2 Brilliant Ways to Communicate Better With Your Partner

2 Brilliant Ways to Communicate Better With Your Partner

In March, I was a speaker on the fifth annual Matchmaker Cruise. I’ve attended and spoken at this event before, and, like most conferences, I always end up coming away with something different than I came for. Most of the attendees are matchmakers – sweet, generous, fun businesswomen who believe in their mission of helping others find love. It’s not that I can’t learn from them, but generally, I’m there to help them learn to coach their smart, strong, successful women into relationships. Which is why it came as a great surprise to me that my most profound connection from the entire four-day trip came courtesy of a man in his 70’s.

Richard Wolman is a Harvard psychology professor who is married to a matchmaker, Peggy Wolman. I’d heard about them from mutual friends and was told that I “must” meet them. Turns out, they are the brightest, warmest, most delightful people ever – and speaking to them for four days felt as comfortable as speaking to my own parents. Richard and I must have spent a good 8 hours talking one-on-one during the trip, and he taught me so much, that I asked him to email me notes of what I learned.

First: Surgically excise the word “should’ from your vocabulary.

Today, I’m going to share a snippet of his wisdom with you, verbatim.

There are two big ideas here that will help you in relationship communication:

First: Surgically excise the word “should’ from your vocabulary. This means the actual word and all the synonyms and quasi equivalents like, “must,” “have to,” “ought to,” and the like. Should is the language of morality and places moral pressure on the self or on someone else. As the teenagers rapidly figure out when a parent says, for example, “You should hang out with those people,” the answer is “Why should I?” It’s not a moral issue. Only God knows why we should or should not do or think certain thoughts or behaviors.(and She ain’t talkin’)

The corrective? Replace “Should” with “Could.” Could is the language of desire and is open to creativity. You can test this concept at home with your wife, parents, friends and the like. The conversations change from one of being directed in a power. morality driven relationship to one of equality and cooperative exploration. Listen to the difference between, “Evan, you should be nicer to your wife,” vs “Evan, you could be nicer to your wife.” One way behavior is being driven by guilt and obligation; the other it is driven by desire, “Yes, I really could. That would be a good way to make her feel better.”

Second: To build good communication, do not ask questions. Questions are a challenge or even an attack on another person. If you ask me a question, I have to think, “Uh, Oh. What is the right answer?” or “What does he want from me?” or “Leave me alone – that’s none of your business,” and so on. A question narrows the field between you and the other person and shifts responsibility for the response away from the self. Even a simple question like, “Where do you want to go for dinner?” can be a way of saying, I am going to put the responsibility for where we eat on you and not on me, so if it turns out badly, it is your fault. (That’s one of the reasons women hate that question on a date – it puts the burden on them – a time honored abuse of women.”) Of course, not every “friendly” question has such a dark side, but what I am saying is that the impulse to keep oneself and one’s own desires hidden is anathema to a quality relationship. So, instead of, “Honey, where do you want to go for dinner? can be replaced by, “Honey, I feel like Chinese tonight, what do you say?” She is then free to agree and the negotiations done, or she can reply with a desire of her own, in which case you have a real conversation. These micro examples scale very quickly to larger issues: “Do you want to come up to my place, tonight?” vs “I had such a good time tonight. It would be fun if you came up to my place to continue our evening.”

“I” statements put a person in the game, with all the risks and rewards that go with it.

Second: To build good communication, do not ask questions.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the dating trenches, coaching people, reading and writing articles, and these two ideas smacked me upside the head. They’re so simple and yet so powerful. We see a lot of “shoulds” on this blog – especially from women who think men “should” always want to pay for everything, should always be attuned to all of your unspoken emotional needs without failure, and should never have sex without the intention of marrying you. As Richard said, this implies a moral judgment, and none of us like to be judged (particularly the women who felt judged by the last sentence!)

I encourage you to reread Wolman’s wise words and consider how you can eliminate both “shoulds” and questions from your dating routine.

Your thoughts, below, are always appreciated.


  1. For some reason the following quote from Nora Ephron comes to mind upon reading this:
    “…This is the moment when any therapist will tell you that your problem is fear of intimacy; that you’re connecting to your mother, or holding on to your father. But it seems to me that what’s happening is far more basic; it seems to me that it’s just about impossible to live with someone else”. Color me cynical.

  2. Evan Marc Katz

    Okay, cynical. But you’re posting this on the blog of a very happily married man who has very happily married friends and has helped thousands of women become very happily married. Why? Because they choose EASY relationships based on kindness, consistency, communication and commitment – as opposed to height, education, money, and charisma. This doesn’t mean my clients end up with people who are short, stupid, poor, and boring. It means that they value the most important things most – they put things in the right order, if you will.

  3. I think you’re missing the point, which is: if one needs to bite their tongue as to not say “should” for example, saying “should” isn’t the real problem in that relationship nor is not saying it going to help it.

  4. I think this comes down to pick and choose your battles. What you desire in any relationship, work, family, friends, romantic, asks you what you want and what you give to these relationships. What you give, in the verbal sense, can also dictate what responses you’ll get and/or how the relationship will be viewed and navigated.

