Actionable Tips for Improving Communication.

  1. Learn to calm yourself down early and often

In moments where we feel very passionately about something, be it a problem, an idea, an experience, or belief, the intensity of our emotions can make it challenging to communicate effectively. Increase your emotional intelligence skills to ensure you do not become emotionally overwhelmed and lash out at your partner in moments of intensity, such as when there is a disagreement or argument.

Remember it is okay to take “time outs” (research by Gottman) when this happens and the situation becomes too emotionally charged. Take time to reset and try again when you feel more clear minded, resolution focused, and have tended to your feelings (smartcouples.com)

2. Learn to be an effective complainer

Often when we complain, we are just trying to express unmet needs and wants, but are doing so in an ineffective and indirect way.

Complaining will eventually drive couples apart, as being around someone with a negative attitude is no fun, and if they are complaining about us, it makes us feel inadequate and resentful.

Learn to use “I” statements and ask for exactly what you want. Again, it can take emotional awareness to understand in the moment that when you are complaining about a partner doing something/not doing something, there is something else going on. For example, complaining that your partner does not help with the dishes makes you feel unsupported and takes away from your leisure time, or time that you could spend with your partner. “I would feel really supported if you helped me wash the dishes,” expresses your needs in a direct, positive way and takes ownership for what you want. You could go on to say “I also want to spend more time together, as I really value connecting with you. When you assist with chores, I have more time and mental energy to take care of myself and to have fun with you.”

3. Learn to be less defensive

When a partner offers us feedback, sometimes our gut reaction is to get defensive. For example, 

Partner A: “Could you please stop leaving your dirty dishes in the sink overnight?”

Partner B: “Well, you always leave your clothes on the floor!”

While the clothes on the floor is not relevant to the dishes in the sink, Partner B clearly felt triggered by a request for a behavior change. They avoided responsibility for fulfilling this request by trying to invalidate it. 

This finger pointing is ineffective and makes partners feel unsafe to ask for changes in attitudes or behavior that are important to them. While unintentional, this defensiveness communicates the idea that “I don’t care about your needs,” or “I don’t see your requests as valid,” which is very damaging to a relationship overtime

You can work on being less defensive by assuming good intentions. Trust that your partner would not have asked for a behavior change if it were not important to them, and if they did not feel it would benefit the relationship. This is something you could even say outloud in response to your partner to help engrain the attitude. For example:

Partner A: “Could you please stop leaving your dirty dishes in the sink overnight?”

Partner B: “I did not realize that this bothered you. Because it is clearly important to you, I will make sure I wash my dishes before bed. Anything that benefits you will benefit us.”

4. Avoid “All-or-Nothing” thinking

When a partner gives you feedback, avoid making up a larger story about what they said.

We can fall into the trap of making up an entire story in our heads about a single comment, and then react in an explosive, exaggerated way based off of the mental story we are telling ourselves. 

 For example:

Partner A: “Could you please work on your anger?” 

Partner B: [mental story] They are so ungrateful and clearly do not see all of the amazing things I do for them, like washing the dishes, making the bed, or planning dates.

Partner B: “You always ask me for more! Can’t you see all that I do for you? I can’t be the perfect partner!” 

The comment from partner A triggered feelings of inadequacy in Partner B. The story partner B made up in their head in response to Partner A’s comment then affirmed their feelings of invalidation, but exaggerated the source and applied them to all aspects of themselves as a partner. Partner B then lashed out with blame and anger.

Avoid all or nothing thinking when a partner gives you feedback. Focus specifically on the thing they told you they want you to work on, and make sure you are aware if your feelings are painting a distorted picture of the situation. Remember that your partner is not asking you to be “perfect.” Take the feedback for what it is, and remember: a good partner is one who cares enough about you as a person to show you the ways in which you could grow. If they are a supportive partner, they will help you make changes, and be compassionate while you learn.

Tip: Work to address underlying feelings of insecurity and inadequacy so you can accept feedback without feeling like your value as a person or partner is being attacked.

5. Be validating

Examples of invalidating a partner:

“I do not understand why you feel this way”

“That’s not how I see it”

“You should…”

These statements put your own thoughts, feelings, and expectations  above those of your partner, and can make your partner feel unsupported. Additionally, when someone is repeatedly invalidated, they may learn that it is not safe to share their feelings, because whenever they do, they are told they are “wrong.” It is important to hold space for their emotions and thoughts. The best way to do that is to practice listening and maintaining a curious mindset. Make your goal to understand them, not direct their actions or ideas, change their mind, or get them to agree with you.

Tip: When a partner is expressing their thoughts and feelings, even if you do not understand and agree with what they are saying, try responding with something like, “I hear you,” or “I can see that this is important to you, and I want to understand better so I can support you. Could you help me understand where this feeling is coming from?”