5 Rules for Better Communication

5 Rules for Better Communication

When couples come to see me for counselling, the number one thing they mention as a goal is better communication.

I remember attending a couples conference where one of the speakers insisted that most couples communicate very well. If you ask someone, “What would you say your partner’s complaint is about you,” most people are very good at identifying what it is! The most common requests are for help with household chores, more conversation, more sex, and more quality time together. If you understand what it is your partner wants, why is it so hard to give it to them?

It makes sense that we are drawn to people who complement us. By that I mean, if I am a little shy I might enjoy being with someone who is more outgoing. If I came from a family of gregarious, noisy people, I might enjoy being with someone who is reflective and quiet, and so on. It would be boring to be with someone who was exactly the same as us or our family of origin. The old saying is that opposites attract – and to a degree I believe this is true. The odd thing is that the very qualities that draw us to a partner can become the ones that irritate us.  When you combine these irritations with the modern belief that our partner should match us in every conceivable way it can lead to an overall sense of dissatisfaction.

When our grandparents married it was usually with the understanding that it was:

1.       For life

2.       For better or worse

3.       For economic stability

There was very little talk about love, fulfillment (sexual or otherwise) and communication. You made do, put up with, and suffered through. Or, if you were very lucky, you were happy and content with a good enough mate.

I am the last person to suggest that we should suffer through a marriage that doesn’t meet our basic requirements for companionship. Nor do I suggest someone on the other end of physical or verbal abuse should stay. Unfortunately, with our expectations at an all time high it seems that it is becoming more difficult to feel satisfied. Being able to talk about our needs with our partner is important, as is our approach to conversation.

Here then are my brief rules for better communication:

1.       Check in to see if it’s a good time to talk. If your partner has just settled down to watch the hockey game or their favourite tv program, it’s not a good time. Relationship experts John and Julie Gottman say that if we use a gentle startup to conversation (that is checking to see if your partner is open to talking) we are more likely to receive a positive response. In a paper published in 2004, S. Carerre and John Gottman studied couples in conflict (1). They found that they could predict a marriage’s chances of survival based on the first 3 minutes of a conversation. Gottman also states on his website that “94% of the time, the way a conversation starts determines the way it will end.”

2.       Keep your appreciation high and your expectations modest. Notice the good things about your partner and mention them often. Assuming that our partner can or should be as perfect as we are is a losing game. Each of us has a unique combination of talents, aptitudes, and interests and that is as it should be.

3.       Don’t expect to find solutions to all your problems. Most of the things we argue about do not have solutions. Instead, focus on hearing what your partner’s feelings are about the issue. Encourage them to expand on their perceptions by saying things like:

a.       Tell me more.

b.       What do you notice in your body when you have these feelings of (sadness)?

c.       Does this remind you of another time in your life when you felt so (helpless)?

d.       What happens just before you feel (angry)?

e.       What other thoughts do you have about this situation?

Some people are reluctant to turn the spotlight on feelings, fearing that it will expand the problem. However, most recipients of questions like these report feeling heard, soothed, and more understood. It’s not always important to solve the problem. It is important to care about how your partner is coping.

4.       Go to bed angry! I’m not a believer in hashing it out until the wee hours. Arguments that begin late at night when you are tired and grumpy have very little chance of being successfully discussed.
And no, I don’t really think you should go to bed angry. Take a bath, read a book, go for a short walk. Do anything to take your mind off the problem so that you can calm yourself and have a good sleep. The next day you may choose to reopen the conversation (at a suitable time that you have both agreed upon). Or, you both may realize that it’s not that big a deal, and you can drop it.

5.       Keep it short. I am indebted to Harriet Lerner for this gem (2). Some people are reluctant to engage in conversations with their partner due to the “sheer number of sentences and the intensity in their voices.” When we feel overwhelmed the brain begins to shut down. It’s a protective feature that interferes with our ability to truly listen – we’re too busy trying to save ourselves from a perceived threat. This process is involuntary. If you notice your loved one’s eyes glazing over, if they keep saying mm-hm, mm-hm, or if they simply stop responding, it’s likely that your words are wasted. Naturally, there are times when longer conversations are warranted, but keeping other discussions short and to-the-point encourages meaningful connection.

If you’d like to know more about how to practice these skills, please feel free to book an appointment at Smith Counselling. Practice makes perfect, and once you’ve been able to use these tools with the help of an experienced guide, you can take them to use for the rest of your happy years together.



1.       Carrere, S. and Gottman, J.M. Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion

First published: 28 July 2004


2.       Lerner, Harriet, 12 Simple Steps for a Sustainable Marriage, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For
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My mom used to tell me, “Be careful what you wish for.”

