Communicating with the ‘under’ dog

In my December column, I dove into the deep waters of how to open the door to harder conversations. In January we focused on over-communicators. This month’s installment in our communications decathlon brings us strategies for dealing with the under-communicators—‘underdogs’—who, in order to communicate, may force you to either push your own issues, or conversely, pull their issues out of them. 

Push me

If you have an issue with your partner and you’re the better communicator in your partnership, focus on the issue and not just on your partner’s foibles. For example, if your issue is about keeping the house in order, and your partner is Public Litterer Number One—leaving laptop bags, size 13 shoes, and stand-up paddleboards where they can be tripped over—the conversation can be about what solutions can be thought up, both for changing habits and for creating storage space. 

This means avoiding ‘you’ statements, such as “You keep leaving your gear in the entryway, and I just stubbed my toe on it!” and saying things like, “I know you’re in a rush when you get home from work, but it’s important for the rest of the family to get in and out of the house, too…what can we do to make this easier?” 

But what if your partner brushes off your statement? For example, if instead of moving the paddleboard and agreeing to accommodate the family, what if he or she teases you about what a neat freak you are, as a way of lightening the mood and deflecting the issue?

A similar rule applies. Instead of saying “You need to stop teasing,” a better opening move is to say, “Something’s been happening lately between us that bothers me. Whenever I state my case, it feels like you start teasing me.” This takes some of the onus off of them, while at the same time puts it out in the open between you. 

Pull you

On the other hand, what do you do if you think that your silent underdog has an issue and just isn’t sharing it? Let’s assume that you’re the ‘good communicator’ in the couple, and you’re already modeling good communications. You’re full of love and respect and never use hot-button ‘you’ statements? If you’re doing all that, you’ve probably also noticed that simply modeling good communications may not stick (just like modeling how to put the toilet seat down or always using good penmanship don’t necessarily lead to those habits in others). 

One way to get your partner to talk is to create a space that’s so low-pressure that they can’t help but get sucked into it: bait them by asking what’s troubling them—and then get out of the way. It’s like trying to rescue a feral cat in winter: some will simply follow their noses into the warm, sheltered entryway to find the dry food, while the really shy ones will stay out in the cold until you bust out the canned stuff. 

This tactic demands that you let their response happen on their own time, which may not be convenient for you if you’re chopping stir-fry or finishing up some work at home. But commit ahead of time. Tell yourself you’ll put down your knife or close the lid on your laptop and make yourself available for the time your kitty is ready to come in from the cold. 

If that doesn’t work, there’s always the empathy route. Come on, admit it: you may have an inkling as to why Mr. or Ms. Crabby Pants has been rattling the pots in the kitchen and coming to bed late. Tell them you suspect something is bothering them, and you wonder if it’s that you’ve been working too much (or maybe even that you’ve been working too little). “I keep thinking you must feel frustrated about it. Is that what’s going on?” Even if you guessed wrong, at least they know that you’re really thinking about them—and that you can be a good listener—which is a great way to create an even larger conversational space for them to enter.

Of course, this is all fine for stand-up paddleboards and too many work hours. But what about the really big issues?  Like, if one of you wants to move back ’home’ to Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon to be closer to aging parents while the other one wants to quit the corporate gig to start raising chickens, right here in river city? For problems like these, it might be best to bring in a ringer—in the form of a individual or couples therapist who can provide a safe place for working things out. 

That’s what my strong-communicating partner and I had to do when we reached an impasse on one of the biggest of biggies—whether or not to have another kid. 

But that’s the subject of another event in our communications decathlon. 

Sean Toren loves living the full catastrophe in Minneapolis with his wife and son. He can be contacted at with thoughts or suggestions.



Modeling good communications may not encourage your partner to do the same. Make it low pressure: ask a question, and then give your partner time to think things through and respond. If you pester for an immediate response, most likely your spouse will clam up, versus respond with a pearl.