All close relationships rely on clear and effective communication. Learning how to listen attentively and express yourself is essential if you want to build trust and intimacy with your loved ones. When your emotions and values are expressed openly and directly, you’re much more likely to be understood. Even when there is conflict, allowing each other to express your emotions with empathy improves your chances of having your needs met.
Confusion often arises when you believe you’re communicating one thing, such as a logical argument, but are actually communicating another, such as intense emotions. It may be that you communicate in an aggressive or disconnected way that leads to misunderstanding. Whilst you overwhelm and threaten each other, or shut-down and withdraw, this does not encourage trust or acceptance. No matter how convincing your opinions or arguments seem to be, they may not be understood at an emotional level.
The six elements to effective communication in relationships
Attentive listening – often your instinct may be ‘to talk’ before you listen. Or, when you listen, you do so in a defensive way that’s aimed at deconstructing the other person’s argument. You may begin looking for evidence to justify your position with so-called rational arguments. I once had a client who told me: ‘he doesn’t listen, he just waits for an opportunity to make his next point’.
Give each other a chance to express your opinions, while being listened to with respect. Seek to understand each other’s emotions rather than preparing for your next defence. When it’s your turn, try to listen non-defensively and put aside your own opinions, thoughts, and conclusions. Wait until you’ve heard what your partner is saying and try not to interrupt. Take it in turns to speak and let your partner finish what he or she is saying. You won’t be more convincing by talking over them.
If this feels restrictive and you typically interrupt, take a step back and breathe, reminding yourself to keep quiet. Then, indicate when you want to speak with a non-threatening gesture, as well as standing down occasionally to let your partner make an intervention.
It may be difficult to believe, but showing your partner understanding and acceptance is much more likely to encourage them to listen to you than convincing them of your point of view. Being ‘right’ only shames or angers your partner even more.
Communication needs to be clear – however much you believe your partner understands you, they are not a mind reader. Making your point means expressing yourself clearly, being specific and owning your own emotions. It does not mean making demands, or blaming your partner for your problems. You cannot punish a loved one for not knowing what you want, unless you’re assertive enough to express your needs. Playing guessing games, leaving your partner to read between the lines, or ‘winning the argument’ is passive aggressive and will not create trust.
Communication needs to be effective – sometimes less is more. You don’t have to justify everything with a complicated explanation to get your point across. Sometimes people believe that constructing a credible logical argument is an effective way of communicating, but when you focus only on meaning, it may be at the expense of emotions, which remain unaddressed between you.
Communication may be clear or vague, open or guarded – it can even be verbal or non-verbal – but there’s no such thing as not communicating. Whatever you say or don’t say will be picked up by your partner. If you want them to understand you, it’s better to communicate in a way that’s sufficient for your needs, and not try to get all of your demands met at once.
Try to remain emotionally regulated – the more you give yourself space and time to slow down, the more you pay attention to your emotions. Keeping emotions in check is not about hiding them. Emotions form the most essential part of communication if you’re trying to elicit empathy and trust. But once communication becomes about ‘winning-and-losing’, you set up transactions that seek to assert your needs at the expense of your partner, and this can come across as controlling.
Scoring points, justifying your behaviour and disowning feelings will not help you build trust. When empathy, compromise and intimacy is severely lacking, it’s easy for couples to oppose each other at every turn. This creates a cycle of proving who is right and wrong. Keeping lists of grievances and falling into entrenched positions may give you a sense of power, but it doesn’t lead to loving kindness.
However, when you show your partner you respect their emotions, you can feel confident that what you say is being heard. In fact, nearly everything you do in relationships communicates some kind of emotional content. Your body language, voice tone, facial expressions and level of attention always indicate your emotional engagement to a perceptive listener.
Assert your personal boundaries and respect those of your partner. This means acknowledging your own needs and expressing them openly, but not demanding your partner change their behaviour to accommodate you. Whilst it’s essential to share a mutually satisfying relationship and a willingness to compromise, that doesn’t mean agreeing to things that undermine your freedom and independence.
You can show your partner you’re willing to be flexible in your approach, without feeling controlled, coerced or manipulated. Do not agree to things that deny you freedom of choice. However close you are, everyone needs their own space and solitude to grow. You only thrive as a person when you look after your own interests, not when you comply with other people’s demands. This will only lead to fear, resentment, and anger.
Intimacy is based as much on your ability to tolerate freedom and independence as it is to enjoy closeness and affection. Without autonomy, you will feel suffocated and powerless. You must exercise freedom of choice as a mature adult, not defer to your partner.
Engaging in non-violent conflict is a necessary condition of asserting your personal boundaries, maintaining independence, and addressing unresolved issues. Everyone needs to participate in conflict at times, even if you’re afraid and normally avoid confronting each other. A degree of conflict is healthy in order for a relationship to grow and adapt as your circumstances change, even when you argue.
Bottled up feelings need to be expressed, but they need to be expressed in a manageable way, by acknowledging your feelings early on. Try not to let frustration, anger and resentment build-up; or sit on feelings until you erupt. This is more likely to lead to ‘acting out’ with abuse and violence in relationships.
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