The 8 Golden Rules for Having a Conversation That Reduces Stress Rather Than Stokes It

“No one’s really good at comforting each other right now.” This is a real sentence I spoke to a friend during our millionth pandemic breakdown, and maybe you’re feeling similarly. With just about everyone navigating their own strain of personal strife brought on by life in lockdown, it’s hard to engage in any conversation that doesn’t produce even more stress. But, if you’re communicating under stress with someone also under duress, there are a few strategies you can use to continue without creating even more stress.

In fact, according to a recent Instagram post from the Gottman Institute, there are eight specific ways to have a stress-reducing discussion. They are: taking turns, not giving advice unless it’s asked for, showing genuine interest, communicating your understanding, taking the other person’s side, expressing a “we against others” attitude, expressing affection, and validating emotions. Essentially, the tips boil down to “be a better listener.”

But easier said than done, right? Below, psychotherapist Jennifer Teplin, LCSW, breaks down how to break down each of these tips, and follow them as the eight gold rules of communicating under stress.

1. Take turns

“While taking turns may seem like something you were told to do on the playground as a toddler, the same rule applies to your relationships,” says Teplin. “By carving out space for you and your partner to speak, it enables a conversation rather than a lecture, and embraces the hope for a conversation over confrontation.”

2. Don’t give unsolicited advice

Because [stage whisper] people usually don’t want it unless they ask for it. They’re more likely communicating to think through their own thoughts or share their opinion. And according to Teplin, when you share unsolicited advice, it sends a message that you think you’re more advanced or think more highly of yourself than the other person.

“Rather than jumping to giving advice, reflect on what the individual may need and ask permission to share advice rather than throwing it in their face.” —Jennifer Teplin, LCSW

“Rather than jumping to giving advice, reflect on what the individual may need and ask permission to share advice rather than throwing it in their face,” she says.

3. Show genuine interest

“Being curious is one of the best ways to connect and understand someone,” Teplin says. “Remaining curious of your partner’s point of view will enable you to better see things from their perspective and potentially shift your line of thinking as well.”

4. Communicate your understanding

Verbally affirm what the person is telling you through mirroring. That means if one person says something like, “Stephanie said something that really upset me today,” you reflect back, “What did Stephanie say to upset you?” The point is to mimic what they’re staying versus defaulting on a verbal version of the sad face emoji.

“Mirroring what someone says is a great way for you to show your understanding as well as a time for them to clarify or adjust any misunderstanding that you’re reflecting back to them,” Teplin says.

5. Take your partner’s side

It’s already an isolating time, and no one wants to feel even more alone, or (even worse) like they’re being attacked by someone they love. “By taking someone’s side and empathizing with what they are experiencing or feeling, you’re showing them that you’re a team and they aren’t alone,” Teplin says.

6. Express a ‘we against others’ attitude

Having an us-against-the-world attitude can be truly bonding, especially in the context of your romantic relationship. “Your partner is [the person you want] to spend your life with, so the idea that you are each other’s top priority falls in line with the original choice to be together,” Teplin says.

7. Express affection

This can be words of affirmation, a gentle touch on the hand, or some other love language your person subscribes to. Whatever it is, it’ll help build intimacy between you two.

8. Validate emotions

Ultimately, people just want to have their feelings validated, even if you don’t understand them or agree. “By validating what someone is going through, it’ll make them more comfortable to express and explain their experiences rather than feeling judged,” Teplin says.

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