6 Powerful Communication Tools for Satisfying Relationships

If you're married or dating, these tools will help you overcome negative cycles.

Posted Aug 12, 2019

Crew/Unsplash
Source: Crew/Unsplash

The couples that I see in my practice often come in for the same types of problems. Their communication has broken down, or they are stuck in negative cycles of escalating conflict rather than resolving it.

Most of us didn’t learn healthy ways of communicating and resolving conflict in our families. Some families never talk about problems, while others might be explosive. We bring these styles into our relationships thinking they are normal and then feel sad and angry when they engender a negative response.

What couples need are tools and skills to help them communicate. Below are six strategies that I teach my clients.

1. Focus on what you do want, not what you don’t

Many couples talk about what they don’t want their partner to do. This may be your first instinct because the brain has a negative bias. We are automatically drawn to focus more on the negative than the positive because avoiding danger is more important to survival than enjoying sunsets. The problem is that focusing on the negative tends to make your partner feel attacked or helpless to do anything because they can’t change the past. It is better to focus mainly on what you want moving forward.

What do you want your partner to do or say that could better meet your needs or help you to feel closer to them? Perhaps you want them to be a better listener, to be more romantic, to do more chores around the house, or to appreciate you more. Whatever it is, state your request clearly without bringing up all the times they failed to meet that need in the past. Too much focus on past mistakes is likely to invoke a defensive response which gets in the way of getting what you want.

2. Explain why you want the behavior change

Most people don’t like to be told what to do or told that what they are currently doing is not good enough. Therefore, many partners may argue with you when you ask them to change. Or worse still, they may respond defensively and say, “Why don’t you change?” Or something similar. When you explain why you are asking for this change, this helps your partner get a better understanding of what the underlying needs are. For example, you may want more security, more companionship, more help, or more affection.

Most of us expect our partners to guess our needs without us telling them. But it’s not fair to expect our partners to be mind-readers. When you relate requests for change to underlying needs, this is more likely to evoke empathy in your partner. It’s even better if you can explain where the need came from. For example, you may say that you were left alone a lot as a child, and therefore time spent together is very important to you.

3. Use a soft start-up

Many of us initiate conversations with our partners when we are already feeling emotionally dysregulated. Perhaps you have been ruminating all day about your partner never organizing a date night or not helping you out more with chores. By the time your partner comes home, your resentment has built to a crescendo, and you really let them have it. When we do this it’s likely our partners will feel attacked, get emotionally flooded, and counter-attack or shut down.

Research with couples by John Gottman and colleagues suggest that using a “soft start-up” to address a difficult issue can result in a more satisfying relationship down the road. So if you have something critical to say, sandwich it between some comments about what your partner has been doing right. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements, and try to describe the facts without too much judgment or criticism.

You could also empathize with your partner’s feelings or needs. You might say: “I know this is difficult for you with all you have going on,” or “I know you have been trying to change, and you want me to see that,” and then continue with the negative feedback or request for new behavior.

4. Be mindful of going down a negative path

Many of us start conversations with our partners with good intentions but then end up veering down a negative path when our partners act defensively or stonewall us. It is important to keep in mind the maxim, “Above all, do no harm.” If you find yourself shouting and getting angry, or you start seeing your partner as the enemy, it’s best to take a break before continuing.

Ground yourself by slowing down your breathing and your pace of speaking, describing to yourself things you see in the room, or focusing on all the places your body is touching the chair. This sensory focus is calming to the mind and can help you get your emotions under control before you get caught up in a destructive cycle. You may also want to go and get a drink of water or step outside for a few minutes. If you are really wound up, it may take as long as 20 minutes to calm down.

5. Find out if your partner needs empathy or advice

When our partners have a problem, the temptation is to go into “fix-it” mode where we start giving them advice or trying to solve the problem for them. This is fine if your partner actually wants advice, but many times your partner just wants to vent and be understood. In these situations, they are likely to reject your advice or get irritated if you focus on what they can do differently. This is because they may take your advice as criticism that they are not doing enough or that what they are doing is not good enough.

When we face problems in life, we turn to our partners for emotional support and to help us feel better so we can go back out there. Your partner may well know how to solve their own problems if they can get grounded and emotionally regulated with your emotional support and encouragement.

6. Cut the blame game

When things go wrong, and you face difficult times, try not to focus on blaming yourselves or each other. Being blamed makes us defensive, and most problems have multiple causes, not just one. We or our partners may not have had access to all the information then that we have now. Using judgmental language, like “You messed up,” or “I told you not to do that,” makes people feel inadequate and engenders shame that may make them withdraw from you. 

Rather focus on what you can both do now to solve the problem, and what you both might do differently next time. Even if you are correct that they should have listened to you, the cost of being “right” may be alienating your partner or making them feel put down and controlled.

When you use these communication tools your partner will begin to see you as supportive rather than as a threat. You get to state your needs in ways that help you be heard and make sure your responses match your partner’s needs as well. Defensiveness should go down, and marital satisfaction is likely to go up. You will finally be able to get free of your negative cycles!

It’s important to have patience, though. It takes a lot of practice to learn and effectively use these skills, especially when you are feeling under threat.

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