Relationship hacks for communicating under stress

Guest post by LXV
Yoda vs. Hulk (164/365)
Hulk smash bad, chill Yoda good. By: JD HancockCC BY 2.0

Fighting sucks, especially when it’s with someone you love. All you want is for the dishes to be rinsed before they’re put in the dishwasher and the next thing you know, both of you are saying hurtful things. How can you have conflict without being hurtful? On Megan’s post on relationship hacks, I saw lots of commenters with great tips and strategies. So what makes these tips great? How can you build your own hacks?

First, some over-simplified neuroscience to understand the problem…

The front part of the brain is where we do high-level, abstract thinking. Impulse control, empathy, weighing options, and learning all take place in the front part of your brain. Further back in the brain is where pattern matching, habits, and things you’ve learned well reside. All the way back is your brainstem, which regulates breathing and heart rate.

This is important, because when you get under any kind of stress for any reason your brain starts to “shut down” from the front to the back. Just when you need them most, you start to lose your ability to control your language, empathize with others, decide between valid points, and use all those techniques you just learned. Instead, you go back to old, counterproductive habits. Stupid brain!

Unfortunately there’s nothing you can do to keep the front part of your brain from shutting down like this. It’s biology. Fortunately, it happens in recognizable stages…

The three brain stages during conflict:

  • In the Green, there’s little stress. Your front brain is on and you attuned to everyone’s attitudes and body language.
  • In the Yellow, you are stressed. You’re losing your situational awareness.
  • In the Red, you are so stressed that rational discussion is pretty impossible (silence and profanity are common in the Red).

Knowing where you and your partner are gives you…

Three tactics to keep a heated discussion from going bad:

First, pick the right time to have the discussion. The closer someone is to the Red, the less rational and empathetic they are. If your partner comes home from work in the Red, it’s not the best time to talk about the unrinsed breakfast dishes. If you are in the Yellow, then it’s not a good time to discuss child disciplining methods, but you can probably manage a civil discussion about dishes. Waiting until you are both in the Green is the best for a talk that needs sensitivity and deep thought.

Second, how time-critical is the conversation? “What to do about Bobby’s straight D report card” can probably wait a day until both of you are on the Green side of the Yellow at least. Telling your wife that you’re about to drop your end of the couch should happen right away, no matter how stressed you are while moving furniture.

Third, use the appropriate communication style for the situation. The closer someone is to the Red, the more direct you need to be. Saying “Gosh it feels warm in here,” to bring someone’s attention to the fact the curtains just caught fire is not going to work if they are in the Red. It may feel mean or insulting to say “I need you to respond by 5:00 today,” to your co-worker in the Yellow, but you’re doing them a favor. You have made your expectations clear and you have not further taxed the part of their brain that isn’t working so well by making them guess what you want.

Now here’s the paradox; you’ve learned some useful new things, but when you get in a stressful conversation the new-information storing front part of your brain doesn’t work optimally. So what can you do? The same thing that fighter pilots do when they’re having an engine flameout. You turn to resources that you’ve put into place before the emergency happens. Here are some generic categories of resource so you can customize your solution. Build a few before your next fight, and remember, you’ll probably have to tweak them a few times to make something that really works for you.

Three resources to implement while fighting:

Mission Statement
Ugggggh, am I really going to the most vapid of office tropes? Yes, now hear me out. Commenting on the original post, Liset talked about the family picture she and her husband use to remind each other that above all else, family is what’s important. No matter what else is going on they have that to remind themselves about the solid ground and guiding principle for their decision-making. I love it. Put your mission statement, philosophy, commander’s intent — whatever you call it — into words that you can each go back to for guidance.

The Offbeat Homies had great ideas to keep fights from getting ugly. Some people literally call a “time out” — giving both everyone a chance to calm some of the emotional stress. Some people need to hear “I love you” but others can’t stand to hear it in the middle of a fight. These are decisions you and your partner need to make before your next fight. Then when you are in the Yellow and edging to Red you don’t have to work out whether you should say “I love you.” You’ve already talked about it while in the Green, so you just have to stick to the decisions you’ve already made.