The past few weeks have given me a great opportunity to recognize the wisdom of that statement!

I consider myself to be a part of the approximately 10% of the population who can be described as “highly sensitive”. Highly sensitive people have a predisposition to being easily over-stimulated by sound, light, and emotionally charged situations. They may find that they need to get to a quiet space to recharge. Or maybe they need to be away from people for a bit, or they need to relax in a room with low lights. For me, my sensitivity seems primarily focused on sound. A “sound machine” with rushing water can feel like torture, and a place like the amusement park called Galaxy Land at West Edmonton Mall can send me scurrying in short order.

What do I often wish for? Quiet, of course!

A couple of weeks ago I came down with a bad cold and during that time I got on a plane, which seemed to drive the cold deep into my ears. For the first week following the plane trip I could hear very little. Family members had to raise their voices (more than usual). I couldn’t hear the bathroom fan, the construction noise across from my office, or the children next door.

While on some level it was relaxing, it was also strangely isolating. I couldn’t rely on the usual cues to let me know when it was safe to cross a street. I found it somewhat intimidating to go to a store – what if the clerk asked me something I couldn’t hear properly? What if I appeared to be foolish or ignorant? The mix of emotions was quite overwhelming and added to the distress caused by my cold.

What do you wish for yourself? What do you wish for from others?

Some people wish for their primary relationship to end, for a new job, or for a change of residence. While these things may be beneficial, they may also have unforeseen consequences. The next time you’re wishing for a change maybe you could daydream a little about the repercussions of that change and explore your feelings about potential losses.

Talking to a counsellor, or a trusted friend, can help you explore the benefits and drawbacks of change and help clarify the decision-making process.

Caron Smith
Upstairs Downstairs (In Your Brain)

Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson Ph.D. have written a book called The Whole-Brain Child. The book is aimed at parents, and provides them with “12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind”.

The strategies are based on mindfulness techniques that engage the child’s thinking, instead of providing them with answers, shaming them for poor behaviour, or demanding that they obey.

The book uses a hand model to help explain the brain to a child. The thumb represents the primitive part of the brain that is found in the lower regions, and is the location of big feelings. The fingers are the upper part of the brain, the part used to think and plan, and are used to gently hug the big feelings. When the upper part of the brain is NOT engaged, we can think of this as flipping our lid – the fingers fly up, and the big feelings are exposed.

Here are the strategies.

1. Connect and Redirect: Surfing Emotional Waves

The brain is also divided into left and right hemispheres, with the right side of the brain being associated with feelings and being stuck, and the left side of the brain where language, logic, and a sense of movement are located. Connect with the right side of the brain (where feelings are) then redirect with the left side of the brain by doing some explaining. The first part of this is so important – if the child doesn’t feel understood, then no amount of logic will do.

2. Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions

When something happens, like a fall off a bike, draw out a story about it. Allow the child to make sense of what happened, and to tell how the problem was helped. Sometimes kids need to tell the story several times.

3. Engage, Don’t Enrage: Appealing to the Upstairs Brain

Threats and demands may engage the downstairs brain (where BIG FEELINGS and more primitive functions take place). Engaging the upstairs brain (where thinking, imagining, and planning take place) allows the child to be a part of the solution.

4. Use It or Lose It: Exercising the Upstairs Brain

Let kids make decisions! It’s so tempting (and much quicker) to make decisions for them, but allowing them to decide on various actions will engage their upstairs brain. Give them tools like counting to ten, or breathing into the belly so that they can get in touch with their upstairs brain instead of letting their big feelings make the decision. Explore feelings with what/when/where/how questions. Encourage journaling when they’re old enough to write. Invite empathy when they’re faced with others’ emotions….”What do you think she’s feeling right now?” Offer hypothetical situations. Kids love to use their imaginations and we can tap into that by making up “What If” stories.

5. Move It or Lose It: Moving the Body to Avoid Losing the Mind

Movement helps kids get in touch with their upstairs brain. Invite your child (when they are feeling calm) to smile for a minute to see if they feel different. Get them to try taking a slow, deep breath to notice its effects. Do jumping jacks to shift the energy of the moment (this can be a useful tactic when children are irritated).

6. Use the Remote of the Mind: Replaying Moments

While letting children review events through story-telling, allow them to use a “remote” to pause, replay, or fast forward to certain parts. The idea behind this is to allow implicit memories (those that affect our feelings, but that we may not remember consciously) to become explicit awareness. The use of the remote allows the child to control the story at their own pace.

