In this article you will learn how to develop communication skills that can help create amazing relationships. We’ll discuss the meaning of communication, and we’ll look at six important skills that contribute to the art of effective communication, which can lead to positive relationships and improved intimacy. These skills come from over 25 years of experience in relationship counseling.
What is Communication?
With over half of the marriages in the U.S. ending in divorce, learning to communicate effectively with your partner is crucial. Three common communication misdemeanors in marriage are overreacting, changing the subject, and blaming each other, but with motivation and persistence, you can learn constructive communication patterns that can improve your significant relationships and rekindle the intimacy in your marriage. But before we can talk about effective communication, it’s important to understand the destructive communication that permeates millions of marriages across the country. Here is a conversation between two people I will call Jim and Priscilla, a married couple who have one son, Henry:
Jim: Why did you tell Henry he could try out for football when he hasn’t been getting good grades? You always mess things up.
Priscilla (defensively): I do not mess things up! Your problem is you never do anything but sit in front of the TV. If you spent more time with Henry, he would be doing better at school. I always end up doing all the work, and sometimes I wonder why I even married you.
Jim (harshly): You are always putting too much on Henry’s plate and setting him up for failure. What kind of mother are you, anyway?
Can you spot the problems in their pattern of communicating? Before you go any further, write down three communication mistakes that Jim and Priscilla are making.
Jim and Priscilla attack each other with an overuse of the word “you,” and they make exaggerated statements like “You always mess things up.” They changed the subject from Henry playing football to Jim watching TV, to spending more time with Henry, to Priscilla’s mothering. Their marriage is headed for trouble unless they get some form of marriage counseling to improve their communication. But just what is communication?
Communication: the act of communicating, intercourse, exchange of ideas, conveyance of information.
The very definition of communication includes an exchange of ideas from each side. When people overreact to one another, as often happens in close relationships, the actual exchange of ideas is blocked, and the possibility of reaching a mutual understanding is diminished. Overreaction leads to a focus on the fight and disagreement and the topic of communication becomes lost. Over time, this lack of understanding often leads to resentment, which can gradually erode the intimacy in a relationship and lead to the ending of relationships that potentially could have become extraordinary. Developing intimate and fulfilling relationships with significant others can lay the foundation for wonderful lives. As a specialist in relationship counseling, I believe that relationships are our most valued resource. But just what is effective communication between two people?
Effective communication is sending the message you want to deliver, in a way that increases understanding by the other person. It’s a two-way process that helps you productively deal with the important topics and common conflicts that are part of life. It involves being proactive in bringing up a problem and making your message clear and sticking to one topic. Being patient in terms of listening while holding back and containing defensiveness is important. Some barriers to effective communication include passivity, problems taking turns, not being clear about what you want to communicate, not setting clear boundaries when your partner is upsetting you, and a lack of curiosity about the other person. Effective communication has many rewards such as more intimacy in your significant relationships, satisfaction and success in life, and positive relationships with your loved ones, friends, clients, customers and acquaintances.
You often have to deal with a variety of people to reach goals along your path, and effective and emphatic communication can help you build successful relationships and work as part of a team to get things done. If you grapple with a mental health challenge, you may want to find a coach, relationship therapist, minister or friend to help you with issues that make effective communication difficult.
Here are six important skills that contribute to the art of effective communication:
- Become Aware of Your Thoughts and Feelings
If you observe a toddler, you generally see sadness, anger, happiness, joy, love and fear. These are the core emotions, and they often exist in a cluster. It’s important to become aware of the range and depth of your feelings and to hang in there with them long enough to understand what you want to communicate and how you want to word your message. If you have trouble knowing what you feel or want, it is important to take some time to connect. It can help to write down, three times during the day, how you feel about a significant or stressful event. For example, if your spouse gets annoyed with you for not picking up your clothes, you can note whether you feel annoyed, angry, hurt or frustrated as well as other thoughts that are on your mind. Knowing what you are feeling and knowing how to make “I feel” statements can make a big difference for couples in relationship counseling.
Eric often felt annoyed with his wife, Angela, for nagging him about picking up, but by taking some down time and staying with his feelings longer, he was able to calm down and learn that he also felt hurt. In the process, Eric also became aware of what his thoughts were toward Angela. Eric would think to himself, “Gee, Angela is such a nag, she is always on my case.” Instead of talking to her about this, he would often resort to giving her the silent treatment, which is an example of “passive-aggressive behavior,” and this infuriated Angela. By taking a time-out, Eric was able to get clear about both his thoughts and feelings, and then he could figure out what he wanted to communicate.
