A Step-by-Step Guide To Turn Any Argument Into Effective Communication

By Posted in - Blog January 6th, 2015 4 Comments Dr. Jessica Higgins Effective

Have you ever wanted to address an issue with your partner and not known how? It is a common experience to try to address a concern with good intentions, and then something goes wrong. There is some misunderstanding or upset that takes the whole conversation off course. What was meant to be a conversation to resolve something has now turn into even more of a problem.

Well, here is a tool for you to use. I am not going to lie and say that it is easy. Every step of the way will probably feel hard, but if you stay with it and see it through, I assure you it will be way worth the effort.

As with most things, the more you practice the better you will get. We do not become effective, skillful communicators over night with no effort. Even with all the training and experience that I have had, it is still an effort for me. BUT, I trust in the results. I believe it the process. I know it works. Also, I would much rather challenge myself to engage in this process and get to some sort of resolution and understanding than argue and exchange harmful words that get me and my partner nowhere.

While following this exercise might feel really structured or formal, it can be a good starting point. Often when we are learning a new skill, we have to follow the guidelines until we can make the technique our own. It reminds me of an old English teacher that told our class, “You need to know the rules of grammar before you can break them.”

Participating in this exercise might feel awkward and uncomfortable, but I encourage you to give it try. If you are willing and open, you may learn and experience something new.

When following this framework, pick one issue to focus on or address. Often if we attempt to resolve several issues at once, we can easily feel overwhelmed and overloaded making it difficult to resolve even just one concern.

If you are just experimenting with this technique, I recommend starting with a smaller concern.

Dr. Jessica Higgins Effective

© Bob Reid │Flickr

For example, you may want to choose a concern that is about a #3 on a scale from 1 – 10 (#10 being the biggest concern). Starting with a smaller concern will give you enough emotional perspective to stay engaged in this exercise. For example, do you remember learning how to drive a car and how much energy it took to attend to all the details of driving, and now it seems like second nature? When practicing any new skill, you will want to reserve some of your mental and emotional strength for learning, and in this case for a new communication strategy. If you start with a big concern, you may feel too upset and not have enough energy to attend to learning.

While the purpose of this exercise is to become more effective in discussing difficult or heated topics, the main goal I want you to focus on is understanding…understanding your experience more and understanding your partners experience more. In relationship, we rarely slow down long enough to fully understanding what is going on.

Again, if you can, have an open mind, and do your best to stay calm and grounded. Keep track of your emotions, and if you get too defensive or reactive, take a break. You can always come back and pick-up where you left off. Learning a new skill happens through repetition and practice. Let’s aim for progress and not perfection.

1. SCHEDULE SOME TIME WITH YOUR PARTNER. Let them know you would like to try this exercise. Ask your partner, “Would you be willing to try this communication exercise?” Or, “I was reading this article, and it offered a format for discussing a heated topic with your partner. I would like to try it, would you be willing?” If you get a yes, then I ask, “When would be a good time?”

2. INTENTIONS AND AGREEMENTS? Once you find a time and you sit down together. What do you do next? It can be helpful to talk about your intentions. For example, “it seems like we have had a difficult time discussing _________. I would love for us to work through this and have a way to move forward that we can both feel good about.” Or, “I have had a hard time with the topic _________. I have felt confused, and I would like for us to understand each other better.”

Is there anything that would help to create safety? Some people find it helpful to put a time frame on the discussion. Let’s give ourselves between 20 – 40 mins. Also, what happens when one of us gets upset? Would you like to have an agreement that we can stop at any time? If we need to take a break, what can we say to let each other know?

3. DECIDE WHO WILL SHARE FIRST: Who will be the speaker, and who will be the listener.

Listener’s role: Listener practices active listening skills.

  • Try to stay present to what your partner is saying, rather that thinking about what you will want to say next.
  • Listen to the problem as it affects them and seek to understand their world and how they see it.
  • Try to listen without judging, making comparisons, or evaluations.
  • Maintain an open posture through your body language (i.e. uncrossing arms, sitting facing your partner, relaxing your body).
  • Offer non-verbal cues of listening through eye contact and head nodding.


Dr. Jessica Higgins Effective

© Ed Yourdon│Flickr

Speaker’s role: Speaker shares from an “I” position.

