Clear communication – the key to any great relationship

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

How often have you heard that the key to a successful relationship is good communication? Or that for things to improve in your relationship you “just need to communicate better”? Whenever I read comments like these, I wonder how many people really know what ‘good communication’ means.

Good communication relies on a complex interrelationship between the sender, the receiver, the content and the method. When all goes well with communication, we feel connected and understood. When communication goes wrong and we miss the point or have our point missed, we feel upset and annoyed. When it happens regularly, we become fearful, lonely and sad.

The good news is that communication is a set of skills. We can all learn them! I know this is very simple, but let’s start with the basics:

The sender is the person who has a message to convey. This message might be simple (“I like your hair”) or more complex (“I’m grumpy when you come home from work lately because I feel worried and insecure and am not sure if you love me any more – especially since I don’t feel very confident in the way I am looking and how I am managing to keep on top of my own work load…”) The sender needs to be clear on what the message is that they want to send.

Obviously, the receiver is the person receiving the message. The content is what the message is. The method is how it is communicated.

Sometimes we communicate our message with words, other times with actions or behaviours. ‘The silent treatment’ is a very common communication method that relies on behaviours rather than words to carry the message “I’m not happy with you”. More positive communication methods that rely on behaviours rather than words are: making eye contact when someone is talking (“I’m interested”) or gently touching someone while they are upset (“I care about your feelings”).

Tips for communicating well when you are the sender:

  • Spend some time thinking through the essence of the message you want your partner to get from you. You might find it helpful to talk through things with a trusted friend first, or do some private writing to clarify your thinking.
  • Choose one message at a time to communicate to your partner. This is really important if the two of you don't have a great track record of communicating well. Ask yourself "if my partner could only hear one sentence from me today, what would it be?" If all goes well, resist the temptation to bring up other topics that day.
  • Once your partner has let you know they have heard your message, stop talking (at least for now). Sometimes we can be so hurt by past experiences of not being heard or understood, that we either don't seem to recognise when that changes (and talk blindly on) or feel so relieved to finally be heard that we want to share everything all at once.
  • Be aware of your feelings but try not to get too distracted by them. Many people feel anxious or angry or scared when really opening up - notice this but keep going with whatever your message is.
  • Think beforehand about how you want to communicate the message and practice your posture and tone (probably when no one is looking is best..!)
  • Have a think about your own communication style and try to do a realistic assessment of your skills and weaknesses. Can you think of a time you got your message across well (either at work, home or in friendships?) Why do you think this was? Can you think of anyone else you know who communicates well? What is it about their communication that made it work? Where are your areas for improvement and how can you do this?

Tips for communicating well when you are the receiver:

  • First and foremost, listen to your partner. This sounds so simple and yet is so hard when you disagree with what your partner is saying and/or emotions are running high. You must get all the information and really understand what your partner's message is. Think of it as collecting pieces of information and try to keep it impersonal (at least until you understand their main point!)
  • Control your own thinking so you can just listen - don't let your thoughts race ahead as you try to formulate your own argument or side of the story. There will be time for this later if needed.
  • Don't interrupt unless it is to seek clarification in a straightforward way. For example, "hold on, are you saying that you think that I didn't help you because I don't love you?" and wait for the answer.
  • Be aware of your own feelings as they happen, but try not to get too caught up in them.
  • Try to see beyond an imperfect method of communication and work with your partner to get to what the content is. Sometimes people get too caught up in wanting the other person to get it exactly right before they will listen. You can say "please lower your voice" while still trying to hear the message. Refusing to listen because you don't like someone's tone or voice level can shut the conversation down altogether.
  • Work at being a patient listener who is curious about your partner's message.
  • Let your partner know when you have heard and understood them. Repeating what they have said can help if the message is complicated or particularly emotionally charged.

Communication tips for both of you:

  • Be clear if you are talking about your thoughts ("I think that you would rather spend time with others than me") or your feelings ("I feel sad and jealous"). What you think is the sense you have made of something. It's not always correct, sometimes makes little sense to others and can be changed with more information. What you feel cannot be wrong and other people can usually understand our feelings when we explain them. Try keeping events (what happened), thoughts and feelings separate in your head and conversation. Here's an example: "when you didn't ask about my exam I thought you weren't interested in my studies and felt hurt and sad". (By the way, I know that this seems like a really fake way to talk. That's because it's so simple and blunt and we're not used to being so straightforward. It's worth persisting and practising with this way of talking. I often tell my clients to try to make a bit of joke of it and blame me for it, by saying something like "well Angie would want me to say..." and then go on with their statement about events, thoughts and feelings. This adds some humour to the conversation while still getting the main messages across. You could also say "I'm trying a new style of communication and here goes..."
  • Set aside some time each week (or each time your partner is home if you are a FIFO family) for communication. It doesn't have to be long (10 mins each is often all that is needed) and use this time to practice talking and listening.
  • Stick to the topic at hand. Don't generalise the argument or bring in other issues at this time.
  • Seek professional help if there is a big, seemingly unsolvable issue that keeps coming up.

A good book for for improving communication in your relationship is Communication Miracles for Couples by Jonathan Ross. Good luck!

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