Relationships – whether with wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends or even just friends – involve some of life’s greatest challenges. While there are several factors that contribute to the success of a marriage or long-term partnership, communication skills – or lack thereof – can either help or hinder one’s prospects.
Are you interested in improving the way you communicate with your significant other?
Below are several researched and practical tips that help foster healthy communication. Recommendations for everyday situations, as well as specific strategies for handling arguments are discussed.
Much of this information is based on the work of one of the leading marital therapists and researchers, John Gottman, PhD., who has studied hundreds of couples over the course of twenty years.
General Communication Tips
1.) Active Listening / Use Feedback:
Sometimes when we listen to our significant other (or anybody for that matter), we’re not fully present. We may be distracted by something else that’s going on in our life, or feel overly reactive to strong emotions they’re displaying. In casual conversation (and especially during heated ones), it’s common for people to find themselves in a dynamic of impatiently waiting to chime in with a thought (defensive statement, rebuttal, etc.) while the other is speaking, rather than simply taking it all in and then responding afterwards. Accordingly, we end up not paying full attention to what the other is saying.
“Active Listening,” on the other hand, involves making a concerted effort to slow down and listen with an open heart and mind. This, of course, is easier said than done! But, intention is key, so you need to start there. If for whatever reason you don’t have the bandwidth to listen deeply and openly, then you may want to table the conversation, argument, etc. to another time (again, easier said than done).
You can take active listening a step further by sharing feedback. The classic way to do this is to restate what you heard the other person say, to demonstrate your understanding. We all know how great it feels to be heard. Being seen and heard is therapeutic and can’t drastically shift the dynamic in a positive way. You don’t necessarily have to agree with what is being said, but you do want to show that you’re getting the other’s perspective to the best of your ability. It’s fine to be completely transparent with this. For example, you can say, “It sounds like you are upset with me for forgetting to take care of _______, or for using that tone…am I understanding you correctly?”
Active listening, like so many aspects of communication, is a skill and therefore requires practice. As we do it more, we get better at it and it gets easier.
2.) Edit Criticism:
When communicating with your partner, make a concerted effort to avoid personal criticism. This includes refraining from put-downs, insults and negative body language, such as eye-rolling. As we all know, criticism makes people feel defensive, among other things; this significantly inhibits the listening process and can lead to further escalation of anger and hurt feelings.
3.) Be Gentle:
When something is bothering you, bring it up gently and without blame. Be aware of the tone used when communicating problems. A mutually respectful tone – one that is neither passive nor aggressive – goes a long way in starting a productive dialogue.
4.) Seek First to Understand vs. Being Understood:
This is one of my favorite approaches and really should be used as a mantra in all discussions, whether with spouses, other family members or friends. When in conflict, our default as human beings is often to focus on our desire to be understood. How many times have you heard, “you just don’t understand what I’m saying!” Of course, healthy relationships do involve understanding one another, but rather than emphasizing your own desire to be heard, try changing your focus to putting attention on understanding the other. This can really shift the relational dynamic and pave the way for more open and fresh communication.
5.) Ask Open-Ended Questions:
Hmm, have you noticed that those rhetorical questions, such as “do you ever stop talking and listen?” or “I wonder if you’ll ever take out the trash without me asking?” don’t seem to initiate healthy dialogue? Sure, they may feel good to say in the moment, as you release some pent up frustration or anger. But, in the long run, it doesn’t contribute to resolutions.
Instead, ask open-ended questions when you have concerns. For example, you may say to your spouse, “I could use more help with taking out the trash; do you have any ideas for how we can accomplish this?”
6.) Stay Calm:
Try to keep discussions as calm as possible. If things start to escalate, take a break and re-visit when the two of you feel less emotionally charged. Be mindful of your self-talk; are you saying things to yourself that keep you relatively calm or are you fueling the flames of emotional distress?
7.) Use “I” statements:
Try to own your feelings, by using “I” statements when communicating (e.g., I feel, I need, I want). Remember the “XYZ” technique: “I feel X when you do Y in situation Z.” For example: “I feel frustrated when you don’t take out the trash on Tuesdays, the day you agreed to do so.”
Find ways to soothe yourself when upset. For example, take a “time out,” by going for a walk or taking some time to yourself to do some breathing exercises. This relates to # 5 – keeping one’s emotions in check. Conversations will be much more productive when emotions are more balanced.
