When partners come to me to request I help them improve their communication, what they usually mean is "please help me feel heard." In other words, they are talking, but their partner isn’t "hearing" or, sometimes, isn’t agreeing. Fair enough. Following these basic ideas can create significant improvements:
1. Model – and require – respectful behavior.
Seems straightforward, but when partners objectively look at what they are saying, they may find that they are justifying angry outbursts, demands, put-downs, and more. Further, respect is too often confused with compliance, which is not what I’m referring to. Whether you are in agreement or on opposite sides of an issue, respectful interactions are critical for good communication. Without respect, you move quickly into defensiveness and wall-building, which shuts down communication fast.
2. Seek to repair after disagreements.
John Gottman’s research points to the importance of repair behaviors in healthy relationships. We all disagree – Gottman’s work suggests that the number of times we do so is less important than how we "repair" from those disagreements. Repair behaviors include apologies, laughter, hugs or touch, finding common ground, validation, and more. In essence, anything that calms you both down and helps you remember you’re a team.
3. Remember that most issues aren’t resolvable.
About 70 percent of disagreements are unresolvable over the long term, yet we continue to be held hostage by the idea that if we just discuss it enough, we will somehow find a breakthrough. Instead, when you encounter such an area of disagreement, look for a work-around instead of a solution; agree to disagree and move on; or set up a system in which you each once in a while get a "my way" pass – that is, whomever feels the most strongly about the topic gets to use their "pass," and the other partner agrees to adopt that solution and move on with no hard feelings. (You can only have a few of these a year, for obvious reasons...and you both have to agree that you want to adhere to the system.)
4. Value your partner’s opinions and concerns as much as your own.
This can be a tough one for many. But your way and your partner's way are different, not "right" or "wrong." Truth is, opinions and concerns are not facts. They are ideas based upon your own unique background, physiology, and experiences. Your partner’s opinions are always valid because they are his or her own, whether or not you understand how he or she got there...and vice versa. We all have a bias to think we are "right," because (among other things) our logic and attitudes make complete sense to us. Good communication, however, requires valuing your partner’s logic flow, too.
5. Internalize that you are only in charge of you.
Healthy couples understand that they are differentiated from each other. In other words, you’re not in charge of your partner, and your partner is not in charge of you. Yet a lot of what we say is "partner-focused" – what we think our partner ought to be doing differently or better, for example. Focus, instead, on expressing your own feelings and ideas. If you have a suggestion for your partner, offer it as such – an idea, but not a requirement or a judgment. You’ll find that this approach greatly improves your partner’s desire to communicate: Nobody likes to be told what to do, while many like to share their ideas when invited to do so.
6. Practice non-defensive listening.
If you ever find yourself constructing your rebuttal while listening to your partner, or prickling at the idea that your partner’s suggestions are really a disguised form of attack, then you are most likely listening defensively. We do this all the time, so to break out of the habit takes overt effort and practice. The goal is to be open to what you are hearing as always legitimate (since it’s your partner’s opinion) and to actively seek the "truth" in what he or she is saying. Believe your partner’s words, rather than trying to rebut them, and ask how he or she got there. When you do, the conversation will become significantly more productive for you both.