4 Steps to Respectful Communication
Updated: Apr 13
A great tool for prioritizing better communication today!
Understanding conflict, emotional responses, and how to soothe to promote more effective and respectful communication is a common goal in relationship therapy. When explaining concepts around managing conflict based on The Gottman Method for couples therapy, I came up with the acronym—W.A.I.T & (Co)regulate. I thought it would be a great tool to help my clients remember the concept when needed. This is useful for those in all types of relationships because it can be applied when you feel triggered or stressed in any situation.
So, when you find yourself becoming flooded, flustered, beginning to yell, wanting to storm out of the room, shutting down, or using sarcasm, remember this tool for helping you process and moving forward. Before we discuss the tool in detail, let’s discuss why healthy communication is important.
The Importance of Healthy Communication in Relationships
Conflict is a normal part of a relationship. It gets toxic when people struggle to communicate respectfully. Toxic communication patterns can leave all parties feeling drained and frustrated. Worst still, it can make you vulnerable to health challenges.
A study conducted on over 650 adults over a two-year period found that prolonged negative conflict or “negative social exchanges” can make individuals more susceptible to health conditions.
When communication is done respectfully and with consideration of another’s feelings, it can enhance a relationship. How does respecting the feelings of others influence communication? It creates space for healthy dialogue. When both parties actively listen, you create a safe space for one another. You may also find it strengthens your bond as you can express yourselves honestly, be vulnerable, and experience greater intimacy. Effective communication also tends to lead to higher relationship and sexual satisfaction, so prioritize better communication.
How to Communicate Respectfully
Now that you understand the importance of respect in communication, let’s look at how you can apply W.A.I.T and (Co)regulate next time a conflict arises.
Step 1: What Happened?
Acknowledge there was a shift in the conversation or your mood/feelings and say what caused it. Some reasons could be your perception of a behavior or your response to a behavior. Ex: Ok, WAIT. We are starting to yell and heading in that direction we know isn’t productive. I can tell I'm starting to feel a little defensive and feel an urge to leave.
Step 2: Acknowledge Emotions and Needs
Share the emotions and feelings that are coming up for you. This is helpful because you need to acknowledge and validate your feelings first by stating that they exist. Then your partner can witness and hold space for you. Talk about what you need to move towards decreasing the frustration, conflict, or hurt. Ex: "I feel ______ when ______ because ______." "I need ______." "What I would like is ______."
Step 3: Initiate a Break
Take a break from the conversation. When we are feeling those emotions, it becomes more difficult to hold space for one another and process information. You may start listening to speak and rebut instead of listening for understanding. So taking a break for about 20 minutes and then coming back can help you regulate yourself. To avoid feelings of rejection or abandonment, be clear about the time length for the break and the intention to come back together.
Step 4: Tend to Needs
This is the time to engage in self-soothing or help one another regulate emotions, body responses, and tension. Be mindful of the time and be sure to center relaxation NOT thinking about all the things you’re going to say later.
Self-regulating vs Co-regulating
Self-regulation and co-regulation are forms of emotional regulation. What’s the difference between the two?
Self-regulation involves managing disruptive emotions and impulses, self-soothing, and engaging in self-care. Ideally, this is done alone and without the aid of another person. Co-regulation, on the other hand, involves another person. All involved would acknowledge one another's individual distress, offer support, and engage in affirming, responsive, and welcoming interactions.
Both types of emotional regulation are valuable, valid, and needed. You may also find that sometimes both forms of emotional regulation overlap. I have personally seen that when done well and with intention, the “initiate a break" conversation can be very co-regulating, even if the plan is to self-regulate.
It’s important to reflect on your individual and relationship needs to identify effective ways to approach either regulation type. After looking at your habits and trying out a mixture of the two, you and your partner(s) may find that a mixture of both is what works best for you!
Here are a few examples for each:
Examples of self-regulation can include meditation, coloring, watering plants, exercise, washing the dishes, journaling, deep breathing, grounding activities, saying affirmations, mindfulness, etc. Note: Storming away, using substances, stonewalling, isolating/avoiding are unhelpful ways to self-regulate.
This can look like massages, deep breathing/matching breathing, cuddling or holding hands, statements that affirm that relationship, exercising, eye gazing. Note: Yelling at one another, name-calling, giving the cold-shoulder are unhelpful ways to co-regulate.
Sometimes, one partner's preferred way of regulating may not align with another's, which means it's time to discuss a potential compromise. Look at your self-regulating activities and identify if any of them can be done separately, together.
For example, if one person does not find touch to be comforting after an argument, could sitting in the living room together but doing individual tasks during the 'initiated break' be a work-around? If you do decide to engage in self-regulating activities separately, it’s important to respect one another’s boundaries.
There will be times when one approach is more effective than another, and that will take both you and your partner(s) time to figure out.
Communicating well takes intentional re-education and effort. There will be mistakes and times when you fall into old behaviors—that's okay because you are learning new skills! Stick with it, call it out, take care of yourselves, and keep working at it. At the end of it all, you'll have better communication skills and hopefully, a better relationship.
Remember, you and your partner(s) are on the same team working towards the goal of growing a stronger relationship every day.
Rafaella Smith-Fiallo is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and owns Healing Exchange LLC. She specializes in supporting healing after sexual violence, building self-esteem and confidence, and teaching healthy sexuality to individuals, those in relationships, and within supportive group settings. She also cofounded Afrosexology, a sex-positive, pleasure based sexuality education business.