5 Communication Strategies to Improve Any Relationship

Happy couple with boxes, talking on porchSatisfying relationships add grace, warmth, and richness to our lives. Some relationships are remarkably nourishing and easy, while others are challenging. Based on years of experience in helping people resolve and repair personal and role-related relationships, here are five tried-and-true practices.

1. Differentiate Reactions from Responses

In preparing for a challenging conversation, one effective practice is to discern whether your feelings about and actions toward the person in question have been reactions or responses. Awareness of the difference can change everything. A reaction consists of words or actions based on feelings or experiences from the past. A response is a comeback based in real time.

For example, my partner, in a neutral tone of voice, asked me if I had repaired the mailbox yet. Having felt criticized long ago for not doing enough, I reacted with a strong and sour emotional burst: “No. You think it’s not on my mind? You haven’t noticed I already have 100 urgent things on my list?” That reaction was obviously not helpful and could easily begin an escalation. A response would have been, “Nope. But it’s fixed enough to get by until I have more time. I haven’t forgotten it.” You can imagine how much better this would have gone over.

As another example, someone in therapy showed me a letter she had gotten from her mother. Enclosed was a $10 bill for her to use to do something nice for herself to help reduce the stress she was feeling. Her reply was, “This makes me so mad. Does she actually think $10 is going to pay for all the things she did wrong to me? It’s so lame. And it’s all about HER. It’s always all about HER.” Reaction, right?

After we did some talking about it, she shifted gears to a response: “Thanks, Mom. I’ll use it for something nice. I appreciate your wanting to help.” Things would go so much better with this reply.

Self-reflecting ahead of time about how you might respond, rather than react, may shift your energy and increase the chances of a successful interchange.

2. Engage Your Curiosity

The second important practice for improving your relationship is to find your curiosity when you feel attacked verbally. Imagine looking at the person you feel challenged by. Notice how you experience the challenge from this person. Now imagine turning around and changing only one thing—engaging your curiosity.

Next, imagine turning back and facing this person again, this time with curiosity. Notice how the person and conflict shift for you, thereby enabling you to de-escalate the conflict.

3. Link a Complaint with a Request for Change

I hear, “You always greet me with a negative comment on my looks. You keep saying I look tired and stressed. I think you use this to manipulate me into changing to accord with your ideas.” I hear, “I hate the way you are always looking over my shoulder at work, and then you criticize me if I’m not doing something the way you would.”

As a therapist and consultant, I notice that people tend to focus on complaining, blaming, or psychologizing each other. This approach inevitably leads to a downward energy spiral, loss of connection, and, ultimately, feelings of despair.

When I interrupt and ask, “Do you have a request for a change?” the wheels of criticism stop turning. There is a little space for something different to happen. The person who has a complaint has to refocus their attention from what they don’t like, and feel hurt and hopeless about, to what they want and toward the kind of interaction that would work better for them. No blame is needed. This request for change offers the would-be critic an unexpected chance for self-reflection rather than shaming and blaming the other.

As a therapist and consultant, I notice that people tend to focus on complaining, blaming, or psychologizing each other. This approach inevitably leads to a downward energy spiral, loss of connection, and, ultimately, feelings of despair.

The second part of this process engages the person receiving the complaint. “What parts of this request can you say yes to?” I invite the receiver to notice making a request can be a vulnerable and self-revealing thing. I continue, “For the sake of the relationship, it is not acceptable to say an absolute no. You may feel fine about the request, even grateful to know what would work better. Or you may find only some or even just one part of the request that you can say yes to, but you need to affirm at least that.”

Here’s an example: “My request is that if you are concerned about my well-being, please ask me how I am, believe my response, and then move on. The way this will benefit our relationship is I will feel more connected and real with you instead of mad that you don’t believe my response.” The receiver might only be able to say yes to inquiring about how I am. Rather than this small yes causing a relationship shutdown (as an absolute no would have), it opens the door to a genuine, heartfelt negotiation about the issue. Letting go of accusing the person with the complaint enables us to understand the motivation underlying all the questioning.

