Communication is essential for a healthy and thriving relationship – both quantity and the quality. Finding time to talk and listen is one thing, but if you miss some important skills of expressing yourself and listening, then you can sometimes cause more harm than good.
Contrary to the popular epithet that ‘Sticks and Stones can break my bones – Words can never hurt me’, I believe words can and do hurt. The closer we are to each other, the better we know about things that triggers the other. When we ourselves are upset or angry then it can be so easy to use these triggers to provoke our loved ones. Improving our awareness and skill of communication can help manage this.
We work with an approach called Nonviolent Communication (NVC) developed by Marshall Rosenberg. We find NVC invaluable in helping us talk about difficult or sensitive topics, avoid some conflicts and more easily navigate the ones we don’t manage to avoid. The main advantage, though, is we find it super helpful in keeping us more connected beyond the day to stuff we need to talk about.
Here are 5 tips to help enhance the quality of your communication:
1. Stick to the Present
The more you can keep in the present the more likely you are to stay connected. Going back over old stories and mistakes can’t change what happened but can easily restimulate you both. On the other hand, focusing on hypothetical future scenarios is not a good use of energy.
What is going on right now? Staying present means also bringing presence and focus. You will respond better to each other when your attention is here and now.
2. Own your Story
We are constantly experiencing objective reality and making subjective sense of it. In other words, stuff happens and we make up stories about it. The stories may be accurate from time to time but there is a better way to relate to your partner. For sure it is not through your interpretations and evaluations.
Let’s take a simple example.
You see your partner’s dirty clothes on the bedroom floor.
Maybe you make a judgemental story – they are careless, untidy, irresponsible. Maybe your story is an evaluation – they are bad or naughty. Maybe an interpretation – they want to make a point about you not doing the laundry or they know how much I get upset about this and are doing it to provoke me.
Our stories are limited only by our creativity. This is fine if we can recognise this. When we start to believe our thoughts we may then tell the other what they did, why they did it and what kind of person they are. None of these judgemental words are likely to bring your partner closer to you. They are much more likely to drive a wedge between you.
If you want to talk about it, try sticking to the observable facts.
2. Own your feelings
You may have grown up believing that emotions and feelings are a sign of weakness or a form of some pathology. Or maybe you grew up believing other people cause you to feel a particular way.
If either of these are true for you then it is a pity because you are losing an important source of inner power. Feelings are signals given by your organism that something is going on that needs attention. They complement and work together with your 5 senses giving you clues about whether to run away, stay very still, fight, celebrate or some other suitable response.
If you supress feelings, you also supress the power in them. If you believe someone else is making you mad, upset or happy then you give some of your power away to them.
When you see the clothes on the floor and supress your irritation (if that is what you feel) then you may not speak up and rather let it go – building resentment. Or if you believe your irritation is caused by whoever left them there, then that will lead you to speak up in a way likely to disconnect you.
Your feelings are yours. They are shaped by many things, but owning them gives you access to their power and a chance to look closer at what is going on.
4. Why is it Important to You?
What is most important to you in the situation? What are your needs? When you can find and communicate the need behind your reaction then it makes it much easier for the other to connect to you. They have the same needs – maybe not exactly in this situation but they can easily relate to these fundamentals.
With the clothes on the floor maybe your need is support? Respect? Care? Cleanliness? Co-operation? Beauty? Using your time in a meaningful way?
Once you can look deeper to these fundamental qualities of life then it is easier to see many ways they can be taken care of. So when I can understand my reaction to the dirty clothes on the floor is about support then I can pretty quickly find ways that need can be taken care of such as asking for the clothes to be taken to the washing machine, or assistance in some other household tasks or employing someone to take care of laundry. If the need is using your time meaningfully then I imagine ignoring the clothes and doing something else might be a good strategy.
5. Ask for what you Want
When I’m more in contact with the need I can more easily see what I might ask for (please put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket …).
Notice this is much clearer and less open to ambiguity than, for example, ‘Stop throwing your dirty clothes on the floor’ which invites the perpetrator to throw their clothes in a range of other places such as on the bed, on the top of the wardrobe or out of the window.
Or if I ask, ‘I want you to be tidier’ … it is rather too vague and non-specific for the other to know that the clothes on the floor are your current source of misery. They may take it as a request to go brush their hair.
I also want to pay attention to how attached I am to hearing ‘Yes’ to my specific request. The more attached I am … the more demanding I am. And when I demand I invite either submission or rebellion. Submission might give the appearance of success but is it really what I want in my relationship? After all, those who submit usually find ways to pay me back later in some way.
Of course, there are other topics much more stimulating and sources of potential pain than some clothes left on the floor. But these principles will support your connection in any situation. In summary:
- Stay in the moment
- Replace judgemental with observational language
- Take responsibility for your feelings – and the power they contain
- Discover what is really important to you in each situation
- Ask clearly for what you want without demands.
As communication is one of the Pillars of a Successful Relationship, I plan to explore these ideas (and more) in greater depth in future articles.