The quality of communication in a relationship determines the quality of the relationship itself. Would you agree with that statement? Chances are that the level to which you agree (or disagree) depends on your understanding of what communication is and your perception of its role in a relationship.
Communication has become one of those umbrella terms that everyone uses too often without specifying what it encompasses. One could argue that everything we do in a relationship is communication. Can you imagine a behavior that does not convey some kind of message?
As social beings, we interpret each other’s behaviors, even when the person is behaving in a certain way without a specific intention to communicate anything. Often, it is what we don’t do that speaks the loudest and what we do not intend to show that ends up showing the most.
Most of us could easily identify examples of good or poor communication in a relationship.
For example, most of us would agree that expecting from a partner to recognize your needs, without verbalizing them and then getting angry at them for not addressing them in a way you wanted them to, would not be the shiniest example of communication. We would probably see frequent misunderstandings, bickering, or conflict-avoidance as the result of poor communication.
On the other side, we would probably praise the communication when we witness the partners attentively listening to each other. We are likely to agree that the conversation in which partners can acknowledge each others’ differences with respect and compassion, and find shared ground to work towards a solution, would be an example of good communication.
However, since each relationship is unique, when it comes to the specifics, the concrete examples tend to take different forms.
1. Share your communication preferences.
Depending on our relationship dynamics, we will bring out different examples of good and poor communication within it.
Think about the brightest moments of your communication and the moments you would like to never witness (again). Talk about the examples that are somewhere in the middle.
Since we are different people, we are likely to have different takes on communication as well. Identify those differences, but also find shared ground. Boosting communication starts from getting on the same page about the kind of communication you’d both/all prefer to avoid and the kind of communication you can agree to work towards.
You may find it is helpful to write down a list of communication guidelines that you mutually agree to honor. This can provide you both a tangible reminder of how to connect with each other.
2. Shifting from “You” vs “Me” to “Us” vs “The Challenge”
Unfortunately, a lot of conversations between couples take the form of “You” vs “Me”.
- Listen to what I am telling you.
- You do not understand me.
- I know what you should be doing.
- You cannot tell me what I should do.
- It is your fault.
- You made me feel this way.
This form of communication can turn on the blame and guilt and turn off personal accountability, compassion, understanding, and cooperation. We want to change from this individual style into a team mode of “You and I”, together, united against “the challenge”. Realigning yourselves so instead of working against one another, you work together against the situation is the art of communication every relationship needs.
How can you do that?
Amid the conflict, remind each other of this concept. It’s important you notice the tossing of blame and tap into conscious joint problem-solving.
Often, it can help to sit next to each other instead of across or opposite of each other to avoid the subconscious sense of facing off against an opponent. When you talk about challenges it could be useful to have a symbolic representation of the problem in front of you. A piece of paper or a flip-chart for notes, ideas, or conclusions can also be useful.
Find a shared understanding of the problem – what do you agree about? What can you both do to avoid facing the same problem again?
3. Address challenges as soon as possible
There are many relationships in which a problem only gets addressed when one or more people are already well past fed up with it.
We sometimes tolerate things we are not comfortable within our attempts to present ourselves as the opposite of needy, demanding, or difficult. The problem, however, will not disappear. Silence tends to reinforce its repetition.
Do not wait for challenges to pile up and then use one situation to bring all of them into the focus of conflict. Do not compile files of all the previous “mistakes” and examples of situations through which you stayed silent. Target one challenge at the time, as soon as you notice it. This allows you and your partner to concentrate on resolving one thing at a time. Make sure you take the time to discuss the importance of having regular constructive conflicts.
A good “formula” to communicate what bothers you is:
- Talk about the behavior (not your interpretation of it)
- How you feel when a partner behaves in such a way
- The effect those feelings have on you
For example: “When you came home the other night, you went straight to bed (behavior). Though it may not have been your intention, I felt like you did not care enough to ask me how my day was (feeling). When I don’t feel like what I do matters, I tend to become cold, which is why the next day I did not want to speak to you. (effect)”
4. Do your best to understand your partner’s point of view.
Often, we are so fixated on our own perspective that we fail to acknowledge that another person has the right to see things differently.
The more we try to convince them our viewpoint is right, the more likely they are to get defensive and claim that “you do not understand me” (which is likely to be the case!).
Both partners need to learn to hold different perspectives of the “same” situation and still feel like both are legitimate. Understanding is not the act of saying “you are right and I am wrong” but is an act of showing that you care to temporarily put your own perspective on hold and look at your partner’s point of view to learn more. Understanding is an act of empathy.
To help you do so, here are a few facilitating questions:
- I understand that we may be seeing this problem differently. Can you please tell me more about how you see it?
- What is your understanding of what I just said?
- I want to make sure I understand you. When you said X did you mean that…?
It is important that you show that you care about hearing your partner.
- Though we may differ in the way we approach this problem, it’s important to me that I understand what is important to you.
- Your opinion matters to me.
5. Block time for conversations to boost attentiveness.
Conversations about challenges in a relationship should not be rushed. This does not mean that you need to dedicate hours every day to talk through things but that you will reserve the time when both you and your partner can dedicate full attention to what you want to share.
Before you bring up the topic, check-in with your partner:
“Hey, when is a good time for us to talk?”
It is important that you do not jump to your partner’s request to talk if you are not able to be fully present.
“I understand that it is very important for you to talk about this and I want to be able to hear you out without looking at my phone or thinking about other things. If that is okay, let me wrap this up and we can talk in X minutes.”
The purpose is not to avoid the conversation but to truly show up for your partner.
It may be important to recognize when you or your partner have the capacity to engage in a conversation. Discuss cues to signal when the topic is urgent and when the topic is important but can hold for a few hours or days.
Working on communication is not easy
Staying in a relationship in which communication is poor is far more difficult. Remember that boosting communication is not a goal – it is an ongoing process that requires awareness and continuous effort.
It takes patience and willingness to invest time in getting to know yourself and the person you are with. It requires persistence to continue to show up for your partner throughout struggles and work towards goals you set together.
No matter how challenging it may be to work on communication, putting in time and effort in improving it is one of the most gratifying investments you can make.