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Bright Futures

Articles and Updates from Phoenix Children's

July 29, 2020, Popenhagen, Mark, PsyD, ABPP ,
Fighting Fair: A Guide to Better Communication

Sometimes communicating with friends and family can be hard. With so many of us stuck in quarantine with nowhere to go and little to do, arguments can break out more frequently - even in the most loving and closely-knit families.   

Thankfully, there are techniques that allow everyone involved in an argument to walk away feeling heard and understood. If you’re used to arguments turning into screaming matches or dead silence, these tips are for you! 

By deploying these methods when a conversation takes a turn for the worse, families can avoid hurt feelings and better understand each other’s point of view. This doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will agree, but rather, everyone talks and listens in a controlled and respectful way. Because it’s a new technique, it may feel strange and awkward at first. You might even make mistakes and feel tempted to return to your old ways of communicating. But like anything else, if you keep practicing, it will get easier.

To begin, we have to agree upon three very specific, iron-clad ground rules:

  • RULE 1: No physical violence or threats of violence – EVER. No hitting, tapping, poking, slapping, shoving, pushing, kicking, biting, spitting, wrestling or throwing things. Like the saying goes, keep your hands to yourselves.
  • RULE 2: No name calling or swearing. Instead of focusing on resolving an argument, name calling and swearing only perpetuates hurt feelings. It’s one of the quickest ways to make someone not listen to you.
  • RULE 3: EVERYONE gets to talk, and EVERYONE gets to listen.

Okay, now that we have the ground rules in place, let’s cover the process:

  1. Pick something to serve as a “talking stick.” This should be something soft and small, and in all actuality, probably shouldn’t be a stick. Pillows, stuffed animals, tissues and washcloths all make great “talking sticks.” An important note, “talking sticks” should never be thrown - no matter how soft they are (see Rule 1 above). Incidentally, talking sticks, also known as speaker’s staffs, originated with indigenous tribes and were particularly common in the Pacific Northwest. Each tribe has unique history and customs associated with talking sticks, which are now commonly used to aid in conflict resolution.
  2. If you have the “talking stick” you get to talk. If you’re talking, this isn’t the time to get on a soapbox and go on and on or give a lecture. Focus on talking about one thing at a time. It’s important to stay on track, so be brief and to the point. If you catch yourself saying something like, “. . . and another thing . . .,” it’s time to pass the stick to the listener. Whenever possible, try to avoid bringing up “evidence” around your point if it happened more than two days ago.
  3. Once the speaker has made their point, they give the “stick” to the listener. If your point is a long one, break it up into smaller pieces to ensure the listener is fully digesting everything you are saying.
  4. If you do not have the “talking stick,” you get to listen. Remember listening is an active process that takes a LOT of work. Passively waiting, singing a song in your head, thinking about what is for dinner, or planning your next verbal attack isn’t going to help. Listening means paying attention to everything the speaker is saying.
  5. Once you receive the “stick,” you must resist the temptation to launch into your side of things. You’ll get your turn in time, but now is not that time. At this point, you’re to simply paraphrase what you heard the speaker say. Once you’ve summarized, give the stick back. No additions and no mocking.
  6. The speaker now gets to agree or disagree with the summary. Sometimes people who are angry or upset don’t say things as well as they’d like or don’t come across as well as they intended. Sometimes the listener missed something. When you first use this technique, you might find yourself going back and forth several times. Just keep practicing; it’ll get easier. This is the time for the speaker to clarify what he/she said and/or meant.
  7. If the summary the listener provided is indeed what you said, and the point you were making has been shared, it’s time to give the stick back to the listener.
  8. If you were the listener, it’s NOW your turn to become the talker and explain your side of things.
  9. Go back up and repeat the process over and over until the point has been fully discussed, both sides feel heard and a resolution is in place – even if the resolution is to talk the issue through again after you’ve had time to think it through.

As you talk through the issues at hand, keep these principles in mind:

  • Examples should be as specific as possible. Eliminate “ultimate” words such as always, never, everyone, everything, no one and the phrase, “all the time.” For example, “You never put anything away” suggests the listener has never, ever put anything away where it belongs in their entire life. It’s unlikely someone is that much of a slob. It’s more likely they frequently neglect to put their things away. Instead, saying something like, “Yesterday I put your laundry on the bed, and you chose to sleep on top of it instead of putting it away.”
  • Use “I” statements as much as possible when talking about how you feel. For example, saying, “You really made me mad” isn’t as effective as saying, “I really felt angry when you didn’t call and tell me where you were this afternoon.” The first statement sounds more like an attack, causing the listener to get defensive while the second statement starts off with the speaker taking ownership of their feelings and is specific to the behavior that wasn’t appreciated. Follow the formula of “I feel/felt                                when you                          .”
    Side Note: Not all “I” statements need to be about negative things. For example, “I was so happy when you helped me make dinner last night.” This tells the listener what behavior is appreciated, acknowledges the effort the listener made and makes it much more likely this behavior will happen again.
  • People tend to think more clearly and rationally when they are calm. Taking breaks and even postponing arguments can be beneficial if used properly, especially if you’re tempted to break a rule or it isn’t a good time to talk. However, if you take a break, set a precise time when you’ll come back to finish the discussion. “Later” or “tomorrow” aren’t precise enough; “in 15 minutes” or “right after supper” work better. “In 3 weeks” is too long. Get back to things as soon as possible. It’s not fair to hold someone “hostage” if they need a break. It’s also not fair to take so many breaks nothing gets accomplished. When breaks are taken, agree to take them. Don’t just walk off and yell back over your shoulder, “I’m taking a break.”

If you practice this technique frequently and often, you’ll find arguments turn into respectful conversations where everyone is heard and feelings are much less likely to get hurt – even during a pandemic.

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