There are many books and articles that teach intimate partners the art of effective communication. Some couples do improve their ability to trust each other more deeply by practicing the exercises within them. But, in most cases, their efforts have only been minimally effective. Despite sincere efforts to master these techniques, intimate partners still too often continue misunderstanding and misconstruing what they say and hear.
In the four decades I’ve been treating couples, I’ve continually searched for the answers as to why so many people continue to have such difficulty when so much excellent guidance is available. What could possibly have been overlooked? What techniques or advice might be missing that could help intimate partners be more successful in communicating more effectively?
I decided to focus on the few fortunate couples I’ve worked with who, no matter what the problems they were working on in therapy, seemed to have no trouble deeply connecting with each other. These intimate partners had clearly mastered a way of communicating that made both feel supported and understood regardless of the difficulty of the subject matter.
I compared their attitudes and behaviors with those who were less successful and, from those experiences, have come to understand the ten crucial qualities that these successful communicators continually demonstrate.
The Ten Qualities of Great Communicators
1. No Conversation Stoppers
There are eight conversational responses that are highly likely to stop your partner from continuing to share his or her more vulnerable thoughts and feelings. All of us have used these phrases and behaviors at times, often without realizing how badly they can make our partners feel.
Once you recognize them, you will hopefully not use them again. You can express these responses in effective ways at other times if your partner is interested, but never when your partner needs to be heard.
Minimizing – Making the problem seem trivial.
Taking the Other Person’s Side – Not supporting your partner’s experience.
Blaming – Criticizing your partner for feeling or acting the way he or she does.
Fixing – Offering to solve the situation without being asked.
Giving Unsolicited Advice – Telling your partner how to act or feel.
Shock – Expressing upset or outrage at what your partner is saying.
Holier than Thou - Don’t say how you could have handled the situation better.
Negativity - Keep impatience, irritation, sarcasm, or sounding burdened out of your response.
2. Full Support Independent of Agreement
Many people believe that if they support the way their partners think or feel that they will automatically have to agree with them. Support and agreement do not have to be the same response. Even if you don’t see things the same way, you can still be empathetic and understanding of how your speaker thinks and feels.
Too often listeners are so concerned that if they don’t immediately argue for a different point of view, that there will be no way for them to disagree later, so they preempt their partner’s conclusions to share how they may see the situation differently.
If you and your partner have agreed that emotional and psychological support do not automatically mean agreement, you are free to totally validate the thoughts and feelings of the other. Once your partner feels heard and understood, you can ask him or her if feedback is wanted.
Your speaker will be far more likely to continue sharing if he or she feels that you are paying attention to all that’s been said. That not only includes the present, but anything that might also reference the past. Take notes, if it helps you to do that as you are listening.
Many times when speakers are emotionally distressed, they repeat themselves or skip logical sequencing. It is very helpful to them if you can help them stay on track. Caringly ask the kind of questions or make comments that help them put their ideas together. It’s like holding each important statement as an emotional puzzle piece, ever-ready to help your partner eventually see better how they can go together.
Anyone trying to share something painful or scary knows instantly if you are preoccupied or not really present. You’ll know if you are “drifting” because your answers will sound patronizing, impatient, or matter-of-fact. Your speaker will soon feel he or she is boring you and will automatically shorten the conversation or push harder to be heard.
It’s sometimes hard to stay focused listening to your partner, especially when he or she is angry, upset, or too repetitive. That’s even truer if the object of the distress is you. If you feel defensive at any point and you can’t be present anymore because of your own reactivity, ask for some time out to re-stabilize before you go on.
Good listeners get the cadence and urgency of their speaker’s communication style and present need. They don’t try to suppress emotions or change their rhythm or the way the words are being expressed. Some people get worked up as they get deeper into their emotions or change from one rhythm to another according to the subject they are unearthing.
If you can be flexible enough to flow with them at the same time as holding on to your own internal rhythm, you may be able to help them find a more comfortable pace that better enables both of you as close to the core truths as possible.
6. Emotional Anthropology
It is very tempting to impose one’s own thoughts and feelings on another person, especially when he or she is vulnerable or needy. When your partner is trying to explore a deeper thought or feeling, he or she may seem unsteady or in need of direction, and that can feel like an invitation to redirect.
