"Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation."
– Oscar Wilde
We asked relationship experts for their tips on how to improve communication in a relationship/marriage...
Enhance your communication:
1.) If you and your spouse have a disagreement, explain what’s bothering you in a non-accusatory manner. “Use all the restraint you can muster to not say, ‘You never’ or ‘You always,’ ” suggests Sally Landau, a certified life coach.
2.) But sometimes, discretion is okay. “Everything in your head does not need to be said,” says Stephanie Staples, a motivational speaker and wife of 22 years. “I know you think you will explode, but . . . ask yourself if what you are about to say is going to help or hurt your relationship.”
3.) Have an attitude of gratitude. “Recent studies . . . reveal that gratitude benefits both the giver and the receiver,” reports Todd Reed, a communication coach and author. “When either of you does something nice for the other – lets you sleep in, washes the dishes when it’s your turn – take a second to show appreciation. Even if you’re just saying thanks for the small stuff, it can go a long way in solidifying your relationship.”
4.) Use “hot words” when things get heated . “Never respond when you are angry – leave the room or the house if you need to cool off,” advises Elle Swan, an international speaker and life coach. “Establish a ‘hot word’ that each person can use to let the other person know, ‘I am angry and we need to stop talking.’ ” Examples of hot words include “cancel” or “break.” Once you’ve both calmed down, resume the conversation. “The best way to fully understand what your spouse is saying,” she says, “is to ask clarifying questions. A clarifying question always begins with, ‘What I hear you saying is . . . . Is that correct?’” This will give your spouse a chance to either agree or clarify what they meant. “The goal is to always communicate with a calm, level head.”
5.) Express your needs or wants clearly. “You did not marry your clone,” notes Debbie Mandel, a radio host and author of Addicted to Stress. “So, be specific when communicating to your spouse. Do not take for granted that he or she has read your mind or intuits what you want.”
How to disagree calmly and with love:
1.) Active Listening / Use Feedback:
Sometimes when we listen to our significant other (or anybody for that matter), we’re not fully present. We may be distracted by something else that’s going on in our life, or feel overly reactive to strong emotions they’re displaying. In casual conversation (and especially during heated ones), it’s common for people to find themselves in a dynamic of impatiently waiting to chime in with a thought (defensive statement, rebuttal, etc.) while the other is speaking, rather than simply taking it all in and then responding afterwards. Accordingly, we end up not paying full attention to what the other is saying.
“Active Listening,” on the other hand, involves making a concerted effort to slow down and listen with an open heart and mind. This, of course, is easier said than done! But, intention is key, so you need to start there. If for whatever reason you don’t have the bandwidth to listen deeply and openly, then you may want to table the conversation, argument, etc. to another time (again, easier said than done).
You can take active listening a step further by sharing feedback. The classic way to do this is to restate what you heard the other person say, to demonstrate your understanding. We all know how great it feels to be heard. Being seen and heard is therapeutic and can’t drastically shift the dynamic in a positive way. You don’t necessarily have to agree with what is being said, but you do want to show that you’re getting the other’s perspective to the best of your ability. It’s fine to be completely transparent with this. For example, you can say, “It sounds like you are upset with me for forgetting to take care of _______, or for using that tone…am I understanding you correctly?”
Active listening, like so many aspects of communication, is a skill and therefore requires practice. As we do it more, we get better at it and it gets easier.
2.) Edit Criticism:
When communicating with your partner, make a concerted effort to avoid personal criticism. This includes refraining from put-downs, insults and negative body language, such as eye-rolling. As we all know, criticism makes people feel defensive, among other things; this significantly inhibits the listening process and can lead to further escalation of anger and hurt feelings.
3.) Be Gentle:
When something is bothering you, bring it up gently and without blame. Be aware of the tone used when communicating problems. A mutually respectful tone – one that is neither passive nor aggressive – goes a long way in starting a productive dialogue.
4.) Seek First to Understand vs. Being Understood:
When in conflict, our default as human beings is often to focus on our desire to be understood. How many times have you heard, “you just don’t understand what I’m saying!” Of course, healthy relationships do involve understanding one another, but rather than emphasizing your own desire to be heard, try changing your focus to putting attention on understanding the other. This can really shift the relational dynamic and pave the way for more open and fresh communication.
5.) Ask Open-Ended Questions:
Hmm, have you noticed that those rhetorical questions, such as “do you ever stop talking and listen?” or “I wonder if you’ll ever take out the trash without me asking?” don’t seem to initiate healthy dialogue? Sure, they may feel good to say in the moment, as you release some pent up frustration or anger. But, in the long run, it doesn’t contribute to resolutions.
Instead, ask open-ended questions when you have concerns. For example, you may say to your spouse, “I could use more help with taking out the trash; do you have any ideas for how we can accomplish this?”
6.) Stay Calm:
Try to keep discussions as calm as possible. If things start to escalate, take a break and re-visit when the two of you feel less emotionally charged. Be mindful of your self-talk; are you saying things to yourself that keep you relatively calm or are you fueling the flames of emotional distress?
7.) Use “I” statements:
Try to own your feelings, by using “I” statements when communicating (e.g., I feel, I need, I want). Remember the “XYZ” technique: “I feel X when you do Y in situation Z.” For example: “I feel frustrated when you don’t take out the trash on Tuesdays, the day you agreed to do so.”
Find ways to soothe yourself when upset. For example, take a “time out,” by going for a walk or taking some time to yourself to do some breathing exercises. This relates to # 5 – keeping one’s emotions in check. Conversations will be much more productive when emotions are more balanced.
9.) Accept Influence from the Other:
Try to put yourself in your spouse’s shoes and be willing to go with their perspective and suggestions. Dr. John Gottman’s research indicates that “a marriage succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife.” Accordingly, be mindful of the gender dynamics in your relationship that may foster or inhibit the ability to influence one another.
10.) Share Appreciations:
In any good relationship, each person will feel that they are valued and respected for who they are. When communicating, it can be helpful to identify what you appreciate about the other and state those things. Gottman’s research indicates that those in successful relationships make 5 times as many positive statements as negative ones when discussing problems.
Sharing appreciations contributes to a variety of positive feelings and people simply think and communicate better when they’re feeling good about themselves.