Couples come to therapy for several reasons, but more than 95 percent of my clients list poor communication as a significant problem in their relationship. Here are five recommendations for improving communication:
1. Find a good time to talk.
Frequently a client will start a conversation with their partner when the partner is tired, anger or just having a bad day. However, beginning a serious conversation at that time is counterproductive because with patience and understanding at a minimum, you are unlikely to get the results that you want. If your partner is already emotional or stressed, adding additional pressure will not create a good outcome, and instead can create a more hostile environment. Starting an important conversation when someone is falling asleep or leaving for work is not recommended either. You want to choose a time when you can both contribute the necessary time and patience needed to discuss and resolve an issue.
2. Stay on one topic at a time.
Couples often use the “clean out the closets” model of communicating, meaning that everything that has been piling up for the past few weeks gets thrown into the conversation. A number of issues come up, emotions run high, but nothing gets settled. The conversation becomes a contest to see who can come up with the most complaints. If your goal is to resolve an issue, focus on one issue at a time. If another issue comes up, put it aside to discuss at a later time.
3. Body language is important.
Do you remember when you were little and your mother had you apologize to your sister for hitting her? You said, “I’m sorry,” but the smirk on your face told her you thought she deserved it. As adults, we still do that. If you tell your partner you are interested in what they are saying, but you are playing with your phone while they are speaking, you are giving them an inconsistent message. When there is a conflict between your words and your body language, people tend to trust the body language. To have a productive discussion try sitting face to face and make eye contact so that the message is “I care about what you have to say.”
4. Summarize what you have heard.
Even when we hear the same words, we interpret them through our own unique filters based on family history, personal experiences, etc. Make sure you understand what your partner is saying by summarizing what you have heard in your own words. Give your partner the opportunity to clarify or elaborate on anything that isn’t clear. This helps keep miscommunication to a minimum.
5. End the conversation on a positive note.
Communication is an attempt to connect and share a little of each other’s world. Thank your partner for engaging in the conversation and sharing his or her thoughts even if the conversation was difficult or heated. While, it can be frustrating at times, as social beings we have a need to connect with the people we love, and good communication is the first step.
Paula Levy, MA, LMFT is an experienced therapist, mediator and parenting coordinator with offices in Westport and Ridgefield, Connecticut. She can be reached at email@example.com or 203-803-9387.