How to talk to someone you love

He: Where is my blue shirt?

She: I didn’t have time to iron it. It’s been a hectic day.

He: What do you mean you didn’t have time? You’ve been home all day!

She: Look, Buster, I’ve been busy. I’ve had plenty to keep me occupied.

He: Doing what? I’m out working hard all day to put bread on the table while you just lie around here and watch soap operas.

She: You’re crazy! You haven’t got a clue of what it means to run a home: cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, taking care of the kids!

He: That’s a bunch of bunk! You have the easiest life of anybody I know. You need to know what real work is like.

She: Oh, and you do, I suppose. You sit in your fine office all day except to take your clients out to lunches and play golf with the boss. Then you come home at night, demand to be fed, and watch TV while I clean up. You are impossible!

One of the main problems in a relationship is the failure to communicate. Communication means to express your thoughts and feelings so the recipient understands what you mean. Well, by that standard the above couple are certainly communicating, but not in a way that will improve their relationship. How can we communicate in a way that will enhance significant relationships? How do we talk to someone we love?

As we search for answers, many of our illustrations will be taken from marriage—perhaps the most crucial area of relationships. However, the guidelines we will discuss are good for any relationship in which two people care about each other. We can apply these to parents and children, courting couples, roommates, work associates, fellow church members, and close friends. Everyone has someone that he or she cares about. So everyone needs to know how to talk in a way that enhances the relationship. Here are 10 guidelines for talking to someone you love.1

1. Listen carefully for both thoughts and feelings.

“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19, NRSV). If we are to build loving relationships, we must become good listeners before we can even think of how to talk. Loving communication involves an understanding between two minds and two hearts. We absolutely have to know what the other person is thinking and feeling in order to respond in a relationship-enhancing manner.

Listening is an art that does not come naturally but has to be learned. First, don’t interrupt until the other person has finished talking. When we are listening, the temptation is to think of responses and rebuttals. So we may break in to get our point of view across. This sends the message: “I care more about what I am thinking than what you are saying.”

Second, give your full, undivided attention to what your loved one is saying. This is more difficult than it sounds, for it is so easy to become distracted and let your mind wander on to other things. Ruth Graham, the wife of the famous evangelist, illustrates this point: “My husband is frequently preoccupied. Understandably. He has a lot to be preoccupied about. We were expecting company for dinner, and I asked him what he would like to have on the menu.

“‘Uh-huh,’he grunted. I knew he was with me in body only and decided to have some fun.

“‘I thought we’d start off with tadpole soup,’ I began.

“‘Un-huh.’

“‘And there is some lovely poison ivy growing in the next cove which would make a delightful salad.’

“‘Un-huh.’

“‘For the main dish, I could try roasting some of those wharf rats we’ve been seeing around the smokehouse lately and serve them with boiled crabgrass and baked birdseed.’

“‘Un-huh.’

“‘And for dessert we could have a mud souffle and…’My voice trailed off as his eyes began to focus.

“‘What was that you said about wharf rats?’ he asked.”2

Focused listening is very wearing, but set aside some time to concentrate on the messages from your loved one.

Third, accept the thoughts and feelings of your loved one as genuine, and do not try to deny him or her or talk the person out of them. Statements like, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” or “Don’t ever say that,” or “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard” fracture the conversation and the relationship. For example, at supper Bobby takes a spoonful of soup and complains: “This tastes terrible!” Mother will be tempted to say: “No it doesn’t; it’s delicious!” But tastes are personal. If he doesn’t like it, no objective evidence will be convincing. Bobby hears: “I am not interested in your opinion.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we agree with every statement we hear. We have our own tastes. But we can accept the judgments and feelings of others as representing their thoughts and feelings. Mother would be wiser to reply: “I’m sorry that you don’t enjoy the soup. I personally enjoy it, but you can probably find some other things to eat that you will like better.”

Fourth, check out the meaning of the message you are receiving. Since words mean different things to different people, it is easy for meanings to get garbled in passing from one person to another. We can check out our understanding by paraphrasing. “You are frustrated and angry because the boss unfairly blamed you for the mistake.” “You’re afraid it may threaten our relationship if I appear to be too friendly with Sue.” The sender then has opportunity to confirm that the receiver has gotten the intended message or to correct any misapprehension.

