5 Common Communication Mistakes That Actually Cause Conflict

When your partner is upset, it’s easy to make mistakes that make the situation worse rather than better. Recognizing and avoiding these common mistakes will help you create healthier relationships with improved communication and conflict-resolution skills.

5 Avoidable Communication Mistakes You Might Be Making

If you are experiencing arguments or “dumb” fights in your relationship, the problem might not be conflict resolution. Sometimes these arguments are about resolving deep issues that need to be addressed. Still, other times, and probably more often, conflict results when one partner is already upset, and the other makes things worse instead of better when they are trying to help. This dynamic is extremely frustrating and confusing for both parties who want to feel close during times of need, not end up in an avoidable fight.

Frustration and hurt feelings will occur from time to time when you love someone. And when you see your partner in pain, you probably want to help them feel better. Some relationship pain is unavoidable, but communication strategies can help help you avoid unnecessary suffering.

Here are the most common mistakes couples make and what to do instead.

1. Premature Problem-Solving (this is hands down the most common mistake with the most significant consequences)

When one partner sees another in pain, they often jump in quickly and offer advice and solutions. Although the intention might be to soothe their partner’s pain, it can land as dismissive or patronizing if your partner needs a listening ear. 

Couples can avoid this very common conflict by getting into the regular habit of asking the question:

“Do you want to vent right now, or problem-solve?”

If your partner wants to vent, listen to them without sharing your ideas. If they say they want help solving the problem, then you can share your thoughts.

2 Following the Word “Feel” with “Like” or “That.”

Most people know it’s good to talk about their feelings in first person by using “I” statements. However, it’s easy to mess this up, and not actually talk about emotions. The most common mistake people make in using this strategy is that they start talking about thoughts or opinions immediately after the word feel.

For example: “I feel like you don’t care about me.” or “I feel that the best thing to do is stop talking about this.” 

It will land as a bait and switch to say the word feel without expressing an emotion. This escalates an argument as it is likely to elicit a defensive response.

Instead, I counsel couples to slow down and name the emotion so that the first three words of their “I” statement are “I feel (emotion).”

Example: I feel unappreciated, or I feel overwhelmed. 

3. Not Taking a Break When Things Get Heated

When a conversation goes sideways, it can be tempting to keep talking. You might be so surprised that an argument came out of nowhere and feel over-confident that you can resolve it quickly if you hang in there and try to resolve it.

Continuing to talk when no one has access to their frontal cortex is the best recipe for an escalating argument. This is when couples do and say things they regret. If you can take a quick 20-minute break when you notice you are becoming flooded, you can avoid unnecessary suffering and return to the conversation grounded and clear-headed. 

4. Multitasking 

When a partner raises a delicate topic, and the other keeps doing what they are doing while responding, it can come across as minimizing the importance of the conversation. Instead, I advise couples to drop their actions and give their partner undivided attention. (You’ll ultimately save time with this strategy because you won’t end up in an avoidable fight.)

5. Playing Devil’s Advocate

Sometimes well-meaning partners make the mistake of “siding with the enemy” when their partner comes to them for support. It is better to show solidarity and work to try to understand your partner’s point of view, even if you may have responded differently to the same situation.  

As you learn and practice these communication skills, remember to be patient with yourself and with your partner. It takes time to implement new strategies, especially when you are upset. Even if you can avoid one fight a week, that could give you as much as three more hours to enjoy having fun together instead of processing your feelings.

Hope this helps 🙂


Laura Silverstein, LCSW

Laura Silverstein is a Certified Gottman Couples Therapist, and author of Love Is An Action Verb.  She has thirty years of clinical experience and is the founder and co-owner of Main Line Counseling Partners, based in Bryn Mawr, PA. Laura is a frequent contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog and has appeared as a relationship expert in media outlets such as the New York Times, ABC, and Today. She helps couples find more happiness as a research clinician, speaker, trainer, and writer with a positive, action-oriented style.

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