Almost every couple that comes to my office asks to on work effective couples communication skills. We all want to improve communication, and as a systemic therapist, I strongly support it. But what does it mean to work on communication? Does it mean choosing our words more carefully? Does it mean saying more I – statements? Does it mean identifying this moment where we’re too heated and stopping right there before we act irrationally and say something we might regret?
I find that it better helps to look at the process of communicating rather than at the actual activities that come as a result. In other words, if we are able to better understand what our partner needs from us in various situations, we are at a better position to react to them in the above suggested ways. I also find that most of my clients have good intentions in communicating with their partners, but nonetheless, they still end up in constant fights.
So, how do we get to have good communication?
When I see couples who ask to work on their communication, I ask them how it is going to look when they have good communication. It is amazing to see how couples differ in answers to this question, but I do see some commonality. Couples usually say that they want to have calmness in their conversations, not argue as much or not have heated arguments, they want to feel that their partner has their back, they want to not have to squash the partner’s opinion or not have to feel it’s a battle they have to win or lose, and they also talk about the immediate need to feel understood, acknowledged and not judged.
Here is a situation one of my clients told me about in a session which demonstrates the above:
The wife came home from work really upset. The husband immediately asked her “What’s wrong?” She replied with “nothing, not a big deal”. The husband backed off and as she seemed more upset when he asked again: “Tell me what’s wrong! Did I do something to upset you?” The wife said “No. You didn’t do anything.” After a while, she told him about her boss at work calling her to the office yelling at her for something of little importance and writing her up on it. The husband responded by telling the wife that next time she really has to be careful about this careless mistake because they can’t afford her losing her job. The wife told in session that she felt worse after the talk with her husband although he was right.
I asked her what she needed from him at this conversation and she replied that she needed to feel heard, that her feelings of being upset make sense and are valid. She also wanted to know that even though she made a mistake, her husband is on her side. After a conversation on how it can be done the couple continued on to having the same conversation in session, but this time using what they’ve learned about each other’s needs. The conversation was different. It started with the husband stating “Kim (not a real name), I see something is making you upset” from there it went on to Kim telling about the incident at work, while her husband was an active part of the conversation, asking for small clarifications, stating “I can understand why you would feel like this, I would feel the same if…”, “that’s so petty of her, what a…” and so on. At some point, Kim was shedding tears. I asked about the meaning of the tears, and she said it moved her so much that her husband was on her side, she felt so protected and loved him so much at that moment.
So, it is not only if we say those sentences to each other, or if we know exactly when to stop an argument, or if we use more “I feel” statements that improves the communication. But it’s mostly when we tend to our partner’s need, understand where they come from, attune ourselves to their experience that helps us make all the suggested above a natural way of communicating.
To summarize, here are some tips to turn your couples communication around:
- First find out what you need most from YOUR PARTNER.
- Does your partner KNOW THIS? Is it a secret you expect them to guess? If so, gently let them know.
- See if you can give your partner a RECIPE for how to communicate with you. A recipe for what is the best way to approach you, and when you are most approachable.
- Make this a habit and your partner may reciprocate.
To your relationship success,
Relationship Expert & Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist