuse your spouse of stupidity, incompetence, etc. (“You idiot, why can't you ever remember to take out the garbage?”)

Gottman suggests that we keep the following guidelines in mind as we monitor the way we speak to our partners:

· Remove the blame from your comments

· State how you feel

· Don't criticize your spouse's personality

· Don't insult, mock, or use sarcasm

· Be direct

· Stick with one situation

· Don't try to analyze your partner's personality

· Don't mind-read


Gottman's Formula for Presenting Your Complaint:

“A good way to keep a complaint specific is to couch it in what I call an 'X, Y, Z' statement. Think of this approach as a kind of frame in which you fill in the blanks with your particular gripe in mind: 'When you did (or didn't do) X in situation Y, I felt Z.'

“Example: 'When you didn't call to tell me you were going to be late (X) for our dinner appointment (Y), I felt frustrated (Z).' Using this X, Y, Z formula will help you avoid insults and character assassination. It allows you to simply state how your partner's behavior affects your feelings and, in turn, your response (Gottman, p. 191-192).”

So, the next time that you begin to react defensively towards your partner, take a deep breath and chose to express your concerns respectfully and responsibly in X, Y, Z terms. By presenting your problem in descriptive terms, and avoiding any critical and insulting language, you increase your chances of being heard and understood.

Next Month: Strategies #3 and #4 - Validation & Overlearning


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Email: MacHart@PoliceInterview.com

Malcolm M. Hart, Ph.D.
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