Practice — You react the way you train
Don’t wait for the fight to use your new hacks. Use them when you’re cooking dinner together, watching TV, or at the grocery store. Tell your family that you’re in the Yellow when you get home after a bad slog through rush hour. Practice speech that is direct, but not mean. Get the skills from the front of your brain into the pattern-matching part of your brain so they’re easy to use under stress.

Use these categories to look for hacks for other things too, not just “fighting fair.” Because being in the Green, Yellow, or Red can affect everything from remembering your grocery list to the safety of your driving.

Comments on Relationship hacks for communicating under stress


    If I were to add one thing, it would be “Know what you want.” Having a knock-down drag out with your partner about the dinner dishes isn’t going to make you feel any better if you’re ACTUALLY upset about something else. It might feel like it’s about the dishes, but maybe it’s about how you feel about the division of labor in your home, or the amount of time you spend apart, or another, less easily defined problem.

    I’ve found that knowing myself better has made fights a lot easier and more productive.

    • Having been through relationship counseling, I can’t agree with this enough. This is just good sense for creating healthy boundaries.
      Along these lines, be assertive and clear – that doesn’t mean be aggressive, blaming or pedantic.

    • That is a great point. You are absolutely correct. Knowing what’s really upsetting you as opposed to what’s just a symptom (uneven work distribution vs dishes) is so important for a happy resolution.

  2. This WILL be really helpful for driving! Thinking of things as colors & seeing it in stages, since I feel it happening, … & then I’m yelling in my car.

    For fighting, we’ll often do a re-cap, later or the next day. After we do figure out what we really meant, like saying above, we’ll just explain & be sure to clear the air. “When I said {this}, I really was worked up about {this}, that I was going thru instead.”

    I complained about the recycling, because I was actually mad I didn’t do enough dishes, & I wanted you to know I wasn’t trying to pick on you, while I was mad at myself.

    And we’ll usually apologize, or say oh of course, it’s fine, or whatever it is. But thinking it thru & then putting it into words really does make it easier.

    Great article, thank you

    • So here’s a fun fact I wasn’t able to fit in: It’s very easy to recognize when you are in the Yellow. You can absolutely feel it. But when you are in the Red, you get tunnel vision and can only focus on what you see as the biggest emergency (whether it’s long term like “I need more money to pay my bills” or short term like “I need to keep this car from fishtailing into a ditch). This tunnel vision is so extreme that you can’t even recognize that you’re in the Red.

      So having someone else in your life that you trust (spouse, BFF, sibling, significant other, etc) is so important. Not just because you can divide the workload and support each other (which is still hugely important), but you each have someone who can recognize when they need to help you pull out of being in the Red. Additionally you have someone who knows your “mission” and who’s judgement you trust. So you know that when they’re trying to bring something else to your attention, it’s time to pay attention.

  3. Our wedding vows included the following:
    “I promise to listen to what you have to say, even when we don’t see eye to eye.
    I will remember that love means saying “I feel differently” instead of “you’re wrong”.”
    We have the vows printed out on a wedding picture in our bedroom. When you’re having an argument, having the constant reminder to listen, and not say “you’re wrong” is really handy. It just means we both take the time to stop and think; and we’ve both learned to say “I need time out”, or “I can’t verbalise the issue right now, give me time” etc.

    • This sounds really helpful.
      I’d like to add the obvious: if you’re always saying “I can’t verbalize this” then your partner will forever be in the dark. So don’t let it be an excuse to hide from the problem.
      In my experience, hiding from problems tends to make them worse over time.

      • This is so true. It’s very helpful if there’s something you need to figure out before you can explain it or if it’s touchy enough to require a few minutes before hashing out. However, it’s completely counter-productive if it’s used to avoid talking about an issue. I’ve been on the receiving end of “I can’t verbalize it” when used as a way to refuse to try to discuss, and it sucks. It’s just one more way to shut down an uncomfortable discussion that needs to be had. It also shuts out your partner by telling them that it’s not important enough to try to verbalize. This phrase definitely needs to be used with care and followed up with an explanation after some time to mull phrasing over has been taken.

