The right words open up a conversation, and strengthen a relationship. But what happens when you choose the wrong words? Disagreement, assumptions, reactivity and missed opportunities arise, and you’re left ten steps back. It gets worse: over time, negative feelings may build up for you and your mate, and can settle into a “solid state” of disconnection, antipathy and loneliness. Words have that power, for better or for worse, and I want to help you shift your conversations towards the productive-connective end of the spectrum.
Communication, especially in a marriage or relationship, can be most difficult, because you have a strong emotion commitment to your spouse or partner. Guys tell me all the time that they don’t have nearly the issues communicating with their friends or co-workers. Why? Because, I tell them, you’re not carrying on an intimate and vulnerable relationship with those people. The closer someone is to you, the more difficult and strained communication can get.
Here’s 12 foolproof communication skills for couples to improve the outcomes of your conversations with your intimate partner.
1. Watch your verbal reactivity: many times, we’ll step into a trap, when prodded by our partner. They curse us as the bain of their existence, and we, in turn, feel compelled to counterattack. Don’t. Try to be aware of saying hurtful things in retaliation. Even though you know her (or his) buttons, it doesn’t mean you need to press them. Pushing their buttons may end up blowing up in your face.
2. Talk about you, not her: If you can speak from your own experience of the effect of their behavior on you, you’ll get a lot further than fixating on what they did to you and how they wronged you. Be prepared to shift your focus here, and start to look inward as to the negative effects. For example, if your wife is nagging on you, you would state, “I’m frustrated with the way you’re approaching me,” or “It makes me upset when you constantly remind me to take out the trash.”
3. Make eye contact: she’ll feel like you are present, and that you care, and she’s going to be more responsive to you and what you have to say if she feels you’re “there.” If you’re not looking at her, she might feel like you don’t care or aren’t present, and may react more strongly back towards you. This isn’t what you want. Try making eye contact, and communicate non-verbally that you’re there and you’re serious.
4. Don’t speak in polarities – “always” or “nothing.” Nothing really ever happens in all-or-nothing; even people’s behavior happens in shades of gray. When you use the words “all” or “nothing” to describe your mate’s behavior, you’re pigeonholing them to those behaviors, as well as criticizing them. They’re going to react to you if you use extremes, or polarities, so try to watch it if you are. Try “many times,” or “at times” or “there are times where..”, and then proceed. You’ll have better success this way.
5. Be aware of your tendency to want to fix things: I know, it’s hard. As a guy, I fall into the same traps I write about, especially this one. I want to fix the conflict situation, or fix her feelings. Neither gets resolved in this manner; they just get worse. I can’t stress this enough: don’t try to fix the conflict or her feelings, because she’s going to feel that you’re not listening to her, and she’ll react to you based on that premise. Be proud of the broken toilet or work-related situation you can fix on the job; leave the need to fix to those places and don’t bring it into your relationship or marriage. If she wants you to fix it, she’ll ask.
6. For women, don’t press him to get the answer: if he’s retreated or gone into hiding, watch your tendency to chase him, pry something out of him or generally open him up. You may be making it worse. Watch the criticism, analysis of his neurotic family of origin or deliberately pushing his buttons to pop him out of his hiding. Say something like: “You know, it’s lonely for me when you check out,” or “I feel hurt and sad and feel abandoned when you distance emotionally.” It doesn’t need to sounds clinical; just may it sound authentic.
7. Don’t lie (this one is for the guys): It sounds so basic, but so much of a healthy relationship is built on gaining (and preserving) her trust. When you lie, you’re flushing the “trust currency” down the toilet. If you’re conflict avoid ant, say that, or get some professional help with a counselor. But when you lie in communication, your partner is going to react a lot worse (a lot worse) to you than if you were to produce the truth.
8. Timing’s everything: effective communication is not going to come through when the kids are crying, or when you’re both speeding off to work. If there’s an issue to be addressed, carve some time out and make it a priority to talk with your spouse when you’re both in a space to really talk and listen, especially about the big issues.
9. Pay attention to the non-verbals: our communication is both verbal and non-verbal, so watch the non-verbal cues you are giving off to your partner, including looks of disinterest, body cues, facial cues, laughing, etc. These, at times, speak more loudly than do our words. People tend to unconsciously mirror our negative non-verbal communication, and positive ones reinforce the same in others.
10. What you both need: speak from your “needs” first, and listen for your partner’s needs. You can cut through a lot is you can whittle your way down to the need. What is it that I need from my partner right now? What am I doing or saying to get that need met? What is it that my partner is needing from me? Can I see past what they’re saying or doing to me that might allow me to see those things?
11. If you need to walk away, tell her you’ll be back: a lot of men, in the course of conflict, need to step away to “process” the fight, but risk inadvertently communicating to their partners that they’re abandoning them. Try to communicate that you need time to digest or process, and that you will eb back to continue the conversation at a chosen time. Be specific about that time, so it doesn’t get left open-ended.
12. Don’t criticize, judge or analyze: this is not effective communication; in fact, it usually reverses gains and is counterproductive to the conversation. If your partner is at the butt end of your criticism or judgment, she’ll bound to feel “not good enough” for you, and will communicate and react from that. Conversely, if you feel judged or criticized, state that, and attempt to continue to reinforce your awareness of that happening.
Communication is one of the most difficult things to do well that I know of. It has so much power to build, or destroy. Try using one or more of these things to improve the quality of your relationship together.