  • Try using this structure, “When ____ happens, I feel ____ Because _____.”
  • Example: “When I get interrupted, I feel hurt because I think what I am saying is unimportant.”
  • Example: “When we don’t spend quality time together, I feel scared because I start to worry that we are losing our connection.”
  • 1st fill in the blank it addressing the content of the situation or scenario.
  • 2nd fill in the blank is acknowledging the emotion (i.e. angry, sad, scared, etc.).
  • 3rd fill in the blank is sharing what happens for you (i.e. I worry).
  • This means using “I” statements and expressing your thoughts and feelings in a non-blaming way, by focusing on yourself and stay with your own experience.
  • By being self-focused, your partner will be more likely to listen and hear you without feeling the need to defend his/her position.
  • If your partner is able to hear you, then he/she will be more likely to understand and have compassion to your experience.
  • Avoid disguised “you” statements. “I feel like you______” “I feel that you ______.” Most people feel defensive when they hear “you” statements. If you are talking about you, stay with your experience…your wonderings, fears, assumptions, feelings, etc. As soon as you start talking about someone else, you are most often assuming, guessing, imagining, interpreting, and projecting. If you speak with “you” statements, the person you are talking to will most likely want to correct you, and this takes the focus off of what you are really trying to say.
  • “I” statements usually don’t work if the desire is to control your partner.

5. LISTENER REFLECTS BACK: After the speaker shares his/her experience, the listener reflects back what they heard about their partner’s experience. Then, the listener can check it out to see if it is correct.

Summarize what you heard (i.e. the content of what they are sharing and their feelings about what they are sharing).

Example: “So, what I heard you saying is that when we don’t spend time together, you feel nervous or scared, and you start to worry that we are growing apart.” “Is that right?” “Am I missing anything?”

6. SPEAKER CLARIFIES: The speaker says, “yes, that is right”, or “no, it isn’t quite right.” If it’s not right, the speaker can clarify what aspect the listener didn’t get fully or add more about the emotional experience. Example on adding more: “Yes, I feel scared and worried. I am realize that I sometimes overreact.”

7. LISTENER REFLECTS BACK: Listener reflects what they heard and checks it out again. Listener may also tune into the emotions and needs that are either spoken or unspoken. Example: “Sounds like you feel concerned and scared when this happens, and you don’t know how to feel better. Is that right?” Or another example that address the need is “It sounds like you have a need to feel assured about our connection or you have a need to feel some connection time. Is that right?”

 8. SPEAKER CONFIRMS: Example: “Yes, that’s right. I believe you got it. Thank you for listening.”


10. BOTH FEELING HEARD. Hopeful, after going through this process you now have a better sense of  what has contributed to the issue between you and your partner. You may have learned something new about yourself, and you may have learned something new about your partner.

© Sean Molin │Flicker

© Sean Molin │Flickr

Usually, when we can get to a place of slowing down and really listening to each other, we soften and feel closer. When we can really listen openly, we understand and have more compassion and empathy. This can feel remarkably different from previous attempts. ❤

Stay tuned for articles that take this process further, like understanding the need, offering empathy, getting to a win/win.

I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below, and tell what you feel is helpful and what part is really difficult.

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(4) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Jenny - Reply

    January 20, 2016 at 10:06 pm

    Hi Dr. Higgins,
    Thank you for this very helpful resource. I am just learning now how damaging my critical nature is to my relationship. I am researching ways to communicate in a positive effective way and came across your site. Thank you for providing such useful information!

    • Dr. Jessica Higgins - Reply

      February 1, 2016 at 5:11 pm

      Hi Jenny,

      Thank you so much for posting a comment. I responded to this comment a couple of weeks ago. However, I was out-of-town in another country. It looks like it did not go through.

      Thank you so much for your feedback! It means a lot to me. Wishing you all the best.

      Please let me know if I can be of any support.

  • Keenya - Reply

    September 27, 2017 at 10:58 pm

    Hello, this is my first time on your site and came here from a link on your podcast this is such great advice I plan to print it out. My partner and I do something similar to this but we have a “relationship journal” we can write in our worries and then when we talk we also try to write out our plans and solutions . I like having the journal we also hug and kiss before and after . Also we have been given the great advice to think about the outcome we desire — which for us is a happy loving relationship for life— so if we keep that in mind it will keep you from coming from a place of anger
    Thank you so much I will print this out and put it in our journal. Great podcast thank you!!!

    • Dr. Jessica Higgins - Reply

      October 3, 2017 at 11:01 am

      Hi Keenya, Thank you for taking time to comment. I really appreciate it. It sounds like you and your partner are already doing some fantastic practices together. I really like the journal process, as I believe this helps with getting clear before communication. I have an article on how to get clear before communication, if you are interested I can send it to you. Also, I love the step of taking note of what to do moving forward, as it helps provide direction. Glad you are enjoying the podcast! Feel free to let me know if I can be of any support in any way.

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Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication.

Stop the criticism loop, learn new ways to communicate
and strengthen the connection with your partner.


Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching