Couples come into therapy for many reasons but one thing they mostly all share in common is an inability to communicate with each other effectively. Stephen Covey said in his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
“When we listen with the intent to understand others, rather than with the intent to reply, we begin true communication and relationship building. Opportunities to then speak openly and to be understood come much more naturally and easily.”
Nothing could be more correct than this statement but you don’t need to be a self-help guru or read a stack of books to learn basic communication skills. If the willingness is there, it can happen and your relationship will move onto another level. A level where you can be yourself in a genuine manner, be accepted for who you are and accept that healthy boundaries are also part of a healthy communication strategy.
It is my firm belief that lack of communication between partners is just as much a relationship killer as infidelity and the like. The reasons for lack of communication skills can often be traced back to childhood and the way communication was handled in the family setting. If you had parents who never allowed the children an opinion or did not allow communication, it is hard to see this as an effective form of interaction. Even worse, if parents were the “do as I say and not as I do” type, the children would see no point in trying to communicate and would most likely internalise their issues.
In adulthood, they would believe that communication was “pointless” or even “dangerous” and might avoid telling partners how they really feel. However, without an effective communication strategy, the relationship might be doomed before it really gets going.
Communication is something we all know is necessary to keep any relationship strong and loving, and although we are aware of the importance of this, many people in the heat of the moment still seem to be clueless about what exactly good communication really is. Being open to better communication and avoiding the “who is going to win” scenario keeps a relationship healthy and once a couple starts becoming more familiar with their communicating styles, they are better able to work as a team in making the best of the relationship.
The first step in achieving better communication that will really work, is to take a look at yourself first.
People always tend to turn to their partner when things are not running so smoothly in their relationship. They automatically start pointing out what their partner is doing or not doing, as well as how their partner is doing or not doing, as well as how their partner is not listening to them. This may all be true depending on particular situations but it is important that you take the responsibility in reviewing action and communication from you first before anything can be pointed out in your partner. Remember, it is very easy to see other people’s mistakes but when it comes to looking at personal communication, it is much harder to accept criticism, even from yourself because no one wants to be wrong. This is where there is a need to get real about things. Communication is not about who is right or wrong, but instead about helping each other see things from each other’s perspective so that both can be on the same page and avoid any misunderstanding that will cause unneeded arguments.
Let’s look at four ways communication can be improved:
1- Be Aware Of Your Own Responsibility: Good communication starts with you and the willingness to listen and communicate effectively. Without this self awareness, one cannot expect good communication from your partner. Become aware of how you react in certain situations, take responsibility for change to make communication easier. This often means working on such issues as self-esteem, anger from the past and any lifestyle stressors you may have. Before communication, create a desire in your mind to WANT to do it. Be calm (easier if you are practicing daily meditation), pick your moment and be in the moment. Use this equation before responding or to help with triggers: Pause, Reflect, Adjust, Act. Keep the bigger picture of the positives of the relationship also in mind.
2- Listening Skills: Listening is so important… if a couple truly wishes to accomplish good communication that will improve a relationship. Is active listening happening or are one or both sides planning the next move? Listening may sound like an easy enough thing to do, but many confuse it with hearing. Hearing what your partner is saying versus listening to them are indeed very different. Listening involves true dedication and full attention to the words your partner is serving up to you, as well as the tone of voice and expressions that go along with those words. Listening means that interest is there to learn more about what the speaker is making an effort to say and making the emotional connection needed in order to achieve relationship goals together. Many couples I deal with complain of never being truly listened to where their partner listens “through the words” without judgment or defence. Some unfortunately never get to finish a sentence. What is usually happening is what is defined as “listening blocks”. Mind reading, filtering, judging, advising, daydreaming, predicting are just some of these.
3- Empathetically Get The Message Across: This is just as important as the listening part. If you listen well and then blurt out insults and defensive statements, it will hurt the process. Loud, aggressive statements might trigger a “fight or flight” response in the listener and communication is then over. Follow these five steps for effective delivery of a message:
Firstly, use “I” statements: “I feel” means that the feelings come from you and while you cannot control the reaction from another person, this method makes a good reaction more likely. Secondly, express with respect by choosing words and phrases wisely and be aware of your reactions and triggers. Thirdly, express with clarity what you need and feel. Don’t be vague or talk in generalisations. This will promote mind reading. Next, take frequent pauses to seek clarification. Many people switch off if presented with a long monologue. Lastly, thank them for listening. They will appreciate being appreciated.
4- Make Time For Effective Listening And Expression: An Empathetic Dialogue. An empathetic dialogue is the process of two people using effective listening and expression together without listening blocks, defensive attitudes, shutting down or being aggressive. To do this means practice and taking the time to practice. In our busy world, we just don’t take the time to do many essential things in our lives. We mostly like to complain and avoid rather than putting in the hard work needed. Keep in mind that an empathetic dialogue does not need to be used just to solve problems but can be used when discussing general topics and in small talk. This can bring a couple together if their relationship is waning. To quote Covey again: “Empathic listening and expression takes time and effort but it doesn’t take near as much time as it does to back up and clear up misunderstandings when you are already miles down the road: To redo, to live with unexpressed and unresolved problems as a result of not giving or being given psychological air”
If this can be achieved, instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you are dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You are listening to understand. You are focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul. Effective communication cannot happen on its own or with the efforts of only one person. Both partners have to be open and willing to work as a team on improving communication, so that both can enhance relationship skills and build a relationship where both have an understanding of who they are as individuals and what both need and want.