7. Remember to Remember: Making Recollection a Part of Your Family’s Daily Life

Remembering gives us a chance to integrate implicit memories (those we may not consciously remember) and explicit memories (those we remember on a conscious level). Practicing remembering is a good way to increase a child’s skill in this area. Remembering important events is valuable, as well as allowing kids to be descriptive of everyday occurrences. As children get older we can ask more detailed or nuanced questions to invite reflection.

8. Let the Clouds of Emotion Roll By: Teaching that Feelings Come and Go

While we may feel like rushing our kids through unhappy emotions, it’s important to let them fully experience them. We can allow them to talk about their feelings, and acknowledge that they may feel different later. Using phrases like “sometimes” and “right now” can help them understand that things will shift. When things are calm, pointing to things that change, like clouds moving across the sky, or leaves travelling down a stream, can be a useful tool for teaching kids about feelings.

9. SIFT: Paying Attention to What’s Going On Inside

Sensations – invite kids to notice what they feel in their bodies when they are happy, angry, or sad for example. Most of us can point to places in our body where big feelings play out.

Images – children can become frightened of certain images that get stuck in their heads. Offering them the chance to change the image allows them to feel a sense of mastery.

Feelings – Fine-tune emotions so that kids have a sense of control. Many of us get in the habit of using words like fine, good, or okay – so take time to develop your emotional vocabulary as well. A list of feeling words can be helpful in choosing just the right feeling. There are also feelings charts that have pictures of feelings – these can be used with young children.

Thoughts – Teach children how to pay attention to the thoughts they have. The old adage says – you don’t have to believe everything you think! Showing kids how to look at their thoughts, rather than from their thoughts is one way to help them realize. Lynne Namka, psychologist and author, says “Thoughts are just thoughts,” and encourages us to name them.

10: Exercise Mindsight: Getting Back to the Hub

Imagine a wheel – the hub is the centre, where we can feel aware, open, peaceful and calm. The outer rim is where sensations, thoughts, feelings, dreams, perceptions, and memories reside. Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up on certain points on the rim. If we can return to the hub, we can regain our sense of calmness, and then turn our attention to different points on the rim.

11. Increase the Family Fun Factor: Making a Point to Enjoy Each Other

Games, fun activities, and silly-play help you form bonds with your children. It can also enhance sibling relationships.

12. Connect Through Conflict: Teach Kids to Argue with a “We” in Mind

Teach kids to think about others’ feelings – developing empathy for others is a “we” game. Help your children clue into non-verbal cues like facial expressions and body language. Let them know that it’s important to quickly repair any damage after a conflict – emotional damage or otherwise. Making it right teaches a lot about empathy.


Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson have written a valuable book! I didn’t have these skills when I was a parent – at least not all of them – but I can learn them and use them with my grandchildren and great nieces and nephews now. Buy the book and share it with others in your family! It’s easy to read, has wonderful diagrams and examples, and contains gems of wisdom.

Soothing Your Partner
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I once read that one of the best qualities you can bring to a relationship is the ability to self-soothe. In other words, you maintain your own emotional equilibrium even if your partner is bouncing off the walls. When you are calm, you can be of service to your partner by being fully present with what is going on for them.

In reading Stan Tatkin’s book Wired for Dating I came across what could be considered the second part of this concept. He talks in terms of being helpful in soothing your partner. So, how can we do that?

Tatkin suggests sitting down with your partner, perhaps after a busy day at work, and experimenting with calming actions. Some of the things you might consider would be:

1. Holding your partner’s hand

2. Patting/touching your partner’s shoulder

3. Listening with full attention – and looking into their eyes

4. Lowering your own voice

5. Limiting your opinions

6. Asking if your partner wants a hug

7. Asking if your partner wants your help in solving their problem (not jumping in with solutions of your own first)

Of course, one of the least likely techniques for soothing your partner is to tell them to “calm down!”

What do you think would be calming to your partner? By trying out what you believe may be calming, you have an excellent chance to find out if you’re right! Ask them for their honest feedback to see how you’re doing. And of course, you then have the chance to switch roles. You may even surprise yourself when you discover what is soothing to you.

The Liminal Zone

Have you ever had the feeling that you were on the cusp of a huge shift in your life? You may have entered the liminal zone, or liminal space. The word liminal comes from the Latin word for threshold – when you’re at that place, you may be about to enter through a door to a place you haven’t been before. Anthropologist Victor Turner describes it as being between “no longer and not yet”.