2. Be slow to speak.

Think through things carefully. Speak in a way that the other person can accept what you say.

Listening carefully will help us formulate the best response. It will help prevent the tendency to say what pops into our minds without thinking through.

One sure way to gain the support of the listener is to take responsibility for feelings expressed. This can be achieved through the use of “I” messages by: (1) giving a non-blameful description of what is being said or done that is causing the problem, (2) sharing the feelings you are experiencing now, and (3) explaining why this behavior causes you a problem.

For instance, if I am feeling frustrated because someone is late in meeting an appointment, I could respond in two different ways: I could say: “You make me so angry by being late again. Why aren’t you more considerate?” Or I could say: “I am frustrated because it really bothers me to be late to an appointment because I feel that I have inconvenienced the person we were to see. Can you help me make an adjustment?”

Actually, no one can make us experience anger or any other emotion. We are responsible for whatever emotions we have.

3. Don’t turn minor points into major ones.

Nobody is perfect. Your loved one will probably have habits that you find disagreeable. Some people tend to expand these to characterize the whole relationship by free use of the words always and never. “You are always late.” “You never treat me with respect.” These are pretty extreme terms that are probably not true.

Edith Shaeffer once said: “If you demand perfection or nothing, you will get nothing.” Important relationships need to be based on honest communication. So we must not exaggerate the other’s faults but speak only the truth. But note: Truth must always be spoken in love. “Love…. does not hold grudges and will hardly even notice when others do it wrong” (1 Corinthians 13:5, TLB). To be totally honest and yet to be totally kind is the genius of true communication.

4. Don’t frustrate your loved one with the silent treatment.

A person might choose to remain silent for a number of reasons. One may want to punish the other person, hope the problem will disappear if ignored, feel that silence is golden in that it gives the problem time to resolve itself, or feel that nothing said will make any difference. None of the above reasons work—they just build walls and bar communication.

It is important to explain why you are hesitant to talk at this time and use the three suggestions for how to use “I” messages under guideline 2. This can result in improved understanding and working through issues so they don’t crop up again.

5. Learn to disagree without quarreling.

“Stop being mean, bad-tempered and angry. Quarreling, harsh words, and dislike of others should have no place in your lives” (Ephesians 4:31, TLB). Two people will not always agree on everything. But when you do disagree even with someone you love, it is possible to do this in calm, caring manner—concentrating on the problem and not attacking the person.

Love is not a warm, fuzzy feeling although such feelings, may result from love. Love is a decision to care about another and to promote his or her welfare. Nearly a hundred years ago, the noted psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan, defined love as follows: “When the satisfaction or the security of another person becomes as significant to one as is one’s own satisfaction or security, then the state of love exists.” We will not always feel loving, but we can make a determination to act in a loving manner.

In No Longer Strangers, Bruce Larson relates a conversation he had with a friend: “That particular morning when I asked my friend how he was doing, he said, ‘Terrible. I had a fight with my wife last night and we went to bed not speaking to each other, sleeping back to back. But this morning she gave me a kiss and said, “Honey, I love you.”’”

“‘What did you say?’”I asked eagerly.

“‘I said, “Well I don’t love you and I don’t love myself and I don’t love God. I can’t think of anybody that I do love. But I’ll tell you this: I’m going to pray this morning and I believe that sometime in the near future God will straighten me out because He loves me. He will make me able to love again. And when He does, I promise to put you first on the list!”’”3

Note that in spite of the negative words, this man really did love his wife. In fact, he was telling her that he cared for her even though he didn’t feel loving. Sometimes we won’t feel loving. Sometimes our relationship will seem flat. Sometimes we will be angry with each other. That’s when real love rises above the emotional level and signals to the other that we care.

6. Do not respond in anger.

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, NIV). “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are angry”(Ephesians 4:26, NIV).

Edgar N. Jackson in The Many Faces of Grief offers these four A’s to manage anger. We have adapted them to fit this model.

1. Admit it (this is often difficult to do). We need to take responsibility for our emotions.

2. Analyze it objectively. Ask yourself, Why am I so upset? Why this burst of emotion? Does it make sense?

3. Act it out in a wise and healthful manner so the adrenalin level can be reduced to normal by walking, chopping wood, playing golf, cleaning the closet, or journaling out your feelings.

