Center for Growth / Couples Therapy & Marriage Counseling in Philadelphia: 5 ways to improve communication with your partner TODAY.
Have you recently felt like you and your partner constantly argue? Do you find yourself arguing over details of conversations from yesterday, last month, even last year? Do you find yourself avoiding discussing important issues with your partner because you fear the discussion will end up in a full-blown argument? Do you find yourself saying to your partner things like “You never listen,” or, “I never said that.” Many couples find themselves in a communication rut at one time or another when in a relationship. For some couples these communication problems start day one of the relationship. For others couples communication issues may happen months, even years down the road for various reasons (life stressors, such as financial issues, trust issues, affairs, etc). Regardless of when the communication problems began, addressing the pitfalls in your communication with your partner needs to take priority today. Healthy communication is an essential part of a relationship. Healthy communication helps both individuals feel understood within their relationship. When we feel understood by our partner, we tend to feel closer to our partner, which allows for more intimacy. Without having solid communication, progressing in your relationship in a healthy manner may will be difficult.
The following information is an overview of the 5 essential tools in maintaining healthy communication with your partner. Take your time to read over these tips to find out where you are in your practice of healthy communication. Please refer to our website for more specific information as to how to fully execute these steps.
1) Watch the body language: Eye contact, eye rolls, positioning/physical boundaries.
We as human beings like to feel we are being heard. It’s difficult to trust that your partner is truly hearing is you when the partner listening is looking at his/her phone, or focused on changing the television channel, or folding laundry. It’s also difficult for the listener to hear his/her partner when eye contact or focus is elsewhere. When ready to initiate a conversation with your partner, keep aware of what distractions may still be around for the two of you. Put away the smart-phones, turn off the television, make sure the kids are off to bed, etc. The less distractions will give you more ability to focus on each other. Some find eye contact to be essential when it comes to demonstrating one is listening, and for some, it helps the speaker feel heard. When it comes behaviors like physical boundaries, eye contact, facial expressions, these things may vary by person, and will depend on his/her culture.
Another important aspect of our body language are facial expressions: eye rolls, using aggressive hand gestures, or movements with your arms. This is all very passive aggressive behavior that does not help you fully take in what your partner is trying to communicate, and will only increase tension in the conversation and between the two of you. Last thing to look out for: physical boundaries and positioning. Pay attention to your posture, you want to have open body language: face your partner directly, hands down at your side, ideally sitting down as well as your partner. To help you both feel comfortable check in on your physical boundaries: do either of you feel you are sitting too far away or too close to each other? Ask your partner:Are you comfortable with this distance? Would you like me to move closer or further away? The more comfortable both individuals are, the more opportunity there will be for both of you to be open and honest in your communication.
2)Stay on topic.
A common pitfall for couples is to start a discussion on, say for example, how to save more money, and just minutes into the discussion the couple is arguing about details from the past (the who said what, who spent how much when, etc). Staying on topic keeps you goal oriented, and helps you avoid further conflict about irrelevant issues. Agree on the topic to discuss with your partner. Write the topic down on a piece of paper, place the piece of paper down in front of both you and your partner. Set a timer for 5 minute intervals. When the timer goes off, pause the conversation to look down at the piece of paper with the topic. If what you and your partner are currently discussing does not match what’s on the paper, acknowledge the conversation detour, then explore with your partner where you last left off with the relevant topic, and go back. If you or your partner noticed before the 5 minute timer than you are off topic, that’s okay, one of you bring this to the others attention, and go back to the relevant topic. The timer is a great way to start this practice, in time the goal is to recognize when you are off topic without the timer.
3)Watch your words.
This is an absolute MUST. No name calling! No aggressive language. Phrases like “shut up,” use of curse words when discussing a conflict will only escalate the argument, and take it to a negative place, rather than a productive and positive place. If you feel that you may be too angry to control what you might say in that moment, you’re probably not ready to engage in this discussion. Take a little more time before having this discussion, take some deep breaths, and even go for a walk before checking in with yourself to see where your emotions are. Using language that describes only your experiences, and not someone else’e will help with this. For example, “I felt angry when I asked you to be home by 9, and instead you came home after midnight.” As opposed to: “Where the hell were you? You said you’d be home by 9!” There are many differences between these 2 phrases, but most importantly both two totally different tones for a conversation between a couple. As for the listener, hold your reaction until the speaker is finished. Refrain from responses like, “You’re wrong, that’s completely crazy.” This is the listener’s job here is to only listen, and make sure he/she heard the speak accurately, and that the speaker and listener are both on the same page. (More on this is step 4). For more on ways to respond check out these articles: http://www.therapyinphiladelphia.com/tips/blaming-and-codependency and http://www.therapyinphiladelphia.com/tips/examples-of-blame-free-communication.
The next 2 steps will greatly help you in hearing your partner more, with less miscommunication.
4) Play it back.
Once your partner says what he/she wants to say, repeat back what your partner said (a brief summary of what you heard, not verbatim), and ask your partner if you were accurate in your summary. This helps to ensure accuracy, helps the two of stay on task and on topic, and helps your partner feel heard and understood. Playing it back also helps the partner make sure he/she communicated the right information. It is helpful when you hear your message repeated back through someone else, sometimes you realize you needed to add more information or conveyed your message wrong. http://www.sextherapyinphiladelphia.com/how-to-listen-judgement-free/
5) Listen empathically.
When listening to your partner, it’s human nature to have a reaction, and have your own ideas in response to what your partner is saying. However, when your building up your rebuttal in your head, it’s taking you out of the moment with your partner you won’t be able to really take in or remember all that your partner said. To listen empathically means to walk in your partner’s shoes from start to finish when they are talking. This means putting your own reactions, your own feelings aside. This is your chance to try and understand your partner’s experience. Something very important to note: Just because our experience is different than our partners, it does not devalue either experience, they are both just as valid. Another important aspect of listening with empathy, when your partner shares their thoughts and feelings, respond with empathic responses, like “that must have been really difficult for you,” or even ask more questions if you are curious. Stay away from comments that take away from their experience, like “that’s not true,” or “you don’t mean that.”
Again, this article is intended to give you a general overview of the areas to work on when communicating with your partner. These suggested tools are a great resource for you in staying aware of how you communicate, and how your communication style is contributing to the communication issues you are currently having with your partner. Whether you are in a new relationship or you are you in a long-term relationship, communication in a relationship takes work, just like all aspects of a relationship. Your communication with your partner isn’t always going to be 100 percent perfect, just like any other area of your relationship (sex, romance, quality time, trust, etc.) It is normal to experience conflict and communication issues with your partner. However, the issues won’t go away on their own. The only way to resolve the communication issues in you relationship is by actively addressing the problems and working to improve the your communication with your partner.
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