9.) Accept Influence from the Other:
Try to put yourself in your spouse’s shoes and be willing to go with their perspective and suggestions. Dr. John Gottman’s research indicates that “a marriage succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife.” Accordingly, be mindful of the gender dynamics in your relationship that may foster or inhibit the ability to influence one another.
10.) Share Appreciations:
In any good relationship, each person will feel that they are valued and respected for who they are. When communicating, it can be helpful to identify what you appreciate about the other and state those things. Gottman’s research indicates that those in successful relationships make 5 times as many positive statements as negative ones when discussing problems.
Sharing appreciations contributes to a variety of positive feelings and people simply think and communicate better when they’re feeling good about themselves.
Strategies for Ending Arguments
Dr. John Gottman’s research indicates that relationship success is not dependent on whether couples argue or not. It’s how they argue. Conflicts are unavoidable in any intimate relationship and they can contribute to growth if they are handled with an eye toward resolution, rather than increasing tension.
Below are some examples of ways to handle arguments productively. As with any type of strategy, it’s important to be mindful about selecting one that is appropriate for the specific situation, which is sometimes easier said than done.
1.) Validate and Apologize:
Let your partner know that you understand their point of view by validating them. It may sound obvious, but don’t forget to take responsibility for what you’ve done and apologize if necessary.
2.) Change the topic of conversation in a gentle, sensitive manner:
If you’re in an argument that isn’t going anywhere, shift the focus of conversation. It’s important to do this in a gentle, conscientious manner, so that the other person doesn’t feel disregarded. With some arguments, this approach will work well. But, with highly charged topics, it may be necessary to schedule a follow-up time to revisit what’s important to both members.
3.) Use humor:
Levity can go a long way when used at the right time. If you find yourself stuck in a cycle of negativity, try to lighten things up with some humor or silly behavior. This can sometimes snap a couple out of an anger trance. Like other strategies, it’s important to be thoughtful about how and when to use humor, so that your significant other doesn’t feel that their concerns are being trivialized.
4.) Yield to the other:
Let go of your attachment to being right, by recognizing the value of your partner’s perspective. It’s ok to give in sometimes, as long as you don’t always have to do so in order to end an argument. Alternatively, you can also “agree to disagree” and move on from there.
5.) Make physical contact:
When embroiled in an argument, partners usually feel pretty disconnected from each other, which can feed the cycle of negativity. Reach out to your significant other with respectful physical gestures, like holding their hand or putting an arm around their shoulder. This can quickly change the relational dynamic to one that is more loving and less adversarial, by increasing the sense of connection and safety. Since touch can also trigger boundary violations, it can be a good idea to ask before you take this step.
6.) Take a break and re-approach later:
This is like doing a hard reboot on your computer. Let things shut down for a while and re-start later. This can pave the way for a fresh perspective that’s missing from unproductive, repetitive arguments.
7.) Acknowledge common ground between the two of you:
When arguing, people have a tendency to focus on their point of view and become more polarized as things escalate. But, in most arguments, there’s common ground shared by both parties. Find this middle territory and talk about it in explicit terms.
8.) Set a timer:
If you find yourself stuck in an argument, with each person speaking over the other and not listening very well, agree to set a timer. For example, give one person 5 minutes of time to say everything that is on their mind, while the other person just listens, without any interruption. When their time elapses, switch to the other person, by giving them 5 minutes of your undivided attention. Often, people just want to feel heard and understood. By agreeing to set a timer, each party can voice their concerns and feel some sense of control over the process, which tends to decrease charged emotions.
Couples Communication Tips Conclusion:
In general, when communicating with your significant other, try to both listen and speak in a non-defensive manner. Keep in mind that anger is considered a secondary emotion; it’s usually fueled by the more primary emotions related to grief (a sense of loss/sadness) and/or fear. Granted, anger can be justified, but when you or your spouse is feeling this way, it can be helpful to look at the broader emotional landscape. By addressing the underlying fear or sense of loss, anger can be greatly diminished.
As with any desired changes to behavior, practice is the key. Try out these strategies, see what works and give yourself permission to make mistakes. Trying anything new requires effort, but the more you practice, the more “automatic” and second-nature these approaches will become.
What communication strategies have worked for you? Please feel to share your comments below.