Some of the most agonizing moments in our life – the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss – may precede some of the most beautiful times of our life. This may be hard to see when we’re sad or angry. The liminal space may also be of a less obvious nature and may feel just plain uncomfortable. You may have the sensation that something is about to change or that you are awakening to a new perspective on your life. You may notice familiar themes pop up, like when three different people mention the same thing to you. You may find that old friends or lovers reappear, or you may have recurring dreams. You might have a gnawing feeling in your belly. What’s going on?

Learning to cultivate an acceptance of the liminal space is an art. If you’ve recently moved to a new residence, you’ll know what I’m talking about. There can be a great feeling of uncertainty as we look for a way to put down roots: that confusing time can lead to forgetfulness, a short temper, or anxiety. Even though, deep down, we know that things always change, we tend to cling to the old as a way to feel safe and secure.

There needn’t be a rush to figure things out. Giving ourselves time to breathe, think, question, ponder, or imagine is a gift.

Psychologist Joan Borysenko calls the liminal space a sacred crossroads.

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If you feel that you’re at a crossroads, it may be a good time to see your therapist. Having a trusted person join you on part of your journey is a good way to work through some of the things that are coming up for you. So go ahead – pause in the liminal space, and explore the possibilities!

I like you because
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Read any book on relationships and you’ll find advice on how to appreciate your partner. The experts tell us that it’s important to compliment and care for our significant others. In fact, the Gottmans (world-renowned couples’ therapists and researchers) found that we need to give

(and receive) about 5 positive statements to every negative statement if we want to maintain a feeling of loving and being loved. Are you thinking about your track record of the past few days? Maybe you have some catching up to do!

Write Out a List

So, what do you love about your partner? Write out a list. Let your imagination go wild! Add all of the things you can remember, even if your boo hasn’t done them often. Bought you flowers once? Add it. Took you on a fabulous vacation six years ago? Put it on the list.

Think also of things that you may not appreciate in the moment – for instance, your partner asking for sex. You may not always feel like saying YES! to your partner, but think how you would feel if they stopped asking.

Does your partner do things that appealed to you a few years ago – like snort when they laugh? Add those items to your list as well.

Thank Them

Does your loved one regularly perform mundane tasks like making the meals, doing the dishes, cooking the meals, or looking after the yardwork? Thank them often. We all love to be appreciated, even for the things we do again and again.

And, if there’s something that your partner does all the time, try a role-reversal, and offer to do it for them today or this week. You are likely to be the recipient of their gratitude.

Look at it Differently

Shift your perspective a little if you’re having trouble finding things to appreciate. Imagine seeing your partner across the room at a party. What do you see or hear that you like? Take the time to think about how other people react to your partner. Is your lover hilarious when you are out with friends (but not so funny when it’s just the two of you)? Add it to the list as something you admire, rather than thinking of it as something lacking between you as a couple.  One of the biggest predictors of attractiveness is competence – actively seek to rediscover the things your lover is good at!

Adjust Your Expectations

Are your standards impossibly high?  One fellow I know folded all the laundry one day (his wife usually did it). She refolded it because it wasn’t up to her standards: you can bet that her husband wasn’t likely to repeat his actions. It’s been said that in modern society we expect our partners to be everything for us – provider, lover, best friend, confidante, and playmate. Therapist Esther Perel in her book Mating in Captivity notes that North American couples tend to want to know everything about their partners, and expect a great deal from them, while French couples keep part of their lives separate, even a little mysterious!  Look to others to provide some of your emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs. And when it comes to your partner keep your expectations modest, and your appreciation high!

Other Bonuses

Once you’ve written out a list, thanked your partner frequently, adjusted your perspective, and checked your expectations, consider other benefits of appreciation.

A noteworthy aspect of positive comments is that they are essential for obtaining a good outcome for a request.

Imagine your beloved coming to you and saying, “If I’ve asked you once, I’ve asked you a hundred times, will you please put away your stuff when you’re done with it?” Can you feel your hackles rising?

Now picture them saying something like, “I want to thank you for your dedication in making that go-cart for the kids. I know they appreciate it! Could you please put away your tools when you have a minute?”

The Gottmans found that when a request is started with a compliment or an acknowledgment of the other’s efforts, it is far more likely to have a successful outcome. Yes, it takes some forethought, and yes, it might be the hundredth time you’ve mentioned it, but with practice we can begin to cultivate appreciation for our partner, even while letting them know what we need.

People who are regularly appreciated may be more likely to express the same to others. It’s a learned skill to point out the positive, and it can become a lifelong habit. And remember that is takes about 6 weeks of consistent behaviour before others notice a difference, so make an effort to be thankful for at least that long.

Give appreciation – get appreciation.

Caron Smith