Communicating that you feel hurt is much more likely to be heard by a partner than communicating annoyance or anger. In relationship counseling, anger is often considered to be “the lid” on hurt. Knowing you are hurt enables you to soften your message, which can greatly contribute over time to an exceptional relationship. Stay with your feelings long enough to identify the deeper feelings and get clear what you want to communicate. Eric became stronger as a man as he developed his ability to be aware of the range of his feelings and to speak up to Angela instead of sitting on his feelings. This took some courage, but the process became easier over time. Remember, sharing vulnerable feelings is the heart of an intimate relationship; burying your feelings leads to problems that can cause serious disengagement between partners.
- Go from Confusion to Clarity
If you are new at getting in touch with your feelings, it may take some time to identify your deeper feelings and get clear about your intended message. You may feel confused and need to stay with the confusion long enough to reach a state of clarity. Most people don’t like the feeling of confusion and will try to get out of this state. However, learning to tolerate some uncertainty is central to cultivating stronger and more dynamic relationship skills. It’s totally normal to feel confused as you overcome defensive reactions and get to what is deep inside. People who are learning to be in touch with their feelings often need to go through periods of confusion to develop the ability to connect with core emotions. This is because feelings tend to come up in a clump if you are a beginner, and it takes some time being with your internal content to identify the feelings. With practice, you can learn to become more connected to your core feelings, which can lead to greater intimacy over time. Find a vision board to list the main feelings which are sad, mad, scared, angry, annoyed, frustrated, excited and love.
Keep a journal or make notes: Regularly writing about your confusion can help you sort out your deeper feelings. You need to hang in with your inner self until you get some sense of what you are feeling. Remember, a healthy person knows what they feel and what to do about it. Try on the different feelings (anger, sadness, fear, excitement, frustration), and see what fits. You may have milder versions of these five feelings such as annoyed, hurt, anxious or upset, but they can all facilitate sharing about yourself rather than telling your partner what she or he did wrong. There are dozens of additional feelings a person can have, and it is fine to share these feelings; however, focus on getting to the core feelings over time because this leads to an inner depth and strength that can help your relationship make a leap to a higher level. Realize a statement such as “I feel annoyed when you snap at me” is way better than “You get me mad when you dump on me.”
Eric kept a journal about his feelings and wrote about his anger toward his mother. This enabled him to realize that he was still angry and hurt by his mother’s treatment of him while he was growing up and that these feelings were getting triggered by Angela’s requests. Later, he was able to tell Angela that old feelings about his mother were leading to his rebellious behavior in their relationship. When a partner is able to truthfully talk about a desire to rebel, he or she reduces the probability of actually rebelling. Eric told Angela that he wanted to be closer to her and wanted to work on taking charge of his messes. This meant a lot to Angela, and she softened towards him and let him know she wanted to work on her style of communication.
Take responsibility: When both people take responsibility for their part in the stress or ineffective communication, significant progress is possible. In marriage counseling, Eric and Angela learned the importance of taking some time to get clear and, instead of blaming each other, owning their separate parts of the conflict.
Angela realized that she resorted to name-calling and blaming when they argued, so she decided to take charge of her part and communicate concerns in a more inviting way. She started to say things like “I would love it if you would pick up your clothes each day, and I want to do something to make your life more comfortable. I want us to work together as a team.” Eric worked to become aware of his feelings and to speak up rather than using the silent treatment. He also took more responsibility around the house by picking up after himself, which meant a great deal to Angela.
It was a real breakthrough for Eric when he could say, “I feel like giving you the silent treatment because I’m hurt, and I want to get even with you. However, I’m trying to talk out my feelings so we can get closer.” Angela felt a new closeness to Eric because she knew this statement took courage, and they both grew to experience a new intimacy in their relationship. They both agreed to have a “no name-calling” rule and to work on owning their parts in a problem rather than resorting to blaming each other.
