One of the most frequent requests I get marriage or couples counseling is “tools for communication”. So, here are some guidelines that help in communication. Whether you’re having troubles in your couples’ relationship, work or friendships; whether you live here in Orange County or on the other side of the planet, these fundamentals for communication will help. The basic idea is to slow down and simplify the process of communicating by making one person the “speaker” on a topic and the other an “active listener.” Be assured the first listener will have their turn for equal air time to speak for themselves on that same topic (no topic changes please). That really does give you the best chance at succeeding in understanding one another. Often couples find they aren’t even talking about the same issue when they take the time to really listen.
For Both To Remember
Attitude is everything
The single most important piece of counsel I give couples is that their motivations and attitude matters the most. When the intent is to understand and appreciate one another better, the words and techniques for communicating work best. There are no magic words or techniques that will make up for a closed mind when communicating.
Set yourself up for success. Pick a time and situation that will be relaxed and distraction free, and when both of you have energy and are focused. Five minutes before bedtime or when your partner walks through the door from work is a recipe for disaster. When I see people as a therapist, the structure of therapy meets most of those requirements. You’re going to have to be more intentional at home.
Talk about the non-verbals
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Your actions speak so loudly, I can not hear what you are saying.” The tone of voice, rolling eyes, and body language, etc. are noticed more than words. Couples with a lengthy relationship are often hyper-aware of the other’s non-verbals and the history of meaning implied. You can NOT hide non-verbals in yourself or ignore them in the other person, so talk plainly about what “signals” you’re picking up beyond the words. This keeps the listener from misunderstanding and may give the speaker another clue about what they are feeling.
Call a “time out” when needed
Don’t hesitate to call a “time out” to cool down if one or the other is getting triggered and you don’t think you can either speak respectfully or listen clearly. Just set a clear time to check back in with one another until you’re both ready to continue on that same conversation. There’s no rule that says it has to be worked out all in one sitting. Take it one piece at a time until it’s done, even if it takes you multiple conversations over an entire week.
While it may feel artificial, the speaker needs to stick with their role until they believe the listener understands and respects them. Then, switch roles on that same topic until done.
One topic at a time
If you aim at nothing you will hit it every time. Deal only with ONE clearly defined and agreed upon topic and stick to it until it is finished. While we live in the “fast lane” here in Orange County, where multitasking is praised, covering more than one topic at a time is a guaranteed crash waiting to happen.
Be intentional and thoughtful about what you want
Tell the other person what you want from them as an active listener. Do you want them to:
- listen without giving solutions
- help with a solution
- be able to reflect the thoughts and feelings
- be empathetic
- help me understand what might be going on in me
Use “I” statements
Speak for yourself and your perspective. Don’t place assumptions and intent into what the other person has said or done by saying “you.” Let them speak for themselves. “I felt attacked” is easier to hear and respond to than “You attacked me.” It’s like playing catch with someone: throw the ball in a way that makes it most likely for that specific person to catch it. While it may feel contrived and like you’re having to care-take for the other person, I guarantee that when they “catch” what you need them to understand, you both win!
Respect your listener
Speak with the kindness and consideration you want in return. Just because you are a couple with history does not give you the right to speak without the consideration or respect you would give a new relationship. If specific words, emotions or behaviors are triggering to your listener, try to avoid or reduce using them.
Be aware that while your perspective seems so clearly to be the “right one,” if you approach what you have to say as only one-half of the possible interpretation, you’re much more likely to have a curious and interested listener. In general, there are three sides to every story; yours, mine and the truth. This can be most difficult in a marriage relationship where the hostility has built up over years, but remember that you started out liking them and picked them to be a team.
Avoid using the words “never” or “always”
Those are conversation killers because there is no room for another perspective with that kind of black-and-white presentation.
Hold off on the humor
Since jokes and sarcasm often have a double meaning, they may confuse the other person. If you choose to use humor during a conflict, check in with the other person to see if it is being perceived as humor or an attack to them.
Two ears one mouth: use proportionately
The only reason for the listener to speak is to better understand and empathize with the speaker. You don’t have to agree with the speaker, but you do have to understand and appreciate where they are coming from. Putting aside your own reactivity and keep an open and curious mind is an effort and a developed skill. It is NOT instinctual, especially for couples who fill in the blanks based on their history, but it can become more natural. It requires concentration, tolerance, and sensitivity.
Check and see if you are interpreting the words and non-verbals accurately. While curiosity may have “killed the cat,” it is the only thing that can save a conversation and a relationship. For example, giving somebody a “thumbs up” is an affirmation in the United States, but in Italy is the equivalent of giving the middle finger in this country. You may think you know the other person because you have been married for years, but when you start to assume you know the other person or what they will say or do or want, the conversation, and eventually the relationship, will be over.
No leading questions
A leading question is really your own idea disguised as a question. Asking someone “Why they were meaning to embarrass you” assumes that they meant to and is more about how you feel than what they might have meant.
Find out “what,” not “why”
Please do not use the word “why” in your questions if at all possible. It tends to put the speaker on the defensive like they have to prove what they are saying and can move into a problem-solving mode when you may not even really understand the situation yet. Instead, try:
What are you feeling?
Could you tell me more about that (whatever they are saying or feeling)?
Have you felt that way at other times or with other people in your life?
When you feel that way, what do you normally do? What would you like to do?
If I were you right now, what would I notice, think or feel?
How are you experiencing me as a listener right now?
What’s going on inside of you right now?
Give quick summaries
Listening is an active process. Make sure to give brief recaps along the way of what the other person is feeling and saying. This lets both of you know whether you are on track in understanding the speaker.
So, how would you grade yourself as a listener and as a speaker in a conflict situation? I hope having these guidelines in writing helps you in your next conflict. However, after 20 years as a psychologist working with couples who are highly educated, I can tell you that the clear majority of breakdowns with couples has more to do with their struggle to USE the basic communication tools they already have when the conflict and emotion escalates. If you’re already familiar with many of these “tools” but still struggle to consistently use them, there’s probably more going on than a need for “communication tools.” Check out this article that goes beyond communication tools for a few pointers about addressing underlying issues that may de-rail your use of these communication tools.