The change finally agreed to was that both would ask rather than comment, and be direct rather than covert. If one of them didn’t believe the response, they would arrange for another time to talk more personally outside the work setting. This complaint process has three parts: a succinct statement of the complaint, a measurable and specific request for a change, and a sentence or two about how this change would benefit the relationship.

4. Ask for a Do-Over

Have you ever wished you could simply redo an interaction that went poorly or escalated beyond what would be reasonable? Well, you can! A do-over begins with acknowledging something in the interchange didn’t go over well or as intended. Your impact can so often be different from your intention.

Here’s an example: Carla says, “I know you’re hurting, and if you would just do this course, everything would be okay.” Martin responds, “I’m sick of this. You’re always talking about your new ideas as if they were God’s gift from heaven. It’s like if I don’t agree, then there is something wrong with me, some way I am not good enough.”

Carla notices the conversation is not going well. “Oops! Could we do a do-over? It wasn’t my intention to tell you you are wrong or bad. If we could please begin again, I’d like to say it differently. “Martin, I just took a great course. I’m handling my stress much better now. How are you doing with stress these days? You might want to consider this course too.” Martin: “Actually, I’m not feeling much stress these days, but I’m interested in hearing about your experience.” Much better. No emotional charge. No escalation. The relationship is repaired and strengthened.

A do-over can reorient a relationship without those involved needing to do a lot of processing.

5. Make Your Challenging Conversation an Investment in Your Relationship

We tend to link conflict with pain, loss, anger, and no possibility for repair. When you make a shift toward understanding that attending to difficulties is an investment in the relationship, fear can be reduced on both sides. You can approach the person you challenged (or who challenged you) with an eye toward working it out in a way that furthers the relationship. This person will likely feel your interest in maintaining the relationship.

It’s been my experience that relationships in which people have successfully worked through a conflict tend to be even deeper and more satisfying than those that rarely have a conflict to work through. When relationship challenges are seen as offering a chance to make it better, you will be taking an action that benefits and strengthens that relationship.

As a reminder, one of the four dimensions of right use of power is the relationship dimension. In using your personal and professional power wisely and well, it is of great importance to track for problems, attend to them, and repair disconnects sooner rather than later. Give the keys described here a try. You—and those you relate with—will likely be happy you did.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Kaci

    April 29th, 2016 at 7:06 AM

    I have never really thought about asking for a do over, but you know, it does make sense. It does show the other person that there is some regret there and that you realize that what you said may not have been the right thing. IT shows that you are sincerely concerned about the way that may have come out and how they may have taken it.

  • Louis

    April 29th, 2016 at 10:29 AM

    we seem to talk to one another as children, never adults

  • Elle

    April 29th, 2016 at 2:00 PM

    These are all such wonderful tips for almost any relationship but there are those days when I am like, I am tired, I am tired of trying so hard to make things work and then not feeling like I am being a success or am getting anything in return. It would be nice to feel like he is trying too, like he is just as concerned about our relationship as I am.

  • rodney S

    April 30th, 2016 at 9:11 AM

    Even though the first response that we have to something that we perceive as negative is usually the first one that we go with, even though a better thing to do, like with the money from the mother, is to actually take a minute to process that reaction and see how instead we could look at it form a different direction. The temptation is to always see things only from our own perspective instead of trying to take a step back and try to see it instead from the perspective of the one who is giving. I think that if we could do that a little more often, see it from their point of view, then our relationships may become a little closer than what they are now.

  • Smith

    April 30th, 2016 at 1:25 PM

    Goodness, why don’t we try to simply listen to what our partners have to say every now and then instead of mouthing on and on about what we want and need, listen to what they want and need instead.

  • kim mc

    May 2nd, 2016 at 9:36 AM

    There are always things that we can do that will deescalate a situation but for the most part most of us are focused so much on the moment that it is hard to see past that immediate anger that we could be feeling. Most of the time I think that we are very concerned about making ourselves heard and getting our point across without ever listening to the other person’s concerns. We have to find a way to become more focused on what helps us as a whole part and not just what feels good right in that one moment.

  • sondra

    May 3rd, 2016 at 9:02 AM

    Just spending time with your partner is a good investment in that relationship

  • Ronni

    May 7th, 2016 at 5:34 AM

    I have learned over the years that often the best thing to say is nothing at all.

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