Rules of Engagement in Communication


Every time I tell people that my husband and I don’t ever yell at each other they give me this look.  The look that says “Either you’re a big fat liar or some kind of crazy person.”  It’s something that has been important to us our whole marriage.  We hate being yelled at, so we don’t yell.  Every once in a while one will slip through – like when the 3 year old pees on the floor for the umpteenth time that day at the exact same time that the 1 year old dropped the third thing in the toilet (which hadn’t been flushed, by the way).  Yep, that happened.  I may have yelled a bit at that moment.  But as a general rule, we don’t yell or scream in this house (except Finny – the three year old – who screams pretty much all the time.  Scared, excited, angry and happy emotions all produce a very high-pitched screaminess in that child).  But aannnnyyywaaaayyyy….

One of the ways that we keep our cool (thus preventing the yelling) in communication is to establish some rules for engagement.  Most of these are more specific to our marriage relationship, but are also helpful in a parent/older child relationship too.  Here are some of the rules we use in our household:

SEEK TO UNDERSTAND.  ASK CLARIFYING QUESTIONS.  One of the main reasons we fight is because we feel that we are not being heard or understood.  We want to make sure that our feelings are being heard, but we often don’t make it our priority to truly understand the way the other person is feeling.  We don’t ever assume that we understand what the other is saying.  Actually, sometimes we do and it always, always gets us in trouble.  Because we have different brains and because we speak different languages, we almost always hear something that the other one didn’t say in the midst of an argument.  So, we simply ask questions.  “I want to make sure I understand…are you saying that…”  “I’m hearing that you feel… that correct?”  Honestly, it may feel silly to begin with but it is the number one thing that has improved our communication.  It makes us both feel heard and understood.  At the very least it tells the other person that we WANT to understand, which makes such a huge difference in the tone of the argument.

LISTEN…DON’T JUST WAIT TO SPEAK.  So many times when you’re in an argument, you’re only goal is to make sure to prove your point.  You want to be heard, understood, proven right.  So, you spend the entire conversation waiting for the other person to be quiet and listen to what you have to say.  Instead of listening to their side or thoughts or feelings, you’re simply formulating your argument in your head waiting for an opportunity to jump in and prove how amazingly right you were all along and how dumb they were for doubting you.  When we listen more than we speak…

TAKE TIME TO PROCESS BEFORE YOU REACT.  This is enormous for us.  My husband is naturally very good at this.  Me, not so much.  I tend to react quickly and often with more snark than I should.  He tends to take more time than I’m comfortable with.  We’ve learned to come up with some sort of balance.  He is not allowed to leave the room and I am not allowed to respond right away.  Remember that little poster in your elementary school classroom with the word THINK on it?  Before you speak, you’re supposed to T.H.I.N.K.  Is it True?  Is it Helpful?  Is it Inspiring?  Is it Necessary?  Is it Kind?  I honestly go through that in my head WAY more often than I should probably admit.  I need to.  I want to make sure to build others up with my words – especially my husband!  Taking time to process before I react is the most important step in doing that.

AVOID “HOT BUTTONS” OR SENSITIVE SUBJECTS.  We don’t ever bring up past relationships.  We just don’t.  There’s no need to and it may make us more sensitive or vulnerable than we really need to be in conversation.  We don’t bring up the same sad subjects over and over.  There are some things that we have to simply agree to disagree.  Not the big stuff – never the big stuff.  For the big things, we have to always be on the same page.  But the little things that don’t matter at all?  We just let them lie.

LEAVE THE PAST IN THE PAST.  We don’t bring up past mistakes, feelings, hurts or arguments.  If we have already resolved something, it is declared over and finished.  There is nothing good that has ever come out of digging up dead stuff.  What’s the point of resolving things or forgiving things if you are just going to bring them up over and over again.  There’s no security in that.  No one would feel safe to share their feelings in a relationship where there is never a clean slate.  This one is a hard one for us.  Sometimes we mess up and dig up old junk in order to win an argument or make a point.

WATCH YOUR TONE.  We don’t yell.  I know I mentioned that before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again.  Yelling at someone communicates that you are in control or in charge (whether that is your intention or not).  Think about when someone yells in public – what is your reaction?  Mine is that they are trying to assert themselves as the one in control or the one who calls the shots.  Seeing a parent yell at a child in public makes me cringe.  Seeing a husband yell at his wife in public feels even more uncomfortable to me (probably because parents yell at their kids all the time in public!).  If you wouldn’t do it in public, why in the world would you do it in private?  Or worse yet – in front of your kids?!  I know that in most families yelling is so commonplace that it feels normal.  I would argue that it is NOT normal.  And not ok.  Speak kindly…gently.  With compassion and with love.  I cannot imagine a better way to communicate worth and love to someone than to refuse to ever raise your voice at them.  This is how my husband communicates that I am valued and respected by him.  It’s how I communicate the same to him.  This is so important to us.  In case you’re wondering, we also don’t allow our kids to raise their voices at each other or to us.  We want them to always think of others as more important than themselves.  This is one way that we teach that concept to them – and to ourselves.

A former pastor of ours once taught us this phrase and it has stuck with us all these years:

“Do you want to be right or do you want to restore the relationship?”

Every time we argue or disagree, we try to filter our words through that phrase.  Am I trying to prove something?  Am I more worried about being understood or being understanding?  Am I more concerned with my own feelings than the feelings of the other person?  Is my goal reconciliation?  Or am I more concerned with being right – or proving that I’m right?

I know that these “rules” may not work for everyone.  They work for us.  I would encourage every married couple or parent or family unit to come up with their own rules of engagement for communication.  Let’s learn how to communicate with and understand each other.  Let’s teach it to our kids.  Let’s make the world a better place to be one relationship at a time.


One thought on “Rules of Engagement in Communication

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s