Written by: Corinne Carter, Relationship Therapist
Communication is a key element in all relationships; whether it’s the relationship you have with your partner/spouse, the relationship you have with your boss, or the relationship you have with your morning barista, communication matters! And when communication breaks down, that’s usually when our relationships get into trouble.
We often work with clients who are looking to improve the communication in their relationships. The process of improving communication is different for everyone and we like to spend time with our clients clarifying what exactly “better communication” means to them so that we can use strategies that best fit their unique situation in our work together. That being said, there are some general ideas worth keeping in mind when it comes to enhancing communication in your relationships:
1) You alone have the ability to change the patterns of communication in your relationships. Communication is an exchange between people. As such, when communication breaks down, it’s ideal if all people involved can participate in the repair process. However, what is ideal is often not realistic; it’s both important and empowering to realize that you alone can influence the communication patterns in your relationships! You don’t have to wait for your partner, mother, friend, etc. to change their approach in order for you to change yours. You can interrupt negative patterns of communication all by yourself. Communication is like a dance; if you change your moves, suddenly the whole thing looks different. At first, it probably looks a bit sloppy while your partner gets used to your new moves but, over time, it’s likely you’ll find yourselves swaying seamlessly to a whole new groove.
2) Set your intention(s) at the outset of a conversation. Chances are your intention is to maintain or improve your relationship, rather than to have it deteriorate, especially if this is an important relationship to you! It can be helpful to set your intention(s) from the get-go, as well as remind yourself of these throughout the conversation, particularly if you find yourself becoming emotionally escalated as the interaction unfolds. For example, having something tangible that you can look at or hold onto to serve as an anchor for your intention (e.g., written notes on a piece of paper, a piece of jewellery such as a ring or bracelet, an age old ribbon on your finger, etc.) can help remind you of what you hope to accomplish, as well as how you hope to act/who you hope to be, during the conversation. This is particularly useful if you feel yourself starting to veer off course (e.g., becoming frustrated, etc.) in a way that might actually go against your intention and become damaging to the relationship.
3) Listen to understand, not to reply. Oftentimes, people are more focused on what they are going to say next in a conversation than they are on what is being said in the moment! This is quite often the case when one or both parties involved start to feel defensive. Defensiveness limits our ability to understand and see the full picture; it limits our ability to be curious. If you notice yourself becoming defensive during an interaction, use this as a cue to become more curious and ask some questions. For example, try using clarifying statements, whereby you reflect back what you just heard and ask, “Am I understanding you correctly?” Clarifying statements/questions might be phrased differently from one person to the next but, by nature, they are always non-judgmental and are focused on increasing understanding. Additionally, validation is another way to increase understanding, as well as feelings of connection. Sometimes, people are hesitant to use validation in their interactions because they mistake validating another’s feelings for validating their behaviour. Showing empathy to your communication partner by validating their feelings doesn’t mean you necessarily approve of their behaviour; rather, it’s simply a way of saying, “Your feelings make sense”. Everyone wants to be heard; everyone wants to be seen. Validation says, “I hear you and I see you”, regardless of anything else. Validation is about supporting the person, not the behaviour.
4) Extend curiosity to yourself. In addition to practicing curiosity with others, healthy communication requires you to be curious about yourself, as well. It’s important to pay attention to your feelings during an exchange so that you can better understand what happens for you when communication begins to go awry. If you start to feel angry, defensive, frustrated, etc., ask yourself some important questions: How am I feeling right now? What was said or done just before I started feeling this way that might explain why I’m feeling ____? Is there a history of me feeling this way in my relationships? How would I prefer to respond in this moment and why? Etc. When you have a clear understanding of your own emotional reactions, you are better equipped to respond more effectively (i.e., more thoughtfully, more mindfully) in your interactions, instead of giving way to automatic reactions which have a tendency to send communication patterns spiralling downwards in no time at all. Additionally, when you’re curious about your own feelings during interactions, you’re more likely to notice when you start to become upset and you can choose to take breaks as appropriate, and resume communication at a later time. Taking breaks is important when you feel yourself approaching the “tipping point”; that is, the point where you begin acting in ways that are out of line with your intentions to preserve the relationship and, instead, become destructive. Note: it’s helpful to have an agreement with your communication partner ahead of time about taking breaks – e.g., when and how to take breaks, as well as when and how to resume the conversation.
5) Share information about you. One of the best ways to do this is through the use of “I” statements. “I” statements focus on sharing how an experience impacted you, rather than focusing on the other person’s actions. “I” statements tend to be experienced as less threatening to our conversational partners. They also encourage the speaker to take greater responsibility for their own experience, which can once again be very empowering! Try using the following set of “I” statements the next time you’re faced with conflict in a relationship and want to interrupt a negative pattern of communication:
- I see… (name the incident, behaviour, etc. that was initially upsetting to you)
- I think… (say what you thought about yourself, your relationship, etc. as a result of the incident)
- I feel… (say what you felt about yourself, your relationship, etc. as a result of the incident)
- I wish… (say how you hope things might go differently next time)
Here’s an example of what this type of “I” statement might actually sound like in conversation:
“When I got home from work tonight and saw that you hadn’t made dinner like we had discussed [I see], I thought that my needs aren’t important in this relationship [I think] and I felt hurt and frustrated [I feel]. I hope next time, when we make an agreement about our household responsibilities, that you will let me know ahead of time if you aren’t able to follow through on your commitment so that we can figure out a solution in advance [I wish]”.
When using “I” statements, it can also be helpful to indicate your desire to work together with your communication partner towards making things better (e.g., “...so that we can figure out a solution in advance.”). After you’ve expressed your concern(s) and the impact they had on you, saying something as simple as, “Can you help me with this?” or “Can we work on this together?” can be incredibly helpful for increasing feelings of connection and understanding, as well as communicating an openness to resolve conflict.
If you'd like help developing healthy communication skills and wish to speak with one of our therapists, please feel free to give us a call (905-665-8150), send us an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org), or visit our website for more information (www.newrootstherapy.com).