Expert tips and strategies for better sex and relationships, for singles and couples alike, typically focus more on what you can do to improve your love life than what you can say. But there may be nothing more valuable than working to become a more effective communicator. Healthy relationships depend on your ability to communicate your thoughts, desires, needs, and issues. The trick is discovering how to express yourself amid the sea of emotions that can quickly submerge your best efforts.
Here are my top 10 tips for more effective communication:
1. Withhold criticism.
So much communication involves put-downs and highlighting what somebody is not doing right. The end result of such aural attacks? A defensive partner and, eventually, the demise of a relationship. Instead of being critical, focus on positively reinforcing what your partner is doing right, and offering constructive criticism when it comes to things that could be improved. "Vanessa" strives for this when her husband gives her a massage:
"I really appreciate my husband wanting to work the stress out of my body, but he’s no massage therapist. It’s easy to want to say, ‘Don’t do that,’ or, ‘That doesn’t feel good,’ and just get him to stop altogether. But I know that'll only discourage him, and in more ways than one. So I try to give feedback, like, ‘Could you do that only in this spot and with more pressure?’ or, ‘That would feel even better with the base of your hand instead of your fingertips.’ People typically aim to please, so carefully worded guidance tends to get results."
2. Own your statements.
What you have to say will be more powerful, and hopefully better heard, if you own it with an “I” statement (e.g., "I feel sad when you…") Taking responsibility for your feelings and perspectives empowers you to create better solutions in that you’ll be better heard. Even if your partner doesn’t agree with you or understand your perspective, he or she can’t fault you for how you feel.
3. Be willing to receive feedback.
Communication needs to be a two-way street. If you expect your partner to hear you out, then you need to make yourself vulnerable to any reaction, especially the need to reflect back on what you’ve just said. Remember, there are three sides to any issue in a relationship: your perspective, your partner’s perspective, and the truth. You’re a player in what’s going on, and you need to be open and available to how your partner sees matters—including your role.
4. Be present and participate.
Don’t worry about what you’re going to say or how you’re going to respond during casual or critical conversations with your partner. Just listen and give nonverbal signals that you’re truly engaged—like nodding your head and maintaining eye contact. Demonstrate that you are indeed listening by reflecting back the following: Am I understanding you in full? Am I hearing you clearly? Similarly, validate your partner’s feelings: I’m sorry to hear that you’re so angry, or I can see why you’re so upset. If you’re at a loss for words or have nothing to say, something as simple as, “Thank you for sharing,” can be incredibly effective.
5. Give yourself a time-out when necessary.
Some conversations can be intense, and sometimes it’s better to say nothing at all. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should simply stop addressing the issue. Know that it’s fine to say, “Can I get back with you? I’ll need to think about that,” as a partner should appreciate that you want some time to process everything. Be sure, however, to revisit the conversation at an appropriate time and within a reasonable time period.
6. Don’t interrupt.
... Or change the subject. Or be a know-it-all. Or act like something that was hard to say was never said. Basically, don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want your partner to do to you during any kind of conversation. Think these tips don’t apply to you? Listen to yourself in your conversations over the next few days. You may be surprised, as was the case for "Bert":
"I’d read research that both men and women are likelier to interrupt when talking to a woman than a man, and as a feminist, I didn’t think that described me with my fiancé at all. Curious, however, I decided to be more mindful in my conversations with her, and I realized that I was guilty of this social faux pas. I’ve tried to be more patient in hearing her out, no matter what the topic, which has taken practice."
7. Keep your tone in check.
During casual, everyday interactions, like a phone call, sound engaged (as in, not distracted) and glad to be making small talk. During intense conversations, avoid using domineering, hostile, or sarcastic tones. Don’t minimize or dismiss others' fears, worries, or dreams.
People aren’t mind readers, not even your partner. If you need something, ask for it. Your partner isn’t going to know that you need more help with the kids or the chores, that you need more affection, or that you desire more stimulation in reaching orgasm—unless you make the request. Put it out there; a good partner will try to deliver.
9. Express appreciation on a regular basis.
Acknowledging the little things that often go unnoticed can go a long way. It could be thanking your partner for taking the dog out for a walk early in the morning, or giving your lover a hug for making another yummy dinner. Recognizing the routine—the value of your partner’s daily contributions in making your life easier or more enjoyable—makes one feel valued and more willing to continue to contribute to a relationship’s and home’s maintenance.
10. Don’t forget “I love you.”
Lovers are all too reliant on young love, Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, and other notable dates or time periods in a romance for the excuse to express their feelings for one another. It’s to the point that if an “I love you” or other statement of endearment, like “You’re so beautiful,” or “I find you amazing,” is randomly shared, then it can feel off-putting: What is she up to? What does he want? So make expressing your love verbally—and nonverbally—a regular part of your relationship maintenance. It’s the glue when other relationship resolutions become harder to sustain.