At those times, it is particularly important to just stay authentically interested, curious about those reflections and conclusions, and wanting to truly understand how that person came to feel the way he or she does in that moment.
Anthropologists know how important it is to respect and support another culture, even if they don’t see the world in the same way. Every human being is a culture unto themselves and intimate partners need to remember that their partner’s view of reality must be viewed with the same sacredness.
Even good listeners can make the mistake of answering too quickly, saying too much, interrupting, or pulling away and shutting down too quickly. It can be very hard to stay on track and not push your own timing agenda when you are on the other end of an emotionally upset person or have your own priorities.
In any conversation, you are absolutely allowed to tell your partner that you are overwhelmed or beginning to feel defensive, especially if your own emotions do not allow you to stay in the moment. You cannot continue to be a good listener when you’re impatient, and it’s always better to reconnect when you can be authentically present. If you do have to disconnect, make a time soon when you can continue so your partner doesn’t feel abandoned.
8. Non-judgmental Feedback
When your partner feels safe, heard, and ready, you can offer non-judgmental feedback after asking if he or she is ready to listen to it. Using any notes you have taken, share your summary of what you thought was said, what your partner seemed to have needed, and where you agree or see things differently. Even if your experience is not positive, you can still deliver your feelings in a caring way.
Tell your partner how you feel about what you heard and what your responses are. Ask for feedback as to how you were as a listener and any differences he or she might have wished for. Where were you accurate and where might you have misunderstood? Did your partner feel cared for, understood, and supported, and in what ways? Does he or she have any good feedback for you?
Patience is not just “waiting.” Patience is being so involved that you don’t notice the passage of time. When you are listening deeply to another, with no other thought than to be there doing what you are doing, you feel emotionally weightless and unconnected to the past or future. Your only desire is to be there fully for the one you love.
Emotional patience feels to the other like chivalry. There is no resentment, impatience, martyrdom, or boredom in the gift of listening as long and to whatever your partner needs from you at the time. You feel absolutely willing to put your own needs aside, and feeling honored to do so at the time.
This may seem idealistic, but most people sharing something vulnerable or painful know exactly what it feels like to be on the other end of someone who truly wants to listen. You may not be able to do it for long periods of time, but the rewards for the listener are as great as for the speaker.
This capability is the true art of a great communicator. People in pain or trying to express negative or hurt feelings often cannot keep track of what they’ve said or make sense of their presentation while they are in that emotional state.
A great listener weaves statements of the past, relates them to the present, and takes them forward into the future. To do that, he or she must take cues from the past and combine them with what listener already knows about that person. Using a combination of emotional support, accurate listening, tracking, rhythm, presence, and care, an effective listener helps his or her partner to continue getting closer to the true message offered.
Weaving helps a person remember his or her past and how it is affecting the present. It also helps point out repetitive patterns that have not yielded good results, and makes them less likely to continue into the future. It is crucial that weaving is not done in a way that makes the sharing partner feel trapped or labeled, just known more deeply as to whom he or she behaves in the relationship.
How Good Are You as a Communicator?
Following is a simple test you can take to help you evaluate how you are at communicating love and support to your partner. Don’t be disturbed if your current test results aren’t where you want them to be. You can practice and take the test again whenever you want to compare scores. And, of course, because you deserve the same treatment, you can share this article with your partner and have him or her take the test as well.
Score the test according to the following legend:
1 = Never
2 = Occasionally
3 = More often than not
4 = Frequently
5 = Most of the time
Now add up your scores and use the following legend to find out where you currently stand.
1 – 19 You need to work on being a better communicator so that your partner will want to talk to you about important things.
20 – 39 You’re struggling to hold on to yourself while trying to be there for your partner, and you haven’t given up learning how to do that.
40 – 59 You’re getting better on letting go of your own needs while being there for your partner.
60 – 79 You’re giving your partner the room he or she needs to be more open and vulnerable with you.
80 – 100 We need to clone you for the world.
Communication between intimate lovers is always a fragile process, but if you can learn and master these ten attitudes and behaviors when your partner needs to share something painful, vulnerable, or may be just frightened, you will find your relationship immediately become increasingly closer and more rewarding.
Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring. www.heroiclove.com