Almost everyone agrees that communication – good communication – is essential to successful relationships. But what constitutes ‘good’ communication?
The answer to that all depends on our goals, which will be different for various relationships and dependent on the circumstances. If our goal is to give clear instructions to an employee, it will call for a different kind of communication to what we might use when encouraging a child struggling to read.
In marriage, we also need to use different types of communication depending on our goals, but it’s pretty safe to say that adopting the tone and words we might use with an employee is not generally a good idea with our spouse.
In marriage, our communication at times will need to be clear and direct when passing on important information such as the arrangements for childcare or the bills that need to be paid. At others, it needs to be tender and self-revealing as we explore each other’s inner world.
This kind of intimate marital communication is difficult to do well but is especially important as it fosters intimacy and helps us bond more deeply. Here are our tips for making it more effective.
Tip 1: Keep the role of Listener and Speaker separate
We can’t be the Listener and Speaker at the same time. Most of our communication fails to be effective, not because we don’t convey what we need to express clearly (which is hard enough), but because we fail to really listen.
Most of the time, instead of attentively listening, we are busy formulating our response – particularly if we are talking about a difficult topic. We find ourselves frequently being tempted to jump in to have our say or defend our position by contradicting the Speaker’s interpretation.
So, we made it a rule for ourselves: There’s only one Speaker at a time. We decide who it is and then apply some self-discipline to make sure the Listener keeps with the task of listening.
For this to work, it helps to be in agreement that both will get their chance to be the Speaker. It makes it easier to focus on listening when we are confident that we will get our chance to share our perspective.
Tip 2: Be self-reflective
We can’t share what we don’t know. A reflective life helps foster a deeper self-awareness of our interior life thus giving us more substantive material to share with each other.
For example, if my answer to the question – what was the most significant thing that happened to me today? – is “I don’t know” or something superficial like “I had a nice lunch”, it really isn’t going to foster our intimacy that much.
Rather, if I can share how my lunch was a small moment of respite in an otherwise crazy day, or that that the pasta I ate reminded me of that time we spent in Italy together and I headed back to work with a lighter heart, or whatever it was about that lunch that made it significant, then I have something that will give my listening spouse a whole lot more insight about my inner life.
Part of being self-reflective is being consciously aware of our emotions and needs. My emotional reaction to different events during the day are signals telling me about what is important and they help me identify which of my emotional and spiritual needs are being met or being frustrated.
Tip 3: Own our emotions
It can be really tempting when we experience strong, unpleasant emotions in reaction to something the other said or did, to assign responsibility for those emotions to the other.
Yet my emotions are mine. They are my reaction to the situation, and they belong to me. My emotional reaction is tremendously valuable in helping me to understand myself better, but it only helps if I own it as my own.
Blaming the other for unpleasant emotions deprives me of the opportunity to explore my interior life, but even more importantly, it puts the other on the defensive. Making judgements and accusations shuts down our communication and makes it impossibly difficult for the other to stay open and receptive to what we want to say.
Effective communicators keep their message ‘I focussed’. They talk about their emotional experience and describe it non-blaming language. They avoid accusations or assuming ill-intent in the other. They keep an open mind as to why the other may have acted the way they did.
Tip 4: Be other-centred
Effective communicators are always thinking about ways to make it easier for the other: for the Speaker to express him/herself, or for the Listener to hear.
If I am the Listener, my job is to facilitate the open and full sharing of the Speaker. I can do this by giving my full attention, putting aside whatever I might have been doing, making eye contact and using my body language to signal receptivity.
As the conversation progresses, I can encourage further revelation by asking if there is more the other wants to say.
If I am the Speaker, I can make it easier for the Listener to hear me by alerting the other that I have something important to say and giving consideration to my timing so that I avoid trying to have an intimate conversation when the other is stressed, distracted or unavoidably preoccupied.
I can also open the conversation with soft language that affirms the good intentions of the other and expresses appreciation for their willingness to listen.
Tip 5: Practice self-restraint
A lot of couples go off the rails in their communication due to a faulty idea that is very common in our culture: the right to unregulated self-expression.
When I adopt the belief that I have the right to say anything I want and my spouse is obligated to listen to me, I set our relationship up for abuse.
While our vows do obligate us to be available to each other in lots of ways, including engaging in meaningful conversation, love and common sense requires a measure of self-restraint.
As the Speaker, I need to ensure that what I have to say is relevant, thoughtful and phrased in a way that respects the sensibilities of the other. For example, dominating the topic of conversation or subjecting our spouse to a spray of criticism about something or someone important to them is abusive.
On the Listener’s side, self-restraint is needed to avoid the tendency to minimise the importance of intense emotions in the other due to our discomfort with them.
For example, if our spouse expresses anxiety about something, suggesting that he/she is overreacting will likely be perceived as the Listener being unwilling to be present in that space. This will discourage future disclosures as our spouse judges that we can’t handle their strong emotions.
Tip 6: Understand before acting
It’s easy to slip into the problem-solving role as a Listener when the Speaker is talking about a difficult situation. It’s a natural impulse: someone we love is in distress and we want to ease their pain.
However, it’s often off the mark and almost always annoys the Speaker who feels frustrated that the Listener has ceased listening before really understanding what is going on.
As a Listener, it’s good practice to test our interpretation by paraphrasing what we’ve heard and giving the Speaker permission to correct any misinterpretation. Sentences that begin with: “What I hear you saying….” Or “Do you mean…” are good starting points.
It’s also good practice once the Speaker has said everything he/she wants to say, to give a summary of what we understand and affirm the validity of the Speaker’s experience.
Many Speakers, especially women, don’t want problem solving at any stage of the process, even after there is full understanding by the Listener. They simply want empathy.
Part of understanding before acting, is checking with the Speaker about what would be helpful. Don’t immediately assume that the Speaker wants to us to intervene; often it is simply enough to have someone share in their experience.
Tip 7: Empathy with boundaries
An essential part of intimate communication is the expression and experience of empathy.
Human beings are uniquely equipped for empathy with specialised neurons in the brain called ‘mirror neurons’. These neurons are activated when we encounter an emotional expression in another, often causing us to feel the same emotions.
This capacity to express empathy from an encounter with the emotional experience of the other helps us bond and to respond considerately to each other’s needs.
As a Speaker, having someone empathise through this process is deeply validating and affirming. It’s very powerful for couples, helping us to grow in intimacy as we share these experiences.
However, it is also important to remember that some circumstances require us to impose boundaries on our empathy.
For example, if my spouse is experiencing a panic attack or has badly cut their hand, it isn’t really helpful to join the panic or have an emotional meltdown. In situations like this, we need to maintain a measure of indifference to our spouse’s emotional state so that we can act in the long-term interests of their survival.
Of course, once the crisis is passed, that is indeed an excellent time to share intimately with each other our experience so that empathetic bonding can occur.
A Science and an Art
Communication is both an art and science. Conscientious couples will not only learn the techniques to improve their communication, they will also practice the personal characteristics and virtues necessary to be the kind of person who is self-aware, self-disciplined and other-centred.