Couples Communication: 3 Steps to Connection

man listeningDo you listen? Do you really hear and understand the meaning of what your partner is telling you? Are you curious? Do you practice loving-kindness?

Recently I asked a man if he thought he was a good communicator. His answer was a quick “yes.” But what he does well is talk and tell stories. When his wife expresses a different opinion, he interrupts and explains why she is wrong and his position is the right one.

Being a good communicator is a two-way street—sending and receiving. We need to be able to send a message our partner can hear, and we need to verify that the information we intended is actually the information received.

The other half of communicating is listening and receiving the information our partner sends. This may be a more important part for a felt sense of connection.

As a couples counselor specializing in Imago Relationship Therapy, I have observed many times someone saying to their partner, “I understand,” or, “I know what you mean.” It appears they think they do, and they don’t think they have to say any more about it to make sure.

Just because you think you understand doesn’t mean you do. You may just think you do. You need to do a reality check to make certain.

We all want to be heard and understood, to be deeply known, especially by our most intimate partners with whom we have committed to spending our lives. This takes effort and intention.

When couples ask if I think they will make it in repairing their relationship conflicts, my response is, “If you each are willing to make an effort and do the work.” Spending time pointing out your partner’s faults isn’t helpful. But spending time trying to understand your partner and why they think the way they do and do the things they do is.

In Imago relationships, the essential tool is couples dialogue. It is a three-step process:

  1. It begins by hearing and “mirroring” what you heard said until your partner acknowledges that you got the message that was intended. After paraphrasing what you heard, you ask, “Did I get that?”
  2. The second step is validating. This is where you let your partner know how he or she made sense to you. It is not about agreeing or disagreeing, just understanding the other person’s logic.
  3. The third step is empathy. Given what your partner said and his or her logic, what do you imagine your partner is feeling? You might say, “I imagine you might be feeling (sad, frustrated, etc.). Is that accurate?”

This process takes practice and may not feel natural at first. It may even feel laborious at times.

Many people may have a tendency to react to what they heard with defensiveness. When you do this, you stop listening and start thinking about what you are feeling and want to say next. You may become emotionally flooded and unable to think straight.

This is the time to request a “timeout” to calm yourself so you can continue. We want to be sure we let our partners know we will return at a specific time to finish the dialogue.

With time and practice, the dialogue process will become familiar. The reward is feeling more closeness, more intimacy, and more understanding of yourself and your partner. When this happens, there is less arguing and bickering and more compassion.

My husband and I have found that we are now able to “cut to the chase” and “get to the point” much more quickly now than before we had knowledge of this three-step process. That is a reward that, in my mind, is well worth the effort.

My appreciation and regards to the founders of Imago Relationship Therapy, Harville Hendrix and his wife Helen Hunt.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Marian Stansbury, PhD, Imago Relationship Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

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

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  • wendell

    June 11th, 2014 at 12:44 PM

    I didn’t quite realize how me listening to my wife, or what I thought I was listening to was many times not at all what she was saying until we sat down with our own couples counselor and she taught me that what I think that I hear is not always what she is trying to say. Once I got that through my thinck skull I could then repeat back to her what I heard and she could tell me if I got it or not. She was always so much better at listening and communicating than I was until I was taught this little trick and that one little thing has helped us so much in our therapy. I would recommend this for anyone who feels like they have gotten a little off track and that they need some help. This did it for us perfectly.

  • Chuck

    June 12th, 2014 at 4:20 AM

    What I think happens to most couples is that after a while we stop listening to each other all together. We think that we know the person, we think that we always know waht he or she is going to say when the truth is that they may have something all new to say but we would never hear it because we have stopped listening to them a long time ago. This is sad but I do think that with all of the hustle and bustle of everyday life this happens even without most of us realizing that this is what we are doing. The slowly we drift apart because in addition to hearing nothing new, we stop hearing anything at all. Clear cut road to misunderstanding and anger and eventually , separation and disconnection.

  • nicolette

    June 12th, 2014 at 2:17 PM

    “Many people may have a tendency to react to what they heard with defensiveness. When you do this, you stop listening and start thinking about what you are feeling and want to say next. You may become emotionally flooded and unable to think straight”
    Oh golly I read this line and really recognized myself in these words.
    When I get riled up and I know that I do this, I tend to stop really listening to what the other person is saying and I am thinking ahead to what I am going to say next. I guess that this is my defense mode but it really does tend to make things a lot worse than they would have been had I just stopped and listened for a moment.
    I hate it that I know that I am doing this but I can’t seem to stop the event from happening. My mouth reacts before my brain ever even has a chance :/

  • Cheyenne

    June 13th, 2014 at 2:40 PM

    I very openly and honestly struggle with step 2, validation! It is hard for me to see the logic behind an argument if I don’t also agree with that logic. To me, if I don’t see it that way then it isn’t exactly logical. You can only imagine the problems that result form me thinking like this, but surely you must also understand my struggle with the point in the first place.
    Celieve me I understand that it is an important part of any long term and lasting relationship, but as I said, I don’t have that one quite figured out just yet.

