In my previous post, I introduced the importance of great communication in healthy relationships. How do we better understand our role in healthy communication? In this post, I want to discuss several important roles for healthy communication. As a quick reminder, while my focus is on healthy communication between romantic partners, it is important to understand these skills are equally as effective in most relationships. There are two primary communication roles, the Speaker and Listener. In any effective communication, there can be only one speaker at a time. You might imagine how difficult it would be to hear a message when everyone is trying to speak at the same time. In romantic relationships, only one person can be the speaker at a time and for communication to be effective the other person must be a listener; a good listener. Too many times while one person is speaking, their partner is preparing their response. You can’t listen if you are using your cognitive power to prepare a response. In all likelihood, you have heard one thing that you think is wrong and before you can hear or understand your partner’s message you have stopped listening so you can respond to that one thing. I hope this post will help you understand a bit more about these two roles and teach you a simple technique for starting difficult conversations with your partner. Know that the information here isn’t magic, it takes practice and other skills before you can be a good communicator in your relationships.
Especially when starting difficult conversations or those that have high potential for conflict, the speaker should work to talk about themselves; how they feel, the problem and their needs while being polite. It is also important to work on communicating from a relaxed position rather than one of frustration. Consider this, when you are frustrated about something in your relationship and you confront your partner about it, you are likely going to do this from a stance that feels like an attack to your partner. If you were to put yourself in that position and ask yourself, how you would feel about being criticized, you might think differently about what you are about to or have already said to your partner. This is a common problem that often occurs in relationships; criticizing our partner instead of the problem. You may be asking’ What’s the difference?” There is actually a big difference between criticizing your partner and complaining about a problem. In criticizing your partner, you are attacking who they are as a person. But when you complain about a problem in the correct way, you are inviting your partner to help correct it. The Gottmans clarified the I Feel…About What…I Need rules for starting up difficult conversations. Many couples learn to talk about how they feel and appropriately complain about the problem but often fail to discuss what they need from their partner; leaving their partner to mindread or make assumptions, often perpetuating or creating new problems.
While the speaker is speaking, the listener should focus on listening. I often tell my clients to listen for understanding instead of responding. This is what we call active listening. So after your partner has stated how they feel about a problem and what they need, the listener speaks but from the stance of the listener. What this means is that they are trying to clarify what their partner is saying by asking appropriate questions. Many couples would probably find many difficult conversations less so if they embrace their appropriate roles. Mental health providers that work with couples and families would agree that one of the major problems in communication is failing to realize that there are multiple valid perspectives for any given situation. What do you see in this image?
Some of you no doubt see a duck; others of you see a rabbit. Those of you who can see both have at least some understanding that there can exist two valid truths at the same time. Failing to realize when you are upset about something, your partner can be upset too but have a completely different perspective on what the problem is. It is so important for the listener to work on seeing their partner’s perspective on the issue. As you engage in active listening, ask questions that help you see the problem from a different angle. You may be seeing the problem as a rabbit while your partner is seeing the problem as a duck. Work to see it from their perspective.
- Use your words to complain about a problem
- Take responsibility for your self
- Show empathy
- Listen for understanding not responding
- Stay in your lane
- Don’t mind read; clarify what your partner is saying
- See the complexity of the problem