“We don’t know how to communicate.”
“We don’t know how to fight fair.” “How do you do that?”
“Most of our conversations become arguments and remain unresolved.”
“Why do conversations seem so difficult? They never used to be. What happened?”
I hear these comments often, which is a reminder of just how universal communication difficulties are, especially in intimate relationships. These difficulties result in conversations that many times remain unresolved or escalate to an argument.
The back and forth between two people (spouses, partners, mother/child, co-workers) is referred to as the “dance” and is maintained and reinforced by both parties, though in varying degrees. In therapy, we work towards changing the “dance” or communication patterns and take what is discussed and practiced in the therapy room, to the “real world” – their life, their everyday exchanges. Ultimately, each person learns how to become more effective and proficient at expressing what they are feeling and thinking AND be able to listen to the other person, without interjecting, talking over, interrupting, or responding defensively.
A tall order! Yes, I know. But, it is possible. I have been witness to this process many times and its remarkable each time it occurs!
In the beginning and especially in the heat of the moment, the ability to communicate effectively is that much more challenging. Even for the seasoned therapist such as myself who helps people on a daily basis, I have my moments where conversations in my relationship do not go as planned. No relationship is perfect, mine included. The proof however, is in the desire to be open to change, remain flexible in your thinking, and figure out what works for both people.
Thus, a few “tools” go a long way. Over time and with practice, change will and does occur. This creates hope for future, healthier conversations. The key? Start small, have a plan, and decide on a couple of changes together. This helps the couple feel they are working together to mend their differences, which reinforces their relationship.
Strategies to Improve Communication
1. Create your own marriage or relationship rules. People don’t always know how to start this process or have even considered doing this task, but they really like this idea! They find it to be eye opening, beneficial, and helps create a conversation about their relationship.
2. Before you get into any discussion, YOU determine the emotional mood you are in and then communicate that to the other person. Ask, “Is this a good time to talk?” If not, ask when might be a good time? Schedule a time and then both people need to honor the plan.
3. Forgo technology one night a week. Research has proven that overuse of technology can negatively affect relationships.
4. Request an apology if you think you deserve one. Be the one to extend the olive branch once in awhile.
5. Mind reading does not work and is futile! Though, people keep trying. It’s your responsibility is to tell your partner what you want and need. It is not his or hers to figure it out.
6. Take certain trigger words off table – the D word (divorce), I am leaving/I am out of here, especially in the heat of an argument.
7. If your partner is making an honest attempt to repair the relationship, then try and make a physical connection.
8. Negotiating is not the same as complaining. Negotiating means that you state clearly, without fighting or blaming, how the status quo needs to change, embarking on a new direction. (Harriet Lerner)
9. Learn how to self regulate! By this, I mean, manage your own emotions. You are responsible for yourself, not anyone else. Use your energy to take care of yourself and not to try and manage another person. This does not work and is also just as futile as mind reading.
10. Have respect. If they ask you to do something, do it.
11. Be kind even when they are not. Be the one to extend the olive branch once in awhile.
12. Learn how to not take things personally all the time. I see this often and this prevents a person from taking ownership where its needed, and discarding ownership of an issue when it is not warranted. It’s not always about you.
13. Be flexible in your thinking, how you solve a problem, and be open to other alternatives and options. People have a tendency to be close minded and overly opinionated. These traits get in the way of good communication and thwart progress.
14. Stay on topic by asking “what is the real issue?” I often see couples who, once a conversation turns heated, they throw in the “kitchen sink” – which means all unresolved issues and sensitive spots of the other is fair game.
15. Tone and inflection goes a long way. They really do. Just a change in infliction in one or two words, will change the course of the conversation. So does starting a statement with “I” versus “you”. Nothing sends a person into defensivness mode with a statement that begins with “you”.
16. Employ the 5:1 ratio. For every negative comment, you should be stating 5 positive comments. (John Gottman)
17. Add some humor! Be a little light hearted. Humor has a way of diluting and diffusing tension and has immeasurable, positive results.
Keep in mind that its about creating the conversation and encouraging compassion for one another that will steer you away from the confrontation and criticism.
These are just a handful of strategies to improve communication. What has worked for you in your relationship?