“We need to communicate better.” This is the most commonly uttered phrase I hear couples use at the start of couples counseling. “Can you give us some tools?” typically follows. It’s so frustrating to feel that you’re being a wonderfully clear communicator. You tell your partner exactly why you’re upset – sometimes even using creative tactics like raising your voice, using colorful language, making threats, imposing a guilt trip – to be completely sure you’ll get your point across. But nothing changes.
Well, when I hear couples say that they need to communicate better my mind performs a quick translation to “We need to listen better.” As the image to the left says, good communication starts with good listening. Without a doubt, listening is the most effective communication tool around. Sounds easy, right? If only……
To be an effective listener we need to strengthen active listening skills. This means developing helpful attitudes and behaviors. First, we need to cultivate patience. We’re so ready to get our point across that we either interrupt or, equally bad, tune out our partner while we prepare our defense and counter-attack. But good communication is a game of taking turns. You speak your peace, I’ll listen very carefully to what you have to say, and I’ll speak mine. Sometimes the most childish methods can be the most effective. Remember the “Talking Stick” used in kindergarten to show whose turn it is to speak? Even adults can do well to remember this simple maneuver.
Second, active listening involves developing one’s empathy. Most people seem to have this implicit belief that empathy is something we’re born with, kind of like whether we’re brown haired or blue eyed. This is a misunderstanding that contributes to excuse making for being a poor relationship partner. We can develop our empathy by learning to listen better without judgment. It’s really as simple as this: (1) assume that your partner is a sane, competent person who is trying their best to solve a problem; (2) imagine yourself as them, as though you had exactly the same information and experiences your partner has. It’s hard not to imagine, then, that your partner is making complete sense coming from their point of view.
Third, active listening includes validation. For example, you can say “If I’m hearing you correctly, you feel ________ because _________. I can understand how you would feel that way.” (For more information on how to structure your statements please read the excellent article “People Don’t Talk Like That!” by my colleague Andy Anderson.) This last step doesn’t mean you have to agree with your partner’s perspective but, rather, simply acknowledge that it makes sense given their experience(s). Make sure your partner verifies that you have heard them and understood. It is only at this point can you move into discussion of your concerns.
To wrap up, if there’s one major way all of us can improve our communication it’s to talk less and listen more. You’ll be amazed at the results!