  • Thelma

    June 14th, 2014 at 5:22 AM

    I have been married to a great communicator for many years… the only problem is that he LOVES to hear himself talk and just knows theat everything that he has to say is valuable and worth hearing but he never seems to quite feel that way about what I have to think or say.

    I am so tired of being his supporter when I never feel like he is mine. I think that what I say is meaningless to him, he makes me feel belittled and very much less than him, whereas he always needs me to prop up his ego and tell him how wonderful his thoughts and stories are.

    When is he, or is he ever going to be willing to do that for me?

  • Kathy

    August 29th, 2016 at 3:22 PM

    Did your husband ever understand that? It sounds a lot like my situation. I hope that it hasn’t been too long for you to answer my question.

  • Helen g

    June 16th, 2014 at 4:22 AM

    Since I first stumbled across this entry last week I have been trying really hard, my husband and I, to work on all the steps and to improve on some of our communication skills that let’s say are not quite up to par. I think that for us the big thing has been to just admit that we have a bit of a problem when it comes to expressing our thoughts and feelings to each other and that we could use a little help in clering things up between the two of us. I am not saying that things became easier overnight and there have been some concversations that felt a little labored as we tried earnestly to go through the three steps, but I do feel like we now have a better idea what the other is feeling when we do this as well as a clearer picture of the message that we want to get out to each other when we do make this kind of effort. It is work, it isn’t easy, and I am hoping that in the end though that it makes us stronger as a couple.

  • Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    June 16th, 2014 at 5:05 PM

    To WENDELL – keep up the good work. To CHUCK – You have a good point. We just need to stay conscious and interested so this doesn’t happen. To NICOLETTE – The good news is that your recognize it. Once you are aware you can begin to change the reaction/behavior. To CHEYENNE – Just try to see it from the other’s point of view. I get that this isn’t always easy. It can be a stretch. To THELMA – Did he read the article? Tell him how you are feeling. Ask him for what you need. If he doesn’t respond to this then you need to consider what to do about staying in the relationship. To HELEN – Keep plugging away. It will feel labored until it starts to feel more natural. It is worth the effort.

  • Betsy R

    June 17th, 2014 at 3:46 PM

    I look at so many couples around me and I see the ones who seem truly happy, and when you boil it down to the basics, I think that these three things that you have mentioned are the key things that they all have in common with one another. There is simply a level of respect and empathy toward one another that they have that other couples don’t have, and the ones who don’t have that are the ones whose marriages don’t last, or at least they don’t remain too happy. There are always going to be things in the relationship that will ebb and flow, but the one constant in the couples who stay together is that they are always able to talk to one another without fear and they always trust that their partner is going to find a way to understand what it is that they need to say.

  • Azadeh

    July 26th, 2014 at 1:18 PM

    I ‘d like to know if imago therapy is beneficial to those who are unwilling
    To get married or not.
    Thank you

  • Dr. Marian Stansbury

    July 27th, 2014 at 2:49 AM

    Imago Relationship Therapy can help individuals and couples sort out and clarify their vision as to what they want in their life. This would include whether to marry or not.

  • Kat

    August 3rd, 2014 at 5:07 PM

    Its really important to me too because I have a hearing impairment. I lost my hearing at the age of 34 from barotrauma, the plane lost cabin pressure in storm. It frustrating to me because I have been dismissed so many times because people do not want to repeat themselves. Its important to me because I want to understand all conversation so there is no miscommunication.

  • cherise m

    September 5th, 2014 at 9:44 AM

    Me and my boyfriend desperately need relationship counseling we have time issues,communication issues and intimacy issues that needs to be addressed can this type of therapy work for us ?

  • Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    September 5th, 2014 at 5:03 PM

    Yes Cherise I believe it could.

  • LaChelle

    January 19th, 2015 at 7:39 PM

    I am in a difficult relationship. My partner always sees the glass half empty. I am currently having a few life struggles and my partner always looks at my issues and circumstances without support. We sincerely love each other but I don’t feel he respects or values me. He’s a difficult person to deal with and everything is always negative. HELP! I need suggestions is becoming more and more challenging.

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