As a therapist, I’m often asked what the most common issue I see in couples therapy. While many expect to hear things such as infidelity or pornography, the truth is that poor communication is the leading issue I deal with in therapy. That is not to say that these couples don’t deal with many other issues, and–to be honest–most of the time they come in for a different concern.
However, underlying almost every marital issue (or any other type of relationship issue), I see is inadequate communication skills. With the couples, and even the individuals I work with, I find that nearly everyone benefits hugely from some basic communication skills training. Below is a list of important communication rules that will improve any relationship.
- Learn to listen well, and be willing to do that more than you talk. This means that you are focused on the person speaking and making a genuine effort to hear and understand their perspective. You are not thinking of a rebuttal in your mind or preparing a response.
- Summarize, clarify and validate. After you have listened to what the other person has to say, summarize what you heard and clarify any questions they have. It also helps to validate that you understand their perspective (even if you don’t agree with it).
- Use ‘I’ statements. An “I” statement is an assertion of your feelings, beliefs, perspective, value, etc.; for example, “I feel overwhelmed during these long conversations. “I” statements are the opposite of “you” statements which often accuse or assert blame which puts the other person on defense; for example, “You overwhelm me when you keep talking at me.” Using ‘I” statements give you a better chance of speaking in a way that your counterpart can really hear.
- When talking, focus on giving the other person a window into your world rather than convincing them that your way of thinking is right. The initial goal of any conversation should be to ensure that all parties understand all other parties. If you go into a conversation with the attitude, “I’m right and you’re wrong”, chances are no progress will be made. Instead, help the other understand where you are coming from and, likewise, make a genuine effort to understand where they are coming from.
- Remember that your opinion is not fact. Two people can be logical, reasonable and emotionally healthy, but still come to different conclusions. The sooner you understand that, and acknowledge that just because you think something (and even have evidence to back it up), does not mean that it’s the only possible truth or that you are right. It is often a good idea to review a list of cognitive distortions or thinking errors, and correct/challenge your prior to a conversation. For a basic list, see https://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/
- Make eye contact and face each other – No important conversation should be had without eye contact. Yes, there are rare occasions where this isn’t possible, but if you have the ability to be face to face, you should be. This will improve your odds of having a productive and positive conversation. It lets the other person know that you are engaged and respectful (as long as there is not eye rolling, etc.).If you are not in a place to have a conversation where you feel comfortable facing each other or making eye contact, you are most likely not i the right emotional state and should either 1) seek third party support (a therapist) to help you have that conversation or 2) take some time and have the conversation at a later time.
- Never have a conversation–or make an important decision–when you are in a high emotional state. Typically, we do not make sound decisions in a high emotional state because we are unable to think clearly, be logical, or come from an emotionally stable place. Instead, give yourself (and the other) permission to have the conversation when you are feeling better. It may be difficult to do in the moment, but the relationship will thank you for it!
- Never have important conversations late at night or when you are tired. Similar to the last point, important conversations should be had when you are at your peak and feeling good. Very few productive conversations happen late at night or when you’re tired. Wait until you’re awake, alert and have the physical and emotional energy to get through a conversation.
- Limit the time of your important conversations – Just as having conversations late or when you are not in a high emotional state, are not effective, typically neither are conversations over a certain amount of time. There is no specific rule of thumb about how long a conversation should last, but chances are that if an important conversation exceeds an hour, you are becoming emotionally escalated, repeating yourself, or simply stuck. Allow yourself to take a break (see below)!
- Take a time-out if you need it – Because conversations are rarely productive over a certain period of time due to the aforementioned reasons, a great tool to use is the ‘time-out’. The purpose of the time-out is to allow either party to take a break, recuperate and come back to the conversation when they are refreshed and in a better mental, physical and/or emotional state. A time-out is not an excuse to avoid the conversation, but a break for a previously-agreed-upon amount of time to allow the conversation be more productive.
- Have an ultimate goal for your conversation and make sure that it corresponds with your ultimate goal for the relationship. In order to do this, you must first know the ultimate goal of your relationships (examples may be to develop trust, have a deeper connection, complete work assignments together, co-exist smoothly). Once you are firm in that, determining the goal of the conversation should be easier. Make sure you stick to that goal and try not to get derailed. (*It should rarely, if ever, be your goal of your conversation to be right if you’re wanting to continue a positive relationship).