“Are you even listening to me?”
By Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC
The key to any successful relationship is communication. Sound familiar? It should. Bookstore shelves, talk shows, therapists, websites, as well as your best friends and family members all promote the latest “what worked for me” techniques and advice on how to talk to your significant other and improve your relationship. Do we really need this sort of coaching? With the divorce rate at 50% in the United States, and an even higher percentage reporting unhappiness in their relationships, the question we find ourselves asking is “Why do so many couples find themselves repeating the patterns that merely sabotage their relationship?” The reason is that although the principles of communication are simple enough, we’re lacking both in practice and patience. Constant misunderstandings, arguments, resentments, and sterile, superficial conversations are relationship killers.
Couples need to do more than just know how to communicate effectively; they have to actively put these skills into day-to-day practice. From “The Couples Couch” perspective, here are a few things you need to do (or not do) for constructive couple communication.
Stop what you are doing and be attentive to what your significant other has to say. Do so without creating more tension in your non-verbal cues, such as rolling your eyes or crossing your arms over your chest, etc. Give of your body as you would of your words. If your words and body language are incongruent, you’re still being insincere. Take a firm but open stance. Look directly at the person speaking. Listen with your heart and not just your head.
Allow your significant other to finish her or his thought without finishing it for them. Don’t be thinking of what you need to say next. You will get your turn to speak.
Don’t attempt to fix things in one discussion.
A relationship is a process, not an event. Likewise, so are the issues that most couples face. They are ongoing and need to be solution focused, not problems to be “fixed.” By being more solution focused, couples gain a greater awareness of their strengths and how to communicate in much more proactive and constructive fashion.
Reflect back with feeling statements.
Let the other person know you have heard her or him by reflecting back what you have heard. Stick with your feelings, not your thoughts. Using feeling statements will go a long way in improving how you communicate. Also, avoid absolute and “you” statements. For example, “You never help me with x, y and z” is perceived as a personal attack and isn’t necessarily true. It is meant to express your frustration, but does so in a nonconstructive fashion. Instead, try this, “I’ve noticed that we have talked about x, y and z in the past, but I’m feeling as though I’m still not being heard. Can you help me figure this out?” Choose your words carefully. This is where practice makes as close to perfect as you’re going to get in any relationship.
Pay attention to your triggers.
Slow down and breathe. Arguments ARE failed discussions fueled by resentment, negativity and unresolved personal issues. If you or your significant other is directing the discussion into an argument, STOP. This is where the elaborate dance of “you do this all the time” or “you don’t ever do this” comes to life. Know your triggers. Remember feelings are neither right nor wrong. You are entitled to any feelings you have, but it is what you do with those feelings that will make or break how you communicate with another.
Spend quality time together. This seems like an obvious statement, but most couples disguise quality time as “family time” or time to complete household chores, pay bills, discuss finances, and general home management issues. One-on-one time is what you need (and don’t use the “we can’t fit it into our schedules” excuse!) Even a half hour a day over coffee while avoiding the pitfalls of discussing family and finances will make a huge difference. You chose this person because they had more than one or two qualities that appealed to you. It is time to rediscover your significant other, explore their world, ask questions, be non-judgmental – get the picture?
Whether you’re married, engaged, in a partnership, or dating, if your goal is to promote a healthy, lasting relationship, then apply these communication tips and practice daily. The rewards will be worth your extra effort.
In good health,