The 10 Commandments of Clean Communication

Brett & Kate McKay | September 17, 2014

Loving relationships are the most important factor in a man’s happiness, success, and ability to live a fully flourishing life.

And one of the most important factors in creating and sustaining these warm, intimate relationships is communication.

Unfortunately, how to communicate with one’s significant other in a healthy, positive way is something rarely taught to either men or women. As a result, many couples find that their discussions regularly turn into heated, unproductive arguments that ultimately damage their relationship. Angry fighting leads to distance and weakens intimacy. Yelling, sarcasm, insults, and name-calling undermine trust. This kind of pejorative communication creates defensiveness and alienation, which makes it nearly impossible for a couple to address their issues together. What starts as a conversation escalates into a fight in which the original issue gets forgotten, you lose track of what you’re even yelling about, and nothing gets resolved.

In contrast, couples who know how to discuss their disagreements in a healthy way are able to nip problems in the bud before they turn into big, relationship-ending issues. The key to this kind of positive interaction is what the authors of Couple Skills call “clean communication.” Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, and Kim Paleg (hereafter referred to as MFP) define clean communication as “taking responsibility for the impact of what you say.” By being more intentional about their communication techniques and leaving out rhetoric that wounds one’s partner and creates defensiveness, a couple creates a safe place in which to honestly and respectfully work through their differences.

What are the principles of clean communication? MFP lay out 10 “commandments” to follow when you’re talking with your significant other. While the focus of this post is communication in a romantic relationship, much of this also applies to personal interactions in all areas of your life.

The 10 Commandments of Clean Communication

1. Avoid judgment words and loaded terms.

  • “You’re acting so childish right now.”
  • “Oh boo-hoo. I’m tired of your perpetual ‘poor me’ attitude.”
  • “Maybe if you were more of a man, you’d be able to handle this.”
  • “You’d probably feel better if you got off your fat, lazy ass and finally did something about it.”

When you’re having a heated argument with your significant other, it can be very tempting to level a real zinger at them – to use words and putdowns you know will wound them and push their buttons. Such zingers aim to point our their flaws and tear down their worth. They accomplish this mission – but at the expense of trust and intimacy.

2. Avoid “global” labels.

There are two ways to criticize someone – you can critique their character or their behavior. In criticizing behavior, you’re calling out something specific and temporary – something the person can realistically change. But in assailing someone’s very identity, you’re issuing a global label – a blanket condemnation of who they are at the core; they don’t just do bad stuff, they are a bad person.

Global labels can feel highly satisfying to hurl at someone when you’re angry and can seem completely justifiable at the time. In writing the person off as incorrigible, you also essentially absolve yourself of any responsibility for your issues as a couple: “We wouldn’t have this problem if you weren’t so selfish.”

But blanket condemnations of your partner’s character are anathema to a loving relationship. They will make her feel hurt and defensive, greatly hindering any chance of communication. Global labels also make your partner feel helpless – if the problem is rooted in their very identity/personality, changing will seem impossible to them. They’re liable to answer: “I’m sorry, but this is the way I am!” Thus, in using global labels you wash your hands of any responsibility for the problem, while at the same time, your partner will feel unable and unwilling to do anything about it either…not a recipe for effective conflict resolution!

Here are some examples of global labels, and how they could be better rendered as specific critiques of behavior instead of character:

  • “You’re so self-centered and only care about yourself.” → “In forgetting my birthday, I felt like you didn’t think about my feelings.”
  • “You’re such a bitch.”→ “Questioning my masculinity is a low-blow. I’d like to try to talk to you without the name-calling.”
  • “You’re always so helpless.” → “I know you’re having trouble figuring out how to download that app, but right now I need to finish this paper. If you still can’t get it, I promise to help you tonight.”

3. Avoid “you” messages of blame and accusation.

As MFP put it, “the essence of a ‘you’ message is simply this: ‘I’m in pain and you did it to me.’ And there’s usually this subtext: ‘You were bad and wrong for doing it to me.’” When people slight us, it may be true that they are entirely, or almost entirely, to blame. But when you lead with that blame, the instigator will instantly erect walls of defensiveness that will make working through the issue together impossible. This doesn’t mean you have to pretend your significant other is not at fault when they are, it just means you use language that says the same thing in a different way – couching your message so that it actually has a chance to surmount their psychological walls and reach their brain.

To do this, you want to swap out your you-centered accusations for statements that emphasize “I” – how you feel when your partner does certain things. Here are some examples:

  • “You always leave the house such a mess.” → “When the house is so cluttered I end up feeling stressed out.”
  • “Your moodiness is ruining our relationship.” → “When I can’t predict your moods, I’m not sure how to approach you, and I feel like that’s eroding the intimacy in our relationship.”
  • “You’re always late and it’s driving me crazy.” → “I feel embarrassed when we arrive late to events.”

 4. Avoid old history.

  • “You’re just being ungrateful like always. Remember when I spent all weekend cleaning the house before your folks arrived and you never even said thank you?”
  • “You don’t trust me? At least I’m not the one who cheated last year.”
  • “It’s always the same damned thing with you. You’re sorry about spending too much on the couch, just like you were sorry for going over budget on the kitchen remodel, and sorry for spending so much on the dress for our wedding…”

When you’re addressing a certain problem, stick with the issue at hand instead of slinging mud, or engaging in what my friend calls “closet-fighting” — i.e., reaching back into the closet of your past for old grievances to buttress your current accusations. When we closet-fight, MFP write, “The message is: ‘You’re bad, you’re bad, you’re bad. You’ve always had this flaw, and it’s not getting any better.’” While talking about your history together may be useful when you’re both calm, MFP recommend sticking to the present when things are heated, as “anger turns references to the past into a club rather than a source of enlightenment.”

Resurrecting old beefs will ratchet up the intensity of your discussion, and will invariably send it off in a different direction and away from resolving the original issue. Plus, your partner will likely be hurt that you’re still holding onto something she thought you’d forgiven her for, and you both will feel like your relationship isn’t progressing. It’s hard to move forward if you keep rehashing the past; instead, let sleeping dogs lie.

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