Communication is the cornerstone of any human relationship and one of the best indicators of a couple’s longevity. Communication between two partners, however, can often be problematic! It’s no wonder that it’s the most frequent reason for couples to seek out therapy.
1/ Know Yourself Well
To communicate effectively, we must first know ourselves and be able to distinguish our various emotions, needs, and what gives us a sense of fulfillment. This is a real challenge for some people.
Some have learned to be there for others from an early age, but haven’t learned to pay close attention to what they themselves are feeling inside. As a result, these people know very little about themselves and may feel guilty about expressing their needs or embarrassed to show their emotions. So don’t be too hard on yourself and learn to be patient: Knowing yourself and opening up to others is a lifetime’s work. You might want to seek outside help from a professional.
2/ Identify Communication Barriers
If you want to clear the obstacles to better communicate, you must first be aware of them. Are you finding it difficult to open up to your partner? If so, ask yourself why. You probably have biases that get in the way of expressing your emotions. For example, some individuals believe they’ll become violent if they express their anger, while others assume that they’ll be perceived as weak if they express sadness.
You may also have fears about revealing yourself. Are you afraid of being dismissed or judged? Afraid of upsetting your partner? That they won’t take you seriously? Or worse, that they’ll use what you tell them as leverage?
Usually, you can ease these fears by sharing them with the other person in a calm and respectful way. Your partner should also become more attentive in the future to encourage you to open up.
3/ Know Your Communication Style
We all have our own way of communicating, and styles differ from one person to another. Some people are more impulsive and act as if they have no filters. They may appear scattered or even confused. Others are analytical and take time to weigh each word.
There are also those who express themselves more intensely, while others are more reserved. Whatever your style is, the important thing is to be aware of it and not to judge yourself. Each style has its strengths and weaknesses. An open-minded attitude will help you accept the other person’s style.
4/ Ask Yourself Some Questions before Starting a Discussion
If you have a sensitive topic to discuss with your partner, ask yourself how you feel beforehand. If you’re stressed, worried, or angry, it may not be the right time to start a serious discussion.
When you’re furious, for example, you risk misinterpreting or misreading the other person’s reactions. You might communicate with a regrettable lack of tact and say hurtful things that don’t represent what you actually think of your partner. It’s also important to identify your intentions. Do you simply want to share what you’re experiencing? Convince at all costs? Do you want to get back at them for hurting you?
Sometimes our intentions turn out to be less noble than we’d like to think. If that’s the case, it’s better to leave the discussion for a later time.
5/ State the Type of Listening You’re Looking For
Before the discussion, make it clear to your partner what type of listening you’re looking for. Do you want them to support or comfort you? Are you looking for their opinion on a matter? Are you looking for advice or solutions? Or maybe you just want to be heard?
State your expectations so that your partner can respond as adequately as possible to the listening style you’re looking for. Don’t expect them to guess. In fact, arguments in relationships often arise from the fact that men tend to offer solutions to their partners, rather than showing them compassion.
6/ Assign Roles
People rarely do this, and yet there are many advantages to assigning roles at the beginning of a conversation. Determine who will be the person who is speaking and who is listening. Often, people mix roles in the same discussion so that no one is really listening to one another anymore. What was supposed to be a discussion looks more like a monologue.
7/ Setting the Stage
Before you get to the heart of the matter, let your partner know that you have something to tell them. If it’s a delicate matter, start with reassuring them of your intentions.
Tell them you don’t want to hurt them or assign blame. Your partner will be more willing to listen to you if they let down their defenses.
8/ Watch For Nonverbal Cues
People sometimes react more to nonverbal cues than to words. Body language—eye contact, your listening posture, gestures—they all send messages. If you roll your eyes and stomp your foot while the other person is talking to you, the discussion is likely to get heated. Tone is also important. If you’re asking your partner to be more romantic in an angry tone, it will come off sounding more like blame than a request.
9/ Learn to Listen
Look your partner in the eye when they’re speaking to you, letting them know that you’re actively listening. Ask them to clarify their thoughts occasionally and summarize what they say to make sure you understood.
Try to put yourself in their shoes to better understand how they feel. Accept that your partner can see things differently from you, and refrain from making a negative judgment about their opinions, feelings, or needs. Also, avoid defending and justifying yourself, making the conversation about you, trivializing, or wanting to set the record straight. Make sure your partner feels heard before you respond to what they’re saying to you.
A person who doesn’t feel understood, and instead feels criticized or dismissed, will hardly be receptive to your point of view, no matter what your arguments are. Moreover, the more you try to convince your partner of your point of view, the more they will be resistant or resort to mirroring your behavior.
10/ Learn to Communicate
When you speak, make sure that the other person will listen to you as you want them to. But also accept that your partner may not be able to and ask to postpone the discussion.
Choose a time and place where you won’t be disturbed. Try to talk about yourself, your needs, how you feel, rather than blaming the other person. It’s better to stay on topic, so you don’t lose the interest of your significant other. Also, avoid repeating yourself and giving endless speeches. From time to time, ask your partner to summarize what you have said to make sure he or she has understood you.
If you have a criticism, talk about the behavior that bothers you, rather than your partner’s personality. Approach issues in terms of differences, and avoid implying insincere intentions (e.g., “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t do that”). And finally, thank your partner for the efforts they’re making to understand you.
11/ Defuse a Discussion That Is Getting Out of Hand
When tensions rise and the discussion turns into insults, one of you should suggest a break, as gently as possible, without putting the onus on the other (avoid saying things like “I can’t get anything through to you!”). Instead, say that you don’t seem able to make yourself clear. Own it by saying that you’re not feeling well enough to continue, that you prefer to stop and continue the discussion later.
It’s up to the partner suggesting a break to determine when to resume; otherwise, it might appear like an attempt to escape. Be on your own, but without brooding. Self-soothe by doing some reading, watching a movie, or taking a walk. The important thing is to reduce the tension. Once you’ve calmed down, try to figure out what went wrong. What needs did you want to express? Did you express them clearly? Were you constantly interrupting your partner? If you feel you’re at fault, go to your partner and apologize. It takes a lot of humility, but an apology will go a long way in lowering your partner’s defenses.
12/ Know the Key Principles of Good Communication
Beyond communication techniques, it’s crucial to keep some principles in mind. Good communication requires an open mind and a genuine interest in the other person. This requires respect, compassion, empathy (the ability to understand the other person’s point of view), and sympathy (the ability to be touched by what the other says or feels).
Accepting that your partner is their own person with feelings and needs that are different from your own is a profound gesture of love.
DR. FRANÇOIS ST PÈRE, Psychologist and Family Mediator, Dr. François St Père is a psychologist who specializes in couple therapy and family mediation. He has been practicing in a private clinic for 20 years and is co-founder of the Clinique de psychologie St-Lambert. He is also the author of the books L’infidélité – Un traumatisme surmontable (Éditions de l’Homme, 2012) and Le burnout amoureux (Éditions de l’Homme, 2015). In addition to giving lectures on male-female relations and training speakers, he is regularly invited to speak on various aspects of a couple’s life in the media. Finally, he has taught at the Université de Montréal and collaborated in the implementation and development of various research projects on the effectiveness of conjugal therapy.