As the final part of this series, we will look at skills that are likely to make communication with your partner more successful. An important point to remember is that the goal of effective communication should be mutual understanding and finding a solution that works for both people (i.e., compromise), rather than “winning” or “being right.” Every time you win or you’re right, then, by definition, your partner loses or is wrong. Not exactly a recipe for a successful relationship. Other points to keep in mind when trying to communicate successfully:
1. Eliminate distractions: Just like on an airplane, it is time to power down your phone, laptop, ipad, ipod, crackberry, television, video games, and reading materials. If your attention is focused anywhere but on your partner, it sends a very clear message which says, “I’m not interested in what you have to say,” even though you haven’t actually spoken a word. If you’re not comfortable looking your partner in the eye during a difficult conversation, you don’t have to, but it is still important that your attention not be focused elsewhere. Some couples find it helpful to hold hands or stay physically connected as they talk. It reminds them that they still care about each other and overall support one another.
2. Listen carefully: This means truly focusing on what your partner is saying – not tuning them out, not thinking about what you’re going to say or counter with, not interrupting. This takes practice and is harder than it may seem, but is a very important and effective communication skill. When they are done speaking, reflect what they’ve said back to them so they know you’ve heard them. Not only will they feel heard (and thus less likely feel the need to repeat themselves), they will be more willing to listen to you.
3. Use “I” statements: Making statements about how things impact you are far better tolerated than statements about how your partner did or didn’t do things. For example, “I get really frustrated when you don’t take out the garbage,” has a very different tone than, “You never take out the garbage.” “I” statements are less accusatory and help the other person understand your point of view rather than feel attacked, therefore becoming defensive.
4. Stay focused: Sometimes people bring up old conflicts when discussing current ones. This tends to muddle the issue and make finding a solution to the current problem less likely, as people tend to get sidetracked and may become more upset because of past hurts. In general, it is never helpful to bring up past difficulties or old wounds when dealing with a current problem. Stay focused on the present: understanding each other, what your feelings are, and finding a solution.
5. Try to see your partner’s point of view and consider their feelings: As mentioned above, people will continue to repeat themselves until they feel heard and understood. This can be particularly challenging in a conflict, when each person is so focused on getting their own point across that no one feels heard or understood. Thus, it is important to make a conscious effort to see and understand your partner’s perspective, even if you don’t agree with it. If you don’t get it, ask questions until you do. Again, if a person feels heard, they are more likely to listen to another’s point of view.
6. Respond to criticism with empathy: listening for your partner’s pain and responding with empathy for their feelings is a way to remain respectful of them, even if you don’t like their actions. Responding to criticism with more criticism only serves to escalate the conflict. Remember, the right thing to do is not always the easy thing to do.
7. Own what’s yours: While it can be hard to admit, both partners usually share responsibility when there is a conflict between them. When your partner criticizes you, it is easy to get defensive because you’re sure they’re wrong. However, when you stop and really think about it, you realize there is at least some truth to what they are saying. It’s important to remember that personal responsibility is a strength, and effective communication involves admitting when you’re wrong. Admitting your mistakes is powerful and shows maturity. It also often inspires the other person to respond in kind, which may lead to more open and honest communication.
7. Take a time-out: Sometimes people get emotionally flooded (heart rates over 100 beats per minute) and they are unable to continue a discussion because they are too emotional and unable to think clearly. If you or your partner starts to feel this way, become too angry to continue, or start to show destructive communication patterns (as listed in last month’s column), it’s a good idea to stop the discussion and cool off. Sometimes good communication means knowing when to take a break.
8. Don’t give up: While it’s fine to take a break from the discussion, it’s important to make sure you finish it. If both people are able to approach the situation with the principles listed above, progress can be made toward resolution of the conflict. If these are new skills for you, be patient. Learning any new skill takes practice.
9. Ask for help if you need it: If you are consistently having difficulty with the principles listed above and the situation with your partner doesn’t seem to be improving, you might benefit from a few sessions with a therapist. Therapy can provide help and teach skills dealing with conflict resolution. If your partner doesn’t want to participate, you can still benefit from going by yourself.
Lastly, every relationship can benefit by ongoing work on communication skills. It’s best to be in the habit of using healthy communication skills every day, so when a problem arises, you won’t have to learn a new skill at a difficult time.
© Copyright 2011 by Norma Lee, MA, MD, LMFT, therapist in Bellevue, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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.