Say what you mean: Before relationship therapy, Angela would use an ineffective way to communicate her annoyance at Eric by saying, “You are such a pig; you never pick up your clothes,” which is an attacking and defensive way to communicate that would push Eric away. After therapy, she learned to say, “It annoys me when I see your mess, and it would mean a lot to me if you would pick up regularly.” When Eric first heard this message, he was ready to overreact, but the words “it would mean a lot to me” triggered something positive in him. He held back instead. Let’s look at the effect that those seven well-chosen words had on Eric.
Initially, he was a bit confused because he was conflicted about the whole subject of being neat. His mother had always barked at him about his room, so this subject brought up some negative feelings from the past. As a teen, Eric wanted to tell off his mother, but he didn’t feel safe doing that because he was afraid she would yell at him and take away important privileges instead of hearing his concerns. He grew up in a family where his parents didn’t talk things out, and he lacked role models for honest and healthy communication. As a result, he had some suppressed, or buried, feelings toward his mother that were being triggered by Angela. Conflict and over-control of his feelings were leading to confusion. He wondered to himself, “Who am I really angry with – Angela, my mother or myself?”
Take some time: To figure out this problem, Eric stayed with his confusion for several days, telling Angela that he needed to think things through. Angela respected Eric’s need for some private time, and this understanding actually helped both of them. Angela’s words “it would mean a lot to me” stayed with Eric, and he felt motivated to change. With the pressure off, he was able to clarify that he wanted to have more intimacy with Angela and that picking up was worth the extra effort. He began to understand his deeper feelings by tolerating a few days of confusion. Although it was challenging, he stuck with the process and it paid off.
Take a time-out: Eric and Angela learned to take a time-out when they were heading toward destructive communication. If you notice that your communication with your partner or spouse is going nowhere, take a time-out from the discussion so you can each calm down and identify what you really want to communicate.
On another occasion, Eric and Angela were fighting about issues in their sexual relationship. Eric remembered to take a time-out on this delicate topic and brought the subject up a day later when they had both calmed down. Fortunately, Angela was able to take in what Eric was saying, and they were able to have a meaningful discussion. Each felt understood, and coming to a compromise drew the two closer.
An excellent book on communication and being honest is “Tell Me No Lies,” written by Dr. Ellyn Bader and Dr. Peter Pearson. This book will help you learn to communicate effectively and speak your truth. If you are not able to succeed on your own, brief relationship therapy can make all the difference.
- Be an Activator, not a Procrastinator
Procrastination is postponing the completion of a task that leads to a desired outcome; it’s a universal problem that can put your life on hold and interfere with creating a wonderful relationship. Many couples postpone bringing up sources of conflict because they imagine negative outcomes. You can never get back the lost time, but you can make good use of your time now. Learning to be an activator, or self-starter, is essential to the discovery of an exceptional relationship with yourself and with others. Being an activator is not just bringing up the topic but continuing to use your new skills to keep the conversation going toward a healthy understanding and then a compromise.
Far too many couples sit on their uncomfortable feelings and avoid bringing up delicate or difficult topics because they are afraid of the consequences. In relationship therapy, this is often called “conflict avoidance.” Why be an avoider when you can learn to manage your feelings in a proactive manner? Activators do the following:
- Bring up problems as soon as they become aware of them and have figured out how they want to approach problems.
- Take charge and initiate action to communicate with others.
- Manage their anxiety because they want things to run smoothly – you can do this by focusing on your breathing, making a positive affirmation such as “anxiety is a sign I am growing,” and exercising before having the conversation. Really focus on what the other person is saying to take your mind off of yourself.
- Cultivate the motivation to work toward a mutual understanding and compromise by focusing on the positives.
- Share positive feelings and appreciations – I’ve seen many couples who want to get closer, but often one of them fails to share appreciation with the other. Learn to communicate your appreciations as soon as you notice them, and you’ll be making a giant step toward a flourishing relationship. Appreciations might be “I sure love your sense of humor, you help us get through the hard times” or “You look attractive today!”
- Take a Positive Approach
When you are upset by your partner, it can be difficult to take a positive approach. It’s much easier to harbor negative feelings and forget the wonderful attributes of your partner. Negative feelings can lead to negative, reactive statements if you don’t learn to hold back, use these six tools, and remember the good things. As a relationship therapist, I know that unresolved problems require us to put our best foot forward, holding onto the things that matter to us about the other person.
