Do you feel like many conversations with your partner quickly turn into fights?
Does it ever seem like the topic you thought you were trying to address ends up not being the focus of discussion?
You’re not alone! Communication is one of the hottest topics with my clients. Many couples mention this as their biggest concern when I ask them what they’d like to work on in therapy.
Fortunately, there are a lot of things couples can do to improve this aspect of their relationship. In this post, I’ll share just a few of the ways you can begin your journey of understanding and connection with your partner.
The first step towards better communication is listening! This may seem obvious, but listening is a lot harder than people think. Listening means letting your partner finish their statement without interrupting. It also means hearing everything they have to say before you start trying to come up with your response (or rebuttal!).
2. Ask questions to clarify
All too often, we think we know what our partner is trying to express when we really don’t. If there’s something that you don’t feel you completely understand, ask them questions so that they can explain what it was they were saying.
-“I’m not sure I understood what you meant. Could you explain that?”
-“I want to make sure I’ve got what you’re trying to say. Can you say that again?”
-“I thought I heard you saying … - did I understand that correctly?”
3. Reflect back what you heard
As human beings, we interpret and process information through what I like to call our unique “filter.” Your filter is a sum of everything that you’ve experienced, your thoughts and feelings, your beliefs, your culture, and so on. When we’re trying to communicate with our partner, especially if it is a particularly difficult or stressful conversation, we are at a high risk of receiving our partner’s message through our filter and misinterpreting the message they are trying to send. Reflecting back what you heard ensures that you and your partner are on the same page. The key here is to only repeat back what you heard your partner saying – you can paraphrase this.
Here’s an example:
-A wife asks her husband: “When I haven’t heard from you for some time after your scheduled arrival time, I worry about your safety. Could you please text me when your flight lands next week?”
-A reflection back through the husband’s filter: “I’m hearing you say that all I ever do is disappoint you.” This accuses the wife of saying something she didn’t say or intend (and will surely lead to a fight).
-A reflection back of what the husband heard his wife saying: “I’m hearing you say that you’re worried about me and you want me to text you when I get to town.”
4. Avoid absolutes like “always” and “never”
Making statements that claim that someone always does something negative or never does something positive is a surefire way to wind up in an argument. “All-or-nothing” language like this leaves our partners feeling accused and criticized. When people feel accused or criticized, they aren’t likely to hear anything we’re trying to communicate, and they’re probably going to become defensive. Once that happens, there is little chance of actually having the conversation we were wanting to have, and instead, we end up arguing about the statement that was made.
5. Use I-Statements
When want to have conversation with our partner about something we feel is important, and we start off by saying “You…” we set ourselves up not to be heard or to be misunderstood. Starting any sentence with a statement about something your partner does or doesn’t do is likely going to elicit a defensive response. You-statements often sound critical and judgmental to the person receiving them.
Instead, try to get your point across with an “I-Statement”. These statements are messages about something you are thinking or feeling, rather than something someone else does or doesn’t do. In addition to giving the I-statement, you need to provide some extra details. It helps to start by having an answer to the following questions:
a) What is the specific behavior (or lack of a certain behavior) that is problematic for you?
b) What thoughts or feelings come up for you when the behavior occurs (or doesn’t occur)?
c) What do you want or need from your partner?
Let’s use the example from above. The wife has asked her husband to be in touch when he travels for work so that she knows he is safe, and he agreed to text her, but on his last few trips, he has forgotten to contact her.
-You-statement: You never text me when your plane lands!
-I-Statement using the format from above: a) When I don’t hear from you when your plane lands b) I feel worried that something bad has happened to you while you were traveling. c) Can you please text me when you land next week and on your trips in the future?
The last tip is practice, practice, practice! Communication is way more complex and challenging than we often think it is, and any time we try something new, it’s inevitable that mistakes will happen. The important thing is: you’re working towards communicating more effectively with your partner. Every conversation is a new opportunity to practice!