By Dr. Eunbee Ham
In a previous post, my colleague Hee Jin Lee summarized well Gottman’s principles for healthy communication. She wrote that one
must consciously refrain from engaging in destructive habits in conversation, namely, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and
stonewalling. Healthy conversation partners approach a conflict by clarifying and communicating their own needs specifically,
demonstrating empathy rather than pointing blame, and respectfully taking breaks before tensions escalate out of control.
While these strategies can help resolve conflicts and repair relationships, they are so much easier said than done! Especially if
relationships have been entrenched in destructive patterns of communication, unlearning these habits and learning new ways of
communicating can take as much time as babies learning to take their first steps. Just as people don’t expect babies to
get it on their first try, it is important to have realistic expectations when we learn new skills for healthy communication. A trained
professional can help discern the old patterns and pitfalls and facilitate your learning more effectively.
But even trained professionals struggle. I empathize with couples who struggle to put their learning into practice in marital therapy
because I know how hard it is to choose to be loving and non-defensive in a conflict. When I perceive that my partner has unfairly
judged my intentions or actions, the first thing I want to do is to defend my actions! In this article, I share my own struggle in hopes that it will encourage those who may be discouraged about learning healthier ways to navigate conflict with their loved ones.
The struggle is real.
But the good news is that we do have the power to make positive changes in our lives, however small those steps they might be. Every small decision that we make toward love, life, and healing have the power to transform ourselves at the very least.
We can do things differently. Let me give you a concrete example of how I decide to take a different path in the heat of hurt and anger.
When I notice that my partner are going back and forth trying to make the other person understand our own perspective, I stop the
pattern because it is going nowhere. We are wasting our energy.
So I choose to do something different. We have the power to choose differently for another outcome.
What I do next is counterintuitive. Even though I badly want my partner to understand my perspective first,I set those feelings aside and begin to create a space where my partner feels genuinely understood. This involves mirroring back what my partner said without
interjecting my own opinions and comebacks.
It usually goes something like, “I hear you saying that you feel hurt because of x and y. I am so sorry for x and y.” To the best of my
(struggling) ability, I make sure that my partner feels completely understood and own my part in the conflict, whether or not I think that my partner’s right.
Even though this feels so counterintuitive, the more I make room for my partner’s perspective, the more my partner begins to soften
and inquire into my perspective as well. My decision to let go of my need to be understood comes back to me in a reciprocal bid to
understand me more deeply with compassion, forgiveness, and compromise.
I offer this example so that someone out there may find a word of encouragement if they have been struggling with healthy
I am not saying that the strategy I shared in my personal story always leads to mutual understanding and reconciliation.
Every relationship is different and complex.
What I am saying is that we have the power to choose differently. Even though it may feel as unnatural as learning to write with
your non-dominant hand, you may be surprised by what possibilities await when you choose to break old, destructive habits. May
our baby steps toward life offer the healing, compassion, and love that we need.