Ted periodically got annoyed at his wife, Rachel, for being too rigid with their kids. After some relationship therapy, he learned to bring up a problem the same day it happened rather than sitting on it until he was ready to explode. This helped keep the conversation calm, and it broke the pattern of explosive, go-nowhere communication. He learned to communicate the following type of message that exemplifies a positive, artful approach:
“Rachel, I know you love the kids and are a great mother, but I get angry and hurt when you start laying out a list of rules for the kids. I would love to see you be more supportive when the kids are doing well because you mean the world to them.”
Remember to start the communication with something positive, stressing something you value in your partner. Then proceed to dive into the difficult discussion, and remember to make your message clear, effective and empathic. Train your brain to remember the positive things about your partner and try to put yourself in the other’s shoes. Rachel could take in Ted’s message very well because he artfully communicated it. He was able to provide two examples of what specifically bothered him so that Rachel could understand, and they were able to move forward. It helps to remember that the person requesting the change needs to be willing to make some change in support of his or her partner.
Of course, there will be times when your partner will get defensive, so ask your partner or spouse, “How can I word things in a way that will not make you defensive?” and then listen closely to your partner. If the conversation seems to be going nowhere, take a time-out and come back to it. Consider saying to your partner, “I need a time-out because I want to get clear about my feelings and get closer to you. I will schedule a time for us to talk in the next two days.” A time-out can turn a problem area into an opportunity for greater intimacy. Whoever decides to take the time-out needs to be responsible for bringing the subject up again in a day or two, or some other time agreed upon by both partners.
- Overcome Resistance
Many people have visions about the kind of lives they want to lead, but they don’t get around to taking the steps necessary to actualize their vision. Part of actualizing your potential in life is learning to do things when you don’t want to. This is where developing your emotional endurance and willpower really pays off.
The following is a mental-health rhyme that is a form of cognitive-behavior therapy. It can provide you with forward-moving thinking. You can create your own message that moves you forward, but this is one that worked for me over the years because it has the rhythm and rhyme that make it easy to remember.
I can pull myself up, against my own resistance
To get a job done that I don’t want to do
And I can do it over and over, for as long as it takes
To alter my existence, based on my insistence
That I can create the world that I want.
© 2006 by Patrice Wolters
Learning to overcome resistance is sometimes the hardest part in making real change because it feels like you don’t even want to get started. This is where “kick-in-the-pants” therapy really pays off. Just getting started is an important part of healthy communication because so many people avoid conflict. One good way to get started is to tell your partner or spouse how much you don’t want to bring up a topic. Talking about not wanting to do something is a form of communication, and this activation can facilitate a discussion that can lead to actually bringing up the uncomfortable part.
Most people avoid conflict because they think that they don’t want to hurt the other person, but in most cases they are really avoiding dealing with their own feelings and their fear of being hurt. Remember, you can learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and to manage discomfort, which will increase your probability of reaching the best stage of your life. Say to yourself, “I can get through this conversation and come out the other side. I will be a stronger person for it.”
- Communicate Empathically
This skill often takes some practice, but it is well worth the effort. Mostly it involves “just listening” with your heart to what the other person is saying. With active listening, you can then feed back to the other person (spouse, boss, friend, etc.) what you hear is being said. To do this, listen for the inner feelings and motivation of the other person, and focus on what you hear that they want. This method will help you to calm down and focus, and it will invite your partner to bring up topics she or he may prefer to avoid. Keep in mind that you don’t have to communicate perfectly; most people love that their partners are making an effort and some progress.
Rachel, who sets many rules, might say to Ted, “I understand that you are feeling bothered by the number of rules I set and that you want me to be more balanced with the kids.” This type of response lets Ted know that Rachel heard him. It also lowers his annoyance and enables Rachel to focus on Ted and not her own feelings about being criticized.
While this may seem simple, it is quite a complex process; it involves putting your own feelings aside while showing your partner that you heard his or her response. Managing your own internal strife, listening deeply to what your partner is saying, striving to put yourself in his or her shoes, and asking good questions to promote empathy and understanding will help you develop an extraordinary relationship. And always remember the positive traits that first attracted you to your partner.
If you have lost touch with the positive things about your partner, you can learn to find your way forward to a life-enhancing relationship. Remember…
There is hope, there is help and it’s just a phone call away. Call 408-358-9679 for a complimentary phone consultation.