Speaking so that your partner will listen

Therapists often recommend the X,Y, Z formula when teaching couples how to effectively speak about a difficult issue.  I have amended the formula to include a “because” as well as to include a piece on “what I make up about my partner” to increase our understanding of each other.  

The general formula I recommend is:

When X (some situation that happened) I felt Y (name your emotion) because I’m making up a story that… and what I would like is Z.

Step 1

The X should be stated in as non-blaming, non-judgmental terms as possible. And we should talk way more about ourselves and what we feel and want, what we liked or didn’t like, than about the other person and what the other person did or did not do.

Step 2

When possible, the Y should be our softer emotions such as sad, scared, lonely, afraid. Often when we look under anger, we may find that we actually got scared first, or felt ashamed or sad, which we call your primary emotion. Anger is often a secondary emotion that we automatically flip into because feeling the vulnerable feeling is too hard. 

But if you are very angry, and you believe that your primary emotion is anger, it’s OK to say you’re angry. However, it’s not OK to act out your anger with aggression, name-calling or withdrawal. You can say, “I’m angry” but you can’t say, “you are a bitch!”  (Well, I guess you can but it won’t get you more love and connection or validation if that is your goal).

Step 3

“Because” is why we feel that way if this isn’t made obvious by the X part. It also must be as non-blaming and non-judgmental as possible. It can also include the “story that we have made up about our partner and/or the situation.” 

Step 4

And what I would have liked is Z.

Or

What I really wanted was Z.

Or

What I was hoping for is Z

Or

What I would prefer in the future is Z.

An example could be, “When you got home 90 minutes late from work without letting me know, I felt frustrated and sad because I had cooked dinner and I told myself a story that you didn’t care. What I would like in the future is a text with an updated timeframe so I can better plan.”

Stating our complaints and concerns in this way helps the listener to better hear what is being said. Bestselling author and therapist John Gottman has found that underneath our complaints is typically a genuine desire.  In an ideal world, we can skip the complaint and state what it is we would actually like.

This makes the listener’s job much easier and is the best chance for the speaker to get what they are really wanting: to be heard, to feel understood, to hear they make sense (validation) and to receive empathy from their partner (I’m sorry, that sounds really hard).

This is an example of a recent argument a couple in my office were having and they tried using the X, Y because and Z formula for the first time:

The girlfriend stated, “When you were two hours late (X) to the plane (her partner owns his own private plane) and left everyone stranded onboard because you felt the need to ski for an extra hour and took your time getting to the airport, I felt (Y) that was just rude and inconsiderate. And what I would like is (Z) for you to get to the plane on time.

Her boyfriend immediately started yelling that he owns a private plane for a reason–so that he can get to the airport when he wants to get there and to not be on a schedule. He stated that their awaiting guests had food, water and champagne, were very well taken care of and were getting a free ride home thanks to him.  Obviously, this was a defensive stance and he was unable to validate her (send her the message that she made sense to him) perspective.

Why does it go so wrong?  

She looked at me confused, wondering why the formula didn’t work out. 

I explained to her that she wasn’t really talking about herself at all and  she was blaming him. Underneath everything, she was sending him a covert message that he’s basically a narcissistic jerk who doesn’t care about other people (which is her ongoing complaint about him in therapy).  She also didn’t include any real feelings like sad, mad, anxious, or embarrassed in her Y. Instead she used judgments calling him rude and inconsiderate. 

When I tell this story, some people identify more with her and think that it is rude of him to leave guests waiting on the plane for two hours and that he probably is a narcissistic jerk. But other people identify more with him and think that because he owns the jet, and he’s inviting people to go home on a free trip, he’s providing food and alcohol, that his guests should just roll with it and be grateful.

So, we can see that people’s perceptions are different and not everyone sees a situation in the same way. There is no absolute right or wrong in the story. What seems so objectively wrong to you is really just your values, your preferences, and your priorities. Your partner has their own. No one has to be wrong.  One’s behavior is usually not so objectively “wrong” that everyone would see it as wrong, unless it includes being physically or emotionally abusive, lying, cheating, and other behaviors that most people would consider objectively wrong.  However, a lot of things that we think our partner is doing “wrong” is often just different than what we wanted.  We can still address it with them, but we don’t have to make them wrong, you simply focus on what you would have liked or what you were hoping for. 

When something is subjectively wrong, it feels offensive to you and maybe a handful of people would also agree. But our best bet is to leave right or wrong out of it and just talk about how YOU felt, how you experienced it, what it meant to you, and the impact the situation has on you. Like I said earlier, talk way more about yourself than about your partner, cut out the complaining and include your wish/desire and talk about the issue in as non-blaming terms as you can muster.

3 Questions You Can Ask Yourself

Going back to my client, I had her check in with herself and ask herself these three questions before she tried to initiate the topic with her boyfriend again: 1) What did the situation on the plane mean to her about her? 2) What did it mean to her about him? (Which we already know– that he’s a narcissistic jerk so we might want to stay away from that one for now.) 3) What did it mean to her about their relationship? When people have the answers to those three questions and can state them as nonjudgmentally as possible, and we speak from that place, things typically go much better.

