The number one issue that couples bring into my office is the desire for “better communication.” Each one of us is a unique being and brings to our relationships an individual set of experiences, perspectives, and way of interacting. Below I have outlined the 5 most popular tools that I use when working with couples to help make communicating a bit more effective. For simplicity, I will refer to communication within an intimate partnership, but feel free to generalize these tools to any and all relationships in your life.
1) When in doubt, check it out: This tool is especially helpful if you tend to experience anxiety about speaking up for yourself, make assumptions, or hold on to unspoken expectations. A typical pattern might go something like this: your partner says or does something that impacts you. You make up a story in your head about why they did or said what they did. Then you interact with him/her based on that story. Your partner in turn wonders what happened and why you are reacting the way you are, but doesn’t say anything and decides to give you some space for a while hoping the whole thing just blows over. Sound familiar?
So, if you have an issue that you are wondering about between you and your partner, check it out! Own that you may be making an assumption about the reason behind their behavior, or that they are thinking something that they may or may not be. You can say something like: “I seem to have made up a story in my head about what you said/did. Can I just check it out with you?” Tell them the story you made up and allow them to give you their truth. The key here is that when your partner checks something out with you, it is very important that you respond with a truthful answer, even if it is not pleasant at first (ie, Your partner may ask you if you were avoiding her by not calling for a week. If that is true, own it and share your truth).
2) Clear yes, clear no (integrity): If your partner asks you something about yourself, an opinion, a request, whether you like to do something, want to go somewhere, if you want to have sex, if you want to have children, provides you an opportunity to set a boundary for yourself, etc., etc., etc, find your clear yes and clear no and only give those answers. Its really that simple. Honest answers build trust, create a firm foundation upon which your relationship is built, and reduce pressure and disappointment because you are both in an environment of truth. If you struggle with pleasing others, needing to be needed, or maintaining control, you may struggle with this. If you wonder why relationships tend to be frustrating or you attract people who lie or betray you, this may be something you need to get in check for yourself.
3) Own your stuff: A common pitfall in relationship communication is the concept of “projection.” Projection is a Freudian term that is a common defense against having to acknowledge your own inner pain, turmoil, or challenges. When you do not own your own struggle, you may project it onto your partner as if they were a projection screen. You then see in them the things you don’t want to see or acknowledge within yourself. If you are having a strong reaction to a behavior or quality that your partner possesses, this may be your clue that you have the same issue to address within yourself. A fairly obvious example is the partner who has cheated in their relationship and then becomes obsessed with not trusting their partner when they really need to address the guilt they feel for their own transgression.
When communicating with your partner, accusations and unchecked assumptions elicit defensiveness. If you can come to your partner with a concern that acknowledges your part, your issue, your fear, or your worry, your partner will hear you a lot more clearly. When the light of your projector shines on them, they are blinded and cannot see or hear you clearly and you will not feel validated or heard. The next tool outlines how to turn your projector light off.
4) Make “I” contact: When you share a concern with your partner, the way you “own your stuff” is by using an “I” statement. It might go something like this: “When you came home last night and walked directly into our room without saying hello to me, I felt hurt and ignored. I would really like it from now on if you came over and gave me a kiss hello before you go back to change. Would you be willing to do that?” This is a bit different from: “You never say hello to me when you come home, you need to be more interested in me and why can’t you just have the common courtesy to speak when you walk in the door? You don’t really care about me, do you?”
Can you see the difference? Even though in the first example there is an acknowledgement of what your partner did, it is very specific and identifies a clear behavior. This is then followed with your emotional experience minus the assumptions, the “always/nevers” and the unspoken expectations. There is also a clear request for what you would like and an invitation to your partner to give you something which they can decide (with a clear yes or clear no) if they can give it to you or offer a fair compromise.
5) Take your time/timing is everything: Take your time when having a delicate or sensitive conversation. Ideally, carve out some time when you won’t be interrupted. Honor your relationship and each other enough to eliminate the distractions of your phones, TV, ipads, laptops, and all of the other devices that build distance between you. Let your partner know that you have something you want to discuss and request a time to talk. Be patient with yourself and with your partner. If you wait for a time when your partner is able to listen and is not in the middle of 50 other things, you are much more likely to be heard and understood. This opens the opportunity for developing closeness and intimacy in your relationship.
Give these tools a try, let me know how they work for you. My wish for you is to build happy, healthy, deeply intimate relationships. May these tools serve to move you further in that direction.