      • Absolutely. It took us some time to negotiate the way we argue, for lack of a better way to put it; “I can’t verbalise this properly right now” is always followed up by an explanation when we’re calmer, or when we’ve had time to think, or whatever. Sometimes it’s in five minutes, sometimes it’s the next day; but we get there eventually.

    • Yay! Mission statements! And that ability to be direct with “I don’t have the words for this now, let’s talk later,” is great. It doesn’t just show great patience and maturity on the person who calls for the timeout, but the person who says “okay,” as well.

  4. My partner is very good at communicating exactly what he’s feeling, so I’ve developed a strategy to help him get from red back to yellow and yellow back to green. I ask him exactly what he wants me to do about it. So a conversation typically goes like this:

    Him: “I had a terrible day at work and I feel very upset about it.”

    Me: “I’m sorry. Do you want to talk about it or do you want me to talk to you about something else?”

    Him: “I…think I want to talk about something else. I don’t have anything constructive to say about it, I’m just upset.”

    Me: “Ok. Look, we’re having pasta for dinner! Did you hear about the whale rescue in Bermuda?”

    This doesn’t work very well mid-fight, because it tends to come out more as, “What do you expect ME to do about it?!” but as long as you’ve got one calm person it can be very helpful for nipping a bad situation in the bud. It (politely) forces the person who’s upset to think about what they actually want out of the situation, and gives you the information you need to help them.

    • One of the things we talk about in the classroom before we even get to the content is that a lot of what we’ll present are things that you may already “know.” Giving a vocabulary to what people have already intuited is a huge part of what we do.

      (Which is my long-winded way of calling you a smarty)

    • I like this conversation model. I think I’m going to steal it and implement it into my own marriage! We already do something quite similar, but I like the directness and I’m 98% sure my husband will agree. We both tend to get into problem-solving mode when sometimes topic-avoidance mode is necessary. So simple and so obvious! Love it.

    • In the web comic Girls With Slingshots the author once pointed out that one of the easiest ways to improve you communication with others is to ask if they are looking for sympathy or advice. That way, if they want you to say “Oh no that sucks!” they aren’t feeling criticized while you try to fix it. I would say there are more options, like empathy (“I hate that too!”) and distraction (“Let’s watch Bollywood movies!”) but just asking gets you in such a very right direction!

  5. The Red-Yellow-Green analogy is so simple and awesome! In all honesty, I feel sort of useless in these posts because my husband and I have never really fought. I wish I could say it was because we’re such laid-back people, but no one is THAT laid back ;). It’s because we see the Yellow in each other so quickly and easily that we communicate differently. We’re also hyper-aware of our own tendencies toward overreaction and passive-aggression that we check in with each other regularly. He’ll ask me if he’s being unreasonable and I’ll ask him if I’m being passive aggressive and we try to be really honest about the answers. So, effectively, we’ve created a Red-Yellow-Green system without realizing it and now I feel like we can consciously make better communication choices with this language to help us out. 🙂 Woop! (And hey, maybe avoid having another Red on Red fight ever again!)

  6. Our mission statement when we fight is “we’re both on the same team.” this helps remind us we have the same goals and aren’t intentionally trying to make life more difficult for each other.

  7. I often return to the surprisingly wise advice I received from a fortune cookie: “The purpose of argument should be not victory, but progress.” My husband and I also like to remind each other that “We’re on the same team.”

  8. I am an overly hormonal person. Even though I know that, it took me a while to realise that when I’m PMSing I’m constantly on the Red side of Yellow. After a few years, the scientist in me finally saw the pattern. So I had a talk with my guy. I explained it was out of my control, that when I’m PMSing I really feel stupid things that don’t bother me the rest of the month as hurtful, insurmountable, attacks.
    So our arrangement was: I warn him that I’m there and he, not ignores me, cause that would send me straight to Red, but does give me a 50% discount on what I say, talks calmly back to me even when I’m unreasonably aggressive and holds on through a week, week and a half of severely reduced tenderness from me. It doesn’t always work, especially if he’s on Yellow too, but the amount of fights we have has greatly diminished since our arrangement. Then I get back to normal, where the fact that he forgot to take out the trash is just something that happens, not a sign that he doesn’t love or respect me, nor proof that he does nothing at home.

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