4. Abandon it after realizing that your anger is not worth what it costs in stress and damaged relationships. We can’t change what has already happened, but we can choose our response to it.

7. Confess and ask for forgiveness.

When two people are in a close relationship, inevitably, they will hurt each other at times. When you know you are in the wrong, admit it and ask for forgiveness. Even if you think you are not the offender, express sorrow that your relationship is damaged and offer to do whatever you can to mend the damage. “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (James 5:16, NRSV). This is what people who really care about each other must do to keep the relationship strong and loving.

And when someone you love confesses to you and asks for forgiveness, offer it freely. Don’t wait until you feel like it. Once you forgive someone, forget about it and don’t bring it up again. Re-visiting past hurts prevents a relationship from growing.

8. Avoid nagging.

“It’s better to live in the corner of a flat roof than to share a large house with a nagging wife” (Proverbs 25:24, The Clear Word). If you have ever tried nagging, you have probably discovered that people only become defensive. People don’t change because someone else wants them to change. People change when it becomes an inner motivation. Cecil Osborne suggests that “we cannot change another person, either by direct, overt action, or through manipulation.”4 “In the marriage relationship, instead of waiting for our needs to be met, we must seek to meet the needs of the other.”5

If there is a need for change, one option is to sit down with the person involved and in a loving way (using the three steps from guideline 2 about how to use “I” messages) ask for help and suggestions about how to accomplish the task or the change. If it is a family situation, family council time is the ideal setting for this type of discussion.

9. Look for the positive.

Perhaps certain behaviors or traits in the one you love rub you wrong. The natural human tendency is to criticize the person. It is easy to blame the other for unsatisfactory situations. But it simply doesn’t work. We tend to think that if we point out the faults in another, he or she will be grateful for the help and will reform. In fact, the person will almost always raise a defense and retreat into the problem. It never helps a relationship to blame the other partner.

Rather, people grow when they are affirmed for what they are doing right. Locate the strongest character points in the one you love and affirm that point. Relationships grow when we tell spouses, children, or whomever why we love them and how valuable they are. When people realize that they are valuable, they behave in valuable ways.

Ellen White comments on how Jesus looked for the positive in others. “In every human being He [Jesus] discerned infinite possibilities. He saw men as they might be, transfigured by His grace.… Looking upon them with hope, He inspired hope. Meeting them with confidence, He inspired trust.… In His presence souls despised and fallen realized that they still were men, and they longed to prove themselves worthy of His regard. In many a heart that seemed dead to all things holy, were awakened new impulses. To many a despairing one there opened the possibility of a new life.”6

10. Recognize that the one you love has a right to be different from you.

God values diversity. We see it in all of creation. No two persons or snowflakes are alike. Everybody doesn’t have to be like us. Though we are one (as husband and wife or as family), yet we are each unique and separate. If we value these differences, we can broaden our experience and learn to grow. Where diversity is respected and uniqueness affirmed, love will flourish.

Review these 10 guidelines and mark one or more where you would like to make improvement. With God’s help, make a concerted effort to develop new and improved ways to communicate with those who are important to you. Psychologists say it takes 30 days to create a new habit. Just think—in only one month, new habits can become established, and the old ones will die from disuse.

Roger L. Dudley (Ed.D., Andrews University), professor of church ministry, emeritus, at the Andrews University Theological Seminary, and Margaret [Peggy] Dudley (Ph.D.), a licensed professional counselor, have been married to each other for 50 years. Their second book on marriage, Intimate Glimpses: 29 Couples Share the Secrets of a Happy Marriage, is scheduled for publication by the Review and Herald in 2003.

Notes and references:

  1. The 10 guidelines given here are adapted from H. Norman Wright, Communication: The Key to Your Marriage (Glendale, Calif.: Regal, 1974), pp. 188, 189, but the material is largely our own.
  2. Ruth Graham, It’s My Turn (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1982), p. 67.
  3. Bruce Larson, No Longer Strangers (Dallas: Word Books, 1971), p. 67.
  4. Cecil Osborne, Understanding Your Mate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1970), p. 109.
  5. Ibid., p. 141.
  6. Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1903), p. 80.