There are so many books and articles written about how to communicate effectively, that it can often be overwhelming to know what to believe or even what works.
I’ve distilled down some of the most important factors couples need to focus on to improve their communication and relationship. My ideas are based on my observations of working with hundreds of couples over the last 10 years and communication problems.
1. Seek to understand before trying to be understood
One of the most common negative patterns I see in my work with couples is the cycle of criticism and defensiveness.
This often happens when you hear something you perceive as an attack or criticism from your partner, which leads to you immediately defending yourself.
The problem with this pattern is it immediately sets both of you up to not be heard.
As soon as you start to defend your position, you’ve lost the opportunity to understand your partner.
Tip: Even if you feel under attack or think you hear a criticism, first seek to understand your partner’s thoughts and feelings that they are raising with you before you respond.
2. Slow down your communication to truly hear your partner
Many issues get out of control because once this dynamic of criticism and defence is underway, the interaction often moves very quickly.
When your communication is speeding up, you can miss a lot of important information that your partner is expressing.
This fast pace also increases the volatility of your discussion, making it harder for you to keep the conversation calm.
Tip: If you notice that things are moving fast in your discussion, intentionally put on the brakes and slow down the exchange. You can say to your partner “Let’s slow this down so I can really understand what you are telling me.”
This helps defuse the reactivity and allows you to continue to communicate in an adult-to-adult way.
3. Be curious about your partner’s perspective
This one is easier said than done when you’re feeling blamed, criticized or attacked.
However, one of the best things you can do when you’re feeling that is to be curious about your partner’s perspective.
This can be disarming in a positive way, and it immediately helps de-escalate the rising tension between you.
By being curious, you can learn new things about your partner, as well as support your conversation in moving towards a resolution.
Tip: You can still disagree with your partner’s perspective and remain curious and interested in how their view is different from yours.
Practice bringing in this state of curiosity next time you’re feeling a heated discussion coming on and see what happens.
4. Recognise your emotional triggers and learn to self-soothe
When you know what your emotional triggers are, it allows you to be aware of when the potential for them being activated is present.
We all bring ‘baggage’ into our relationships- from our childhood, previous relationships, school experiences, and of course, our family of origin.
There’s no such thing as a person who is ‘baggage free’, however, you can use your awareness of your ‘hot spots’ to know when they are likely to be triggered.
Tip: Practice observing yourself, even when you feel triggered by your partner. See if you can name it by saying “I’m feeling [insert feeling] now, and I think it’s also touching something in my past that’s not related to you.”
By naming the trigger, it helps your partner understand that there’s more at play here than just the current conversation. This understanding can help both of you be less reactive in the moment.
5. Practise using empathy to foster a closer connection
Empathy is the fuel of good relationships.
Being empathic is about imagining yourself walking in the shoes of your partner and feeling and seeing the world like they do.
When you can respond empathically to your partner, it also facilitates a deeper bond- creating a strong sense of safety and trust between you and helps in the giving and receiving of love.
The challenge is when you’re feeling under attack, it can be the last thing you feel like doing. It does require you to be able to ‘step outside yourself’ and begin to appreciate an alternative reality to your own.
Practicing empathy does not mean that you have to completely surrender and give up what you want or your own reality. It just means you need to suspend your own perspective, even momentarily, so you can appreciate the smallest part of how your partner sees things.
Tip: Start small- even if you’re imaging only 1%-5% of what your partner feels, and then build on that. Your partner will feel the shift and will be able to let down her guard a little, opening up the possibility of a better connection.
6. Listen for the unmet need or emotion that is hidden
When your partner is in distress and voicing a complaint or you’re feeling criticised or blamed, there’s always some unmet need, want, desire or unexpressed emotion underlying this cry.
The challenge for you is to go underneath the overt complaint and see if you can tap into the hidden emotion.
By uncovering this emotion and tentatively asking if the covert emotion is also going on for your partner, you can bypass the surface anger, irritation, or resentment and cut to the core emotion that needs to be validated.
This is no easy task, as it requires you to figuratively step up and out of the current conflict and to look and listen for what’s not being expressed.
The challenge is it does require you to suspend your own reactivity and defensiveness to be able to connect with the deeper needs of your partner.
Tip: When you find yourself in a conflict situation, pause for a moment and see if you can feel what else in the conversation your partner is not expressing.
To help you with this, remind yourself that your partner is in distress, but is not able to share the whole picture of the distress with you. Listen carefully for this and use your curiosity to find out what else is not being overtly shared.
7. Anticipate issues before they become issues
One of the most common major communication problems is that many current issues often could have been dealt with much earlier in the relationship, but weren’t.
Avoidance of speaking about small issues can often lead to unresolved issues festering and expanding over time. They can then explode later down the track and feel much bigger than they were, to begin with.
Some of the reasons the small issues are avoided are because you may not want to ‘rock the boat’ when you think things are going relatively well. You may also have a belief that nothing good comes from raising complaints or issues.
The reality is that couples that seek to avoid conflict almost always end up in more conflict than they were trying to avoid in the first place.
Tip: Get into the habit of naming and flagging issues with each other with assertive communication, even when they are small. One of the ways to do this is to have a regular check-in where you meet on a regular basis to discuss current issues and check how your relationship is going.
Over time, this structure can help you feel more confident about your ability to effectively deal with conflict and disagreements.
Communication in a relationship is something that needs to be constantly attended to for the health of your relationship.
Start with the basics and establish rituals of communication and connection in your relationship to ensure the longevity of your love and connection with one another.
Now over to you. What communication basics would you add to this list?
Do you need relationship help?
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.