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  • Writer's picturelarahammock

The Recipe for Effective Communication: 50/50 Gentle and Open

Updated: Feb 27

When it comes to intimate relationships, what is the best way to communicate? I think the most effective style is equal parts gentle and open.

That said, almost everyone has an imbalance in the way that they communicate. For example, I can be more open than I am gentle. That means I sometimes come across as critical, blaming, lecturing, or moralizing (I am not proud of this). And of course, the style is actually not open at all — openness requires vulnerability and a sense of your own contribution. My husband, on the other hand, can be more gentle than open. Sometimes that means that he can be vague about what he wants, but more often it means that he just chooses not to say it at all. Which again, is not really gentle since it leaves your partner in the dark about what is important to you.

As a couples counselor, I encourage partners with a tendency to be open to sit down — and partners with a tendency to be gentle to stand up. Either way, you are trying to attain that golden ratio of 50% open and 50% gentle.

And why? Why is this the best way to communicate? Because the openness allows us to be genuine with each other and the gentleness gives us the best chance of being heard and understood. Let’s take these one at a time. In the end, what we want in a relationship, is to be understood and have our desires taken into account by our partner.

50% Open

What does it take to be open? You have to say what it is that you want, feel, or are experiencing. Even if your partner is giving you the stink eye, you have to say it anyway. Even if you think it might make your partner upset, you have to say it anyway. Even if you feel vulnerable or guilty, you have to say it anyway. You can’t be super vague or package it up in “this is what’s best for us” or “most people would want this.” You have to own it and put it out there. Here are some examples that are NOT open:

  • Where would you like to eat? (I know what I want, but I won’t say it.)

  • I don’t think that couples who are in a good relationship yell at each other. (An opinion cloaked in a truism.)

  • I don’t mind spending some holidays with your parents. (Actually, I don’t want to spend any time with them).

  • … (Don’t say anything.)

In order to be open, you have to own what it is that you want or think or feel and be able to put it out there all on its own. It’s not easy. Here are some examples:

  • I’d like to eat Chinese tonight.

  • When you raise your voice, I feel sad and scared.

  • I don’t want to spend Christmas with your family this year.

  • If you take my body wash from the shower, I would like you to put it back afterwards.

50% Gentle

What does it mean to be gentle? It means saying what you want without any “sharp elbows.“ This is what I call the jabs that we like to get in to remind our partners how much they’re disappointing us. Those jabs protect us from standing alone and asking for something. We don’t have to feel quite as vulnerable when we’re doing a little attack and jab at the same time. Here are some examples of NON-gentle communication:

  • How many times do I have to ask you?

  • I guess I won’t be getting flowers this year either!

  • Can’t you see I need help?

  • You should really take out the trash.

In order to be gentle, we need to keep our partner in mind. We need to think about how they might receive our message and then state it in a way that lands softly. We need to strip down what we’re saying to cover only our own experience without needing back up or without blaming/criticizing our partner. Here some examples of gentle communication:

  • When I have to ask you to do something multiple times, I feel sad and unheard.

  • It would mean a lot to me if you got me flowers for our anniversary this year.

  • Would you mind helping me with these bags?

  • I would like you to take out the trash, please.

It is really hard to change to a gentle/open style if you are used to communicating in a different way. This is particularly difficult when you are feeling some negative emotion in the moment. For this reason, I am constantly word-smithing possible requests and statements in my head with the goal of eventually making this style of communication more natural and routine.

I’ll leave a couple here at the end for you to practice wordsmithing:

  • You never do the dishes!

  • Well, I guess I’ll be putting the kids to bed again.

  • You need to get up and help me right now.

  • You should really exercise more.

  • Don’t talk to me like that!

  • You don’t appreciate what I do for you.

Let me know how you did with these! Comments are always appreciated.

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