If she really wants to help him understand her reaction, then it might be OK to let her partner know what the situation meant to her about him.  But she probably can’t just say “It means to me that you are a narcissistic jerk.” That is way too blaming and judgmental and because he likely doesn’t see himself that way (in fact, this man sees himself as the opposite—a caring, thoughtful person who is giving people a free ride on a luxury jet) so he just tunes her out and she doesn’t get the listening and understanding for her point of view that she would like. 

Know that just because it feels real to you why your partner is doing or saying something, you might be off base

BUT she CAN say, “What I tell myself is that you are a narcissistic jerk,” or “The story I make up about you is that you are a narcissistic jerk” because both of those are statements that are made way more tentatively and are not stated as if they are a fact.  Because he already knows that she struggles with having this view of him, it’s easier for him to hear when she states it as something she’s told herself, or what she makes up, and it also gives him some context for why she is so upset.  Sometimes it’s better to leave this part out, but other times (if your partner can hear it) it actually helps give people more information about why their partner is so upset.

So my client started the X, Y because and Z formula over again. And this time she said,  “When you were late to the plane, I felt sad, insecure, and overwhelmed,” and at this point she started to cry. (This was a good start because she stated the X in a non-blaming way, and she identified the softer emotions (Y) under her anger and frustration). She went on to tell him she felt that way because his friends who were waiting for them on the plane often excluded her, and she made up a story that they were judging her and perhaps thinking she was the reason why they were two hours late.

She continued to cry and said, “What I would really like is to be on time for our guests, especially when that group of friends are involved.” This was her Z (her wish/desire). This time her partner had a completely different reaction.  He softened toward her and he said he understood and that he would be on time from now on. This is because he no longer felt like she was saying that he had done something “wrong”, but just that his behavior had inadvertently hurt her.  Then his natural empathy showed up. 

Is this magic? 

I don’t mean to imply that this is a completely magic formula, and it will solve every issue this quickly and easily, but when people feel blamed, judged and criticized it’s really hard for them to hear us, to really care about us, and it’s almost impossible for them to empathize with us. But when we talk about ourselves, what things mean to us, and articulate our softer emotions underneath the anger, then people tend to hear us better. Their care, their ability to validate, and their empathy often automatically kick in.  

As the speaker, you have a responsibility to own your emotions, the stories you are telling yourself about your partner, and to communicate cleanly, without blame.  I have seen this formula work miracles, and help get to true understanding, validation and intimacy which is hopefully your goal.

If your goal is to blame and criticize, and to make it almost impossible for your partner to hear you, or to care about you, then keep on using shame, blame, judgment, criticism and keep on making them wrong.  What you will most likely get back is defensiveness, counter-attack or resentful compliance (which means they will do what you want, but not with goodwill—they do it with resentment, which will damage the relationship in the long-term anyway).  

If my client had agreed to be on time for the plane after she first spoke to him about the problem in a blaming, critical way, that would have been resentful compliance. Also, they would have missed a real opportunity to know each other better—her being vulnerable about what was really at stake for her and owning the problem (feeling like an outsider when those particular friends were involved) helped him want to be on time out of goodwill and true cooperation, not because he had to or else he would “be in trouble” with her.

If my client had used the “What I make up about you part” it might have sounded like this:

“When (X) you were late to the jet, I felt (Y) sad, insecure and overwhelmed because your friends were waiting for us and I made up a story that they were judging me and thinking that I was the reason we were late.  I also told myself that you are selfish and you don’t care about keeping people waiting.  About that, I felt (Y) angry and frustrated and helpless.  What I would really like (Z) in the future is for you to be on time for our guests, especially when it comes to that friend group.”

This is night and day from her original statement that he was rude and inconsiderate.  It also tells him what he can do to repair things with her (Z).  He might still react negatively, but at least she would know that she communicated cleanly and effectively on her end.  She would have to let go when it comes to his reaction.  That’s the best we can do. 

If your partner did lie, get verbally abusive, ignore you for long periods of time, cheat on you, or break an agreement for no reason, then what they did is objectively wrong. Even though it’s likely that you want to lash out and blame them, that will still be ineffective.  You can still use the X, Y because I made up a story that… and Z formula in these cases, but if your partner is not willing to work with you and acknowledge where they were relationally off, and will not attempt to repair it with you, this will require a different set of skills from you.  Please see my blog How to Take an Uncompromising Stand to find an article I wrote that addresses what to do when our partner is doing something objectively “wrong.”

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barbi pecenco lmft

Barbi Pecenco, LMFT

A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist  with over 15 years of experience, Barbi works with individuals to help resolve issues that have them feeling stuck in life. She’s based in Newport Beach, California. Learn more about Barbi >

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