Many clients who come into my office often report “communication” being an area they would like to work on. Improving communication in relationships is often at the top of the “problems” list for many couples.
Communication is a complicated system. It is not simply the words spoken, but the interchange of messages between two people. Communication is defined as “the imparting or exchanging of information or news”. This does not mean one person does all the talking and the other is silent. This does not mean that one person is “right” and the other must be “wrong”. Communication is two people working together exchanging information.
Here is one client’s story:
“My husband and I don’t communicate well. I try to tell him what I’m feeling, and instead he ends up arguing with me about the specifics of the conversations. No I didn’t say that, well you said this- so I had to respond to that… and so on. He never hears what I’m trying to say. Whenever I start talking about why I was irritated with him, he launches into attack mode with all the things I’ve done wrong in the last 24 hours.”
Improving communication is a very common struggle for couples, principles of communication can be applied to parent/child relationships or friend/friend relationships.
Think of communication similar to a dance. If one dance partner is out of sync with the other the dance doesn’t flow. If one dance partner tries to take over and go their own way, the dance fails again. Communicating with your partner is dancing together.
In the scenario above, when the wife is expressing her feelings she feels like she’s not being heard. However, maybe the husband is hearing his wife’s hurt feelings as an attack on his character. While feeling attacked the husband launches his attack, and the communication dance fails.
This communication with teens is challenging for parents. When your teen feels comfortable enough to share their feelings, its very easy for a parent to jump in and try to fix the situation. Again, one dance partner tries to take over and the communication falls apart. Your teen may become defensive and withdrawn because you “don’t understand them”.
What can we do to improve our communication dance?
While there are many techniques and strategies to improve communication, here are 3 simple tips you can use today to help you improve your communication skills.
Use “I feel” statements - Many times in an argument it’s easy to say “You do this…” or “You did that”. That automatically puts the individual on the defensive and they’ve stopped hearing what you’re saying. I feel statements speak from your perspective. It isn’t an attack on the other person, you are merely stating your feelings.
Here are some examples of I feel statements:
“I feel frustrated when you interrupt me mid-sentence”
“I feel embarrassed when you tease me in front of our friends”
“I feel loved the most, when you make me breakfast on the weekends”
Reflective listening - This may seem a little robotic when you first begin to practice it but it is a great way to make sure that the message being said is the one you are hearing. Have you ever played the game Telephone? The game where you start whispering a message from one person to another, and the last person in the circle says it out loud? Very often the original message is mixed up along the way. This happens very frequently in the communication process. To practice reflective listening, one partner begins with a sentence. The second partner listens to the message and repeats it back to the first partner. Then the first partner confirms if that message is correct. Keep in mind, we can often hear things incorrectly.
Example hearing correctly:
Partner 1: “I feel anxious when you make financial decisions without me”
Partner 2: (reflecting back) When I make financial decision without you, it makes you feel anxious”
Partner 1: “Yes you heard me correctly”.
Example hearing incorrectly:
Partner 1: “I feel anxious when you make financial decisions without me.”
Partner 2: “You don’t trust me to make decisions on my own."
Partner 1: “No, that’s not what I said. I trust your decision making process, but I do feel anxious when decisions are made without me."
Avoid the Kitchen Sink - Have you ever heard the expression, everything but the kitchen sink? You want to avoid bringing everything into your conversation when you are practicing your communication skills. My first client example shows that when the husband feels threaten he brings in all the wrong-doings of the wife. It’s very important to stay on the topic at hand. Remember, you are wanting to exchange information, but information gets lost when you try to handle too much at one time. When the wife wants to talk about how she’s feeling, it’s important for the husband to stay with that until the issue has been resolved. By throwing in all of the wife’s wrong-doings, the husband may be communicating he has some needs that are not being address. It will be important to address his needs as well, just not in the middle of the other conversation. In the heat of an argument this can be very difficult to do. If you find yourself too upset to communicate effectively, take a break and come back to the conversation when you feel calm. This will allow you to slow the conversation down so you can address one issue at a time.
Working on communication is not a singular event. It is not item to check off on your to do list as a concept accomplished. Communication takes work among many people in your life. You may have developed a great communication dance with your partner, but struggle with your boss or teenage son. Maybe it is easy for you to use “I feel” statements, but it is more challenging for you to Avoid the Kitchen Sink. To start making changes in your communication skills start with one idea and try to focus on just that for one week. After that week, try to incorporate another.
If you and your partner need help with communication, contact us today!
Our Burbank Therapy office has warm, caring and experienced therapists that provides an opportunity to resolve your old patterns and learn new skills to help you dance more effectively together.
Photo by JD Mason