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