How to Improve Your Communication Skills
and Your Relationship
One of the most common questions clients have asked me over the years is “How can I communicate better with my [wife, husband, spouse, partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancé, etc.]?” In order to fully respond to this question in a counseling session I typically assess the relationship in several key areas, looking for a balanced sense of mutuality in: levels of commitment, respect, consideration, understanding and communication. These are especially important in regards to resolving the many and sometimes intense conflicts that are bound to arise in any relationship. I have repeatedly found that the areas that need the most focus in my work with couples are increasing the level of mutual understanding between partners, and developing the type of communication skills that will help to reduce and resolve areas of conflict rather than to escalate them.
There are certain habits and patterns that anybody can easily fall into that will make it more difficult to resolve tough issues with those that are closest to us. These patterns are likely to be more intense and more difficult to change the closer and more intimate the relationship is. The reason for this difficulty is that the stakes feel much higher with someone for whom we feel deep caring, commitment and love. However, despite the challenges, it is usually possible to identify and change patterns in relationships that get in the way of constructive communication and conflict resolution. What is surprising to many people is that the necessary changes can be made more easily than they expect.
Let’s take a look at an example of a very typical area of conflict for couples: finances. Many couples struggle over finding common ground when making decisions about their spending habits and where cutbacks need to be made. Discussions in this arena can lead to a pattern of blaming each other combined with each partner digging in their heels to passionately defend their own position. The outcome of these disagreements will often be increased resentment toward each other without being able to implement any effective changes to improve the family finances. Over the course of time this pattern can become deeply entrenched, and the topic may be actively avoided as a way to prevent further arguments.
However, even such deeply entrenched issues as these can usually be addressed with improved communication skills and increased mutual understanding, resulting in effective resolution of the conflict. The first step in such a situation is to acknowledge the depth of the problem, and that the couple will need to take a different approach to resolve it. The next step would be to, in your mind, allow that there may actually be valid reasons for your partner’s feelings and for taking his/her position in the conflict, though it is different than yours.
One of the easiest traps for couples to fall into is for each partner to want to change the other’s feelings to be something different than what they are. We often believe that if only our partner would feel different about the issue, and see the truth of our own position, then there would be no need for the conflict and the problem could be easily resolved. This quite common view may be expressed directly or sometimes just wished for in our head; either way such a desire can get in the way of the type of true mutual understanding that would lead to a true resolution of the conflict.
In actuality, there is never anything wrong with anybody’s feelings, and trying to talk our partner out of his or her own feelings is counterproductive. Emotions are neither right nor wrong, neither good nor bad. Our emotions can be seen as simply internal reactions to our experience of external circumstances. An analogy would be to think of them as internal data points – or a barometer, if you will – of what is going on around us. It is what we choose to do in response to our emotions that is the key; it is our actions rather than our feelings that get us into trouble. I may feel like hurting the guy who cut me off on the expressway, but as long as I don’t act on the impulse then there is no harm done. With a little bit of time I’ll be able to calm down and let it go. In light of this idea, then, it is important to recognize that whatever your partner feels is valid, regardless of how it does or does not match your own feelings.
A second trap for couples comes from our natural desire to have our partner understand us. It is an aspect of human nature to want to be accepted and understood for who we are, what we feel and what we think. Where the trap comes in is that often each partner is focusing on having their own point of view understood before trying to understand their partner’s point of view. The focus of our interaction then becomes to persuade our partner of just how correct our view really is, while our partner is attempting to do the exact same thing. This can lead to a “talking at” each other rather than “talking with” each other, which only serves to continue the disagreement. It can also lead to an escalation of the intensity of the disagreement, and possibly even lead to a full-blown argument. How quickly the discussion escalates is often related to how often the same or similar disagreement have been discussed before, as well as any other communication patterns the couple have established. The key to escaping this trap is to first seek to understand your partner before having your partner understand you.
There is a very important point I would like to make about a common misconception here. Many couples find it difficult at first to focus on understanding their partner because they are afraid that they will be seen as giving in or surrendering on the issue in contention. It is therefore important to realize that if you understand your partner’s feelings and/or point of view, it does not mean that you necessarily agree with him/her. It also does not mean that you agree to do whatever it is he/she wants you to do or change. Rather it is taking a first step toward resolution and improving your communication to make the effort to understand what it is that your partner wants you to do or change. You will usually find that your partner will be better able to \accept and understand your point of view if he/she first feels accepted and understood by you.
The third trap is for one or both partners to push for a full and complete resolution of the issue even though feelings are still intense on both sides and an escalation has occurred. This is often a poor time to attempt to resolve anything since couples are unlikely to be able to reach some kind of mutual understanding when both partners have their ‘dander up’. At that point, the probability is rather small of exchanging information that can result in any resolution due to the parts of our brains that have been activated in an argument. We are usually in our “fight or flight” defensive position, looking to get an advantage on our partner, and therefore not able to engage our rational-logical side that we use when we are in our problem-solving mode. It is therefore typically much more effective to allow for a cooling-off period for both partners once things have escalated, and only then attempt to address the issue again. The cooling-off period might be a half-hour, a couple hours, or even the next day, but it should be a time frame that is mutually agreed upon. This pause can feel uncomfortable at first, but when you return to the issue in a calm mode you will much more likely be able to make progress toward an agreeable resolution.
How then, you may ask, can effective communication skills be used to resolve some of these seemingly intractable
problems? Please read Part 2 of this article to get some practical suggestions on resolving conflicts in ways that