We all know the importance of communication in a relationship. When things are going well, good communication keeps things on the right track. When things are going wrong, you need to talk it out. You just need to communicate more, right?
Yes and no.
When a relationship is having conflict, it’s probably not the amount of communication at issue, but the quality of both the communication itself and the internal world of the participants that is causing trouble. For example, if I think I’m right and you’re wrong, communicating that in greater quantity will not help the relationship.
What comprises quality communication in a relationship? Here are 8 components of quality communication:
- Being present – You’re not worrying about your kids, your job, or even what you’re going to say next. You’re giving your partner your undivided attention to both their words and nonverbal communication. Being present also means being calm. If I’m pissed off or terrified, I am likely not being present.
- Listening to understand – When you listen to understand, you’re trying to grasp the meaning of their words, not just the literal, surface content. You’re dispensing with any assumptions you may have made about their perspective or motivation. You listen with a clean slate, hearing between the lines, not taking every phrase literally.
- No judging – Everyone has a different internal world, none better or worse than another. Respect the other’s reality, and they are more likely to respect yours.
- Don’t take it personally – If discussing a difficult topic, this issue likely, at its emotional care, has nothing to do with you (see below).
- Don’t interrupt – Let them completely finish what they have on their mind. You’ll get your turn, hopefully, later.
- Reflect back – Summarize what you heard (again, without judgment or taking it personally), and ask if you got it right. Receive corrections and edit until it’s right then ask if there is anything else.
- Go deeper – For intimate relationships and/or conversations, ask your partner to explain why this particular issue is so important to them to get to the painful (or joyous) belief behind their feelings. Try to avoid using the word “Why”: “Help me understand why this is so painful/wonderful for you.” Reflect their response back.
- Ask – Ask if they’re willing to hear your perspective. If so, then share your viewpoint being as authentic as possible, avoiding blame and judgment on the other. Remember, your interpretation on your view of the world is your choice. You’re entitled to your opinion, but remember that it is your opinion, not fact. Share the feelings elicited by your partner’s behavior or words and the pain at the source of those feelings.
For example, I might say to my partner “When I was telling you how excited I was about my promotion, I felt hurt and ignored when you interrupted me and changed the subject. Giving me adequate air time, especially during important moments, helps me feel valued and appreciated.”
The deeper you can authentically go into your wounded, vulnerable place, the more impactful the communication. In your vulnerability is where it becomes clear what is the real issue, buried deep beneath the surface argument. (Please see any of Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability if you’re unsure the benefit of making yourself vulnerable).
The quality of your internal world is also critically important to good communication. Your internal world is related to the Arbinger Institute’s concept of being in the Box and your mindset. Briefly, when I am in the Box, I am focusing on my own needs, wants and desires and justifying that position by mentally and emotionally diminishing the other to be irrelevant, a problem or a means to an end. When communicating, I’m more concerned about being right, being heard and understood, or not being blamed or criticized. My mindset is inward, focused on my own needs.
In contrast, when out of the Box, I view others needs, wants and desires as important as my own. I’m communicating to first understand, and then to be understood. I’m deeply interested in the speaker’s needs, wants and desires so as to be helpful to them, or at least, to do them no harm. I respect their boundaries as well as my own. My mindset is outward, focused on understanding their needs, and trying to help or support them in a way that does not violate my own boundaries.
Given that this is neither easy nor simple, I find it helpful to take a strengths-based approach to communication. I use my Relator to motivate me to deepen my relationships, and I use my Capacity to Love and Be Loved and Consistency/Justice and Perspective to maintain a positive energy during difficult conversations. A mindfulness practice is essential for staying present. I view improving on this critical skill part of my lifelong journey where I continue to learn and grow, using large doses of Forgiveness when my partner and I fall short of our expectations.