  5. Isn’t the point of monitoring yourself to see when you are using the word ‘should’, to make you aware of what you are actually expressing and possibly how you are expecting something from others inappropriately? I see this as a ‘self-teaching’ tool rather than a word you are not allowed to say. As such, it allows one to make changes in the self, which always changes the dynamic.
    Of course, it fails if you are convinced the only problem is the other person…

  6. As I discover myself each day, I am realizing that it is possible to live with someone. The onus is on me. I am choosing the wrong men and tried as I might to make it right,  I can never change what is wrong from the get go.
    I love the quote from the The Alchemist “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.” This made me realize in the same token that my only obligation is to change myself. Have a great weekend! N.

  7. Or as Carrie Bradshaw put it in Sex and the City: ‘Why are we should-ing all over ourselves?’
    Great post, Evan! ????

  8. The not asking a question advice is gold. I always thought it was good to ask questions until it started driving my husband crazy every time I said something like “do you want to get together with so and so?” or “what time should we leave for ____?” He wanted me to tell him what I wanted and then we could either agree or not, instead of asking him to figure out what I already knew I wanted. I did not realize I was doing that at all, but several conversations about it made me realize how often I don’t say what I want and defer to someone else. It’s actually kind of great now that I make a conscious effort to figure out my opinion and say it out loud.

  9. I don’t know about the question part.  It seems like walking on eggshells and being defensive if I can’t ask my partner what they would like for dinner without offering up a suggestion first.  Making them responsible if the place isn’t any good would be totally unfair.  I do like the part about ordering them into my place after a date to “continue.”
    I certainly do agree about excising the word “should.”  I usually hate the use of that word.

  10. GoWiththeFlow

    Hey Scott,
    My aunt used to do this really passive aggressive thing where we would arrange to have dinner, I would pick her up and ask her where she wanted to go.  She would say “you pick” or “I don’t care.”  So we would go to a place I chose.  Then she would pout her way through the meal.  If I asked her what the problem is, sometimes she would say, “I really didn’t want to go here.”  Drove me nuts!  I felt I was being asked to make decisions without any input, then being damned when I chose wrong.
    Because of that experience I make sure to let people know that if I say I don’t have a restaurant preference, I REALLY don’t.

  11. My ex did that too.  I knew that if she said she didn’t care, that she did care and was setting me up for a lashing.  Then I would question her when she said that she didn’t care and then I got lashed for interrogating her AND for her not liking the place.  I’m so glad to be done with that shit.  never the “f” again.  NEVER!

  12. Ugh! GoWithTheFlow
    __Your story just reminded me of a horrible first date I had. I planned everything in advance, I subtly asked her about activities and foods that she didn’t like and ones that she loved.
    __Nevertheless, once we got to the place she said she didn’t want to do the activity and didn’t like the restaurant I chose for us to go to after the activity.
    __Keeping my cool I named 20… yes 20!!! different activities we could do and 10 different restaurants we could go to. She shot them all down, so we just ended up talking all night in my car.
    __The thing that really pissed me off was afterwards when she told me that it was a “lame” date.
    … Oh and the best part, after she rejected everything I suggested we do, I asked “so what would you like to do?” She said “I don’t know… what do you want to do?”

  13. GoWiththeFlow

    OMG!  She was just ridiculous!  When she said “What do you want to do?” I wouldn’t blame you a bit if you had said “Drive you home now.”

  14. Adrian,
    I don’t understand women like this.I am super grateful and gracious when a man makes an effort.

  15. “Should” is a crappy word in any area of your life and needs to go. It means obligation and is often a sly way to put people down or try to boss them around. It’s all about expectations, which are relationship killers. When you think a man “should” do x, y, and z, you’re dictating, not accepting. You’re beating him over the head with your idea of what a man needs to be, instead of letting him show you who he is. Let’s be honest here – your idea of what a man is might be completely fucked up, but you’re imposing it by using “should”. Get rid of the shoulds and see how much better, easier, and more fulfilling your life can be.

  16. Woulda coulda shoulda
    All laying in the sun
    Talking about what they
    woulda coulda shoulda done
    woulda coulda shoulda
    all ran away and hid
    from one little did
    -Sound advice from Mr. Stein

  17. *Silverstein
    Sorry I am typing on my phone

  18. Fantastic blog post Evan!   Thank you.   I’m going to start implementing this pronto

  19. Loved this one, Evan, and it’s something I can start putting into practice IMMEDIATELY.  Thank you.

  20. Great article ????

  21. Fully agree about getting rid of  “should” – not sure I get the bit about not asking questions . I always understood that a key part of building relationships WAS to ask people questions about themselves and what they enjoy, not just talk about yourself and what you want all the time.
    Also how is: ” Honey, I feel like Chinese tonight, what do you say?”   not a question??!

  22. I love it when a man is confident enough to use “I” statements. It is so refreshing to have someone come out and say what they want. That alone makes a man much, much more attractive.

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