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Couples communication 101

It’s easy to get off track in communicating with your partner. To stay on course, be aware of these common pitfalls and actively work on communicating well.

Disagreements aren’t necessarily bad. Good relationships hinge on being able to communicate different viewpoints effectively, express yourself well, and really hear your partner. Here are some communication tips:

  • Start gently. Being direct is good, but you don’t need to dive in so hard and fast that you trigger defensiveness.
  • Own how you feel. You can be direct about how you feel without blaming anyone. And when you’re drawn into a fruitless argument over who’s to blame, it’s difficult to argue about how you feel. Consider saying, “I felt totally unimportant” rather than “You totally ignored me.”
  • Really listen. Summarize what you heard without defensiveness. Really tune into how your partner feels and communicate that in your summary, even if you don’t agree with why he or she feels that way.
  • Criticize behaviors, NOT character. It’s important to talk about specific actions that upset you. Rather than categorizing your partner as “the kind of person who…,” stay focused on a specific and recent behavior.
  • Always be respectful. Resist destructive temptations such as insults or name-calling; staying respectful is crucial for long-term communication success.
  • Hang in there. Problems often can’t be solved right away, but when talking together, persevere rather than escape: Don’t “zone out,” and don’t storm away.

Chances are that neither you nor your partner is a mean person. Nonetheless, because you’re human, your worst behaviors can come out during a difficult conversation. You might be aggressive, blame the other person, stop caring what the other person has to say, or you might work to avoid arguments altogether. But it doesn’t have to happen this way. Following the tips above will help you communicate constructively. For more on these kinds of strategies check out Basic Training for Couples Communication.



Assert yourself and be heard

Assertive communication is neither aggressive nor passive. It is both directive and cooperative.

Listening is half of communication. The other half is what you say and how you say it. The best way to express yourself is to be assertive. Assertive communication feels neither aggressive nor passive. It’s a balance between issuing a directive and being overly cooperative.

Communication between siblings can provide some good examples. Here’s the super directive approach: “You need to call me too. Don’t make me do all the work to keep up our relationship.” That may make sense, but the other person may not take it in because it triggers defensiveness. And here’s the overly cooperative approach: When your sibling says, “I hope you don’t mind that I never call,” you reply, “No, it’s okay, whatever you want is fine” (even if it isn’t). An assertive approach would be: “I’d really like to talk with you on the phone more, and I know you’re busy. What can we do to stay in better contact?”

The approach is basically a combination of “This is what I need” and “Can you join my team in figuring out a solution?” It’s straightforward and mutually empowering, opening the door for real communication. And for the other half of the communication equation, read last week’s article about how to be a good listener.

Communicate better by listening better

Amp up your communication skills. Improve the other half of the conversation with “active listening.”

If you find yourself at odds with those around you more than you’d like, think about bolstering your communication skills. Communication is a key skill in all relationships, and half of this skill is knowing how to listen. “Active listening” lets your loved one, friends, and associates know that you heard them and understand their perspective. Active listening happens when the listener—you—takes part in the conversation, not just listens. Here’s how you do it:

  • Repeat back to the other person the gist of what he or she just said.
  • Reflect the other person’s feelings; that is, recognize out loud that you understand how he or she feels
  • If you need clarification, ask for it in a gentle way.
  • Show interest and curiosity in what the other person is saying.

To see what this might look like, watch this video from the Kansas National Guard about active and constructive communication. FOCUS has a handout on “Effective Communication Skills” that further describes this skill.

Don’t just listen – show you are listening.

Some tips for "active" and "constructive" listening will improve your communication skills.

Being able to communicate effectively with those around us is a great way not only to enhance our relationships but also to ward off unnecessary stress. When having a conversation with a partner, friend, or coworker, most of us forget to communicate that we’re listening and that we understand what the other person is saying, which, can lead to arguments and/or misunderstandings. Show the other person that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say— asking questions and showing supportive reactions will help the other person feel understood. The Kansas National Guard has a video that demonstrates four ways of responding, including one that is both active and constructive (the best way!).

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