One of the most common objectives couples share when they come to me for counseling is to improve their communication.
When communication breaks down it can feel frustrating and painful. I have noticed at these times it’s mostly the ‘feeling heard’ part of communication that is going wrong. Over time this can become really destructive to your relationship, so here’s my top three communication tips that you can try for yourselves at home.
1. Use ‘I feel…’ statements
I feel sad/ angry/ happy/ lonely/ upset…when you…what can we do about it?
Using ‘I feel’ statements, rather than ‘you…’ is taking ownership of your feelings rather than attacking, criticizing or blaming your partner.
For example: ‘I feel lonely when you come home and go straight on your computer.’
Rather than: ‘You never spend any time with me, all you do is sit there and stare at your stupid computer!’
A statement that starts with ‘I feel’ is easier for your partner to hear as they are not immediately on the defense. If they are able to remain open to what you are expressing, you can then follow this up with a request that would address this for you such as:
‘When you get home, could we spend a bit of time together before you go on your computer so we can catch up and tell each other about our day?’
2. Take turns
Sometimes in my sessions, I interrupt arguing clients by getting up from my seat, picking up the tissue box, and putting it into one person’s hands.
I recognize that without context this sounds like totally bizarre behavior. It would certainly work to confuse and disrupt a fight if you didn’t know what had been previously agreed about this moment.
Some couples can quickly get caught up in escalating conflict. If I have noticed this, I would draw attention to it and ask the couple for their ideas, or permission to help stop and refocus the discussion.
One rule we sometimes set up is that whoever is holding the tissue box gets to speak and the other listens without interrupting them. This helps to calm the conversation down and keeps them from talking all over each other.
At home you could try the same thing. You could use any agreed object like a bunch of keys, an ornament, a pillow – use your imagination.
When you are holding the object it’s your turn to speak and when you have finished, you pass the object back to your partner who then takes their turn. This helps to create a safe space for you to speak and listen to each other.
3. Make time to talk and listen
If you have problems talking to your partner about certain subject matters without the conversation becoming heated, upsetting, or emotionally charged, here is an exercise you can try to provide some structure to your discussion. The focus of this exercise is for you to feel heard and connected and to find a solution together.
You can incorporate tips 1 and 2 above here, where you use ‘I feel’ statements and having an object that you hold to indicate it is your turn to speak.
Person A: Speak for 1 minute (use ‘I feel…’ statements)
Try to maintain eye contact or even hold hands if that feels comfortable enough. It will help you remain connected and in touch with each other.
Person B: ‘I heard you say…’
Person B then reflects back exactly what they heard Person A say. This is not an opportunity to reply or respond yet. The objective here is for person A to know that they have been heard.
Person B: ‘What was the most important thing that you want me to hear?’
Person B then gives person A the chance to clarify their thoughts and feelings, which in turn gives person B a chance to really understand what person A is trying to communicate.
Person B: ‘Why?’
By asking why, Person B demonstrates respect and the desire to understand what person A is saying without judging, reacting, defending or blaming. Person A then feels heard, understood, cared for and connected to person B.
Person B: ‘What can we do about it?’
It’s now problem-solving time. By asking what can we do, Person B is being collaborative and shows person A ‘we are in this together.’ Person A feels connected to person B and not so alone with their feelings. Each of you can now take turns to make suggestions about how to negotiate the issue together.
After this you can swap over and then Person B speaks with person A going through the reflection and questions in the same way.
Put a limit on the problem solving time, if you don’t come up with a solution within ten minutes, leave it and take some time to think about it separately. Agree a time where you can revisit the issue, perhaps the next day. Then go and do something fun together.
Change comes with time
As you learn to change your communication patterns over time this will start to become more natural and normal to the way you interact. In turn this will reduce the misunderstandings and offences between you as you work towards a stronger, healthier relationship.
Get help with your relationship
If you would like to try these exercises with your partner, but you’re worried that it might make things worse, don’t worry, not all relationships are ready for these kinds of exercises and you might need a little help to get you back on the right track. You can talk to a counselor in confidence, just call 202 657 6919 or email firstname.lastname@example.org