You and your partner are having a quiet dinner at home, but perhaps you are finding it a bit too quiet. Although you don't feel that communication has ever been an issue for you, it seems that lately you’ve run out of fresh things to say. Or perhaps you’re sharing a commute with your carpool buddy, and the minutes seem to be dragging on without any new topics to cover. The ride goes much faster when you can enjoy a good chat, but now you just can’t wait to arrive at your destination. Not knowing what to talk about can also affect you in social situations, such as an office party or a neighborhood get-together. You’re in the corner with a coworker or person from down the street, and just keep coming up short when the conversation switches to you.
In a new study published by Joshy Jacob Vazhappilly and Marc Reyes (2017) of the University of Santo Tomas (Manila), the efficacy of an intervention designed to help distressed marital partners learn to communicate better was evaluated. Although applied in a treatment situation, their “Emotion-Focused Couples Communication Program (ECCP)” could have broader applicability to any situation in which you find yourself unable to communicate in ways consistent with your wishes. In couples, as they point out, “healthy communication nurtures human relationship."
ECCP trains couples over the course of a nine-module series. Some modules include training partners to listen with empathy (“with giraffe’s ears”), meaning to listen without judgment and to take criticism “jovially.” Other modules train couples to be genuine and truthful in turn, and to avoid “should-talks.” As they get further into the training, couples “use a new language of loving relationship of understanding and accepting.” Vazhappilly and Reyes evaluated the intervention’s efficacy on the marital satisfaction and communication scores of 32 Indian couples. There was no control group, but over the course of the five-week training, couples showed significant improvement on these two outcome measures.
You may not feel you need such an intervention to get along better with your carpool partner, but the basic principles of ECCP could prove translatable to a variety of situations involving communication, particularly when you feel stuck. With these findings in mind, let’s take a look at 10 ways that you can become a better communicator when your conversations hit a bump in the road.
1. Listen to what the other person is saying. If you’re too focused on what you should say next, you’ll miss opportunities to follow up on good talking points right in front of you. These could be areas of similarity between you and a person you’ve just met (such as having the same birthday), or lead-ins that your spouse provides which give you an opportunity to find out more. Either way, you’ll seem like someone who really has an interest in the other person, and you’ll also come up with further conversation topics.
2. Express yourself openly and honestly. People can sniff out insincerity pretty well, and if you’re covering up, they’ll feel less like confiding in you.
3. Avoid making judgments. No matter whether the person you’re talking to is your romantic partner or a relative stranger, if you come across as judgmental, the other person will feel less like confiding in you.
4. Look for obvious cues as conversation jumping-off points. People you don’t know that well may reveal features about their interests or background just by what they’re wearing. Someone wearing clothes with sport team logos gives you the opportunity to ask about their fan allegiance, which can make for interesting conversation if the team is from another city or country. Unusual or particularly artistic jewelry is another conversation-starter.
5. Stay on top of the news, and store some of it away so that you can chat about it later. You might not want to get into a serious political discussion with someone you hardly know, but some events from the national or local news can present interesting tidbits. There certainly is plenty going on to provide rich fodder for conversation, as long as you steer clear of particularly sensitive topics.
6. Come up with an agenda. Just as meetings run more smoothly with a predetermined set of topics, your social conversations could benefit from similar planning. If you know you’ll be in the car with your carpool partner for an hour, think of three or four things you think would be fun to kick around. Similarly, with your romantic partner, planning a list of items you can cover at dinner could also keep the conversation alive.
7. Don’t be scared by silence. A quiet interlude in an otherwise lively conversation doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is doomed, or that you’ve become uninteresting. Sometimes a little break can give each of you a chance to refocus.
8. Note whether the other person would like to break off the conversation. To be a better conversation partner, you sometimes need to know when to close as well as to open. If people sense that you don’t know when to stop talking, whether it’s saying goodbye at the door or letting your partner get on to other tasks around the house, they’ll tend to stay away from getting entangled in what they’ll perceive as a tedious interaction.
9. Be careful about making jokes that will be perceived as insensitive. You and your partner likely have a somewhat broader range of potentially offensive topics that you can openly discuss than you would with someone you hardly know. It’s much harder to back off from an unfortunate comment with people who aren't your closest friends or family members.
10. Use conversations with new people as practice for improving your skills. The ECCP intervention was focused on married couples, but its principles can be translated to a variety of less intense situations. Let’s say you’re seated next to someone you’ve never met at a dinner for supporters of a local cause. The chances are good that you already have things in common, so make it your goal to find out what they are, and let the conversation evolve around these solid talking points. Honing your abilities in this way will give you greater confidence to help other conversations flow in the future.
Being able to keep the conversation going can certainly build the bonds between you and the people you care about the most. And if you’re trying to have an enjoyable evening with someone you’ve just met, these primers may lead to surprising outcomes that can broaden your fulfillment in unexpected ways.
Vazhappilly, J. J., & Reyes, M. S. (2017). Efficacy of emotion-focused couples communication program for enhancing couples’ communication and marital satisfaction among distressed partners. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, doi:10.1007/s10879-017-9375-6