Improving the communication skills in your relationship is most likely one of those seemingly useful pieces of advice which you have heard many times before but has gone on your “I probably should do that, but realistically I will never get around to it” list. However research is uncovering that improving our close relationships is correlated with better individual psychological well-being so it’s probably worth at least giving it a ago. Below are five tips to improve communication with your partner, pick one, two or as many as you like, try them out and see if you feel the vitality increasing in your relationship and your life.
- Have a conversation not a debate: From many hours in the therapy room with couples this is the communication mistake I see most. From the moment one partner starts talking about any issue which may be open to conflict or disagreement the other partner generally does very little listening. They can’t listen because they are busy silently compiling all the points they can to refute what their partner is saying and waits eagerly for their turn to unleash their own feelings, thoughts and opinions at the first available opportunity. While this is a great strategy if you are on a debating team it is the worst strategy you can adopt if you want a close and loving relationship. Rather than mentally preparing for what you want to say while your partner is talking try and actively listen. Listen carefully for what your partner is feeling, if you listen for emotions rather than argue about content your partner is likely to feel understood and validated and more likely to listen to you in the same way when you are speaking.
- Start the conversation gently: Research suggests that by watching the first minute or two of a couple’s conversation you can tell if the conversation will be constructive or conversely descend into an argument (Gottman, John). This is based on the idea of “gentle start up” that is when you have an issue to raise try and engage your partner by preparing them with the information that you have something you would like to discuss and perhaps asking them if now is a good time for “one of those talks”. In doing this rather than leaping straight in with accusations or criticisms you are less likely to have your partner be immediately defensive and end up in an “attack and defend” interaction which gets you nowhere and leaves you both feeling defeated.
- Find just one thing you can agree with: When a conversation starts to turn into something you both disagree on or triggers issues that have been a source of conflict in the past a discussion can quickly turn into an argument. When your partner is talking even if you do not agree with most of what they are saying, try to find just one thing that you can understand or even slightly be willing to take on board and reflect this point back to your partner. You may be amazed by how openly accepting even the smallest part of your partners point of view may allow your partner to feel understood. The conversation can then quickly get back on track and become a helpful way to connect rather than a destructive war of words.
- Stay interested in your partner’s life: When we talk to our friends we generally maintain a natural curiosity and ask questions about how our friend is doing, what they are feeling and what’s happening in their lives at the moment. Though most new relationships start out with communication much like friendship this is often one of the first places we drop the good communication ball. In a relationships we often have so many shared responsibilities, plans and commitments to discuss that couples often neglect to ask each other about how each other is feeling, thinking or what they are doing outside the daily “how was your day” – “good” – “how about you” – “ok” interaction. Try and talk to your partner like you would a friend and be curious about them rather than assuming you know them so well that you no longer need to ask.
- Take time out: When a discussion turns into an argument it is likely one or both partners may become overwhelmingly upset and/or angry. When you feel flooded with emotion it’s important to recognise this and tell your partner you need some time out to calm down. When a person gets very upset and physiologically overwhelmed with emotion the body releases the stress hormone cortisol which can stay in the system for up to forty minutes. When we have cortisol rushing around our body we are less able to make rational decisions and more likely to be aggressive and defensive. Taking some deep breaths or a mindful pause to calm down and collect ourselves allows us to have the best chance of having a good outcome in a difficult discussion.