Communication is important in all spheres of our lives, but in our closest relationships, good communication is both incredibly important, and incredibly likely to go awry. Often called one of the biggest indicators of whether or not a relationship will succeed over the long term, building the skills for great communication may be one of the most important things you can do to help your relationship survive.
While many of these suggestions may also help with work relationships and other interpersonal relationships, let's focus for today on intimate relationships and friendships.
Any article on good communication will tell you to start by learning to listen, and Psychology Today's excellent list of suggestions is no different. To be able to really talk to someone, resolve difficulties, and help them understand your point of view, you need to first be able to hear what they're saying.
Aldo Civico suggests that all conflict can be traced to a breakdown in communication. If we could perfectly understand each other, he suggests, we would never have conflict with each other. To resolve conflict with those important to us, Civico says that we need to change the dynamic of communication. He says that the first and most important step is learning how to deeply listen.
Dr. John Gottman from the University of Washington is an expert on studying the relationship between couples. He wrote in Psychology Today regarding the importance of good communication in our relationships. One key question he thought all couples should ask was whether their partner's communication lifted them up or brought them down.
This isn't to suggest that happy couples always compliment each other and never engage with each other regarding conflict or negative behavior. But there are ways of discussing conflict and unpleasant item that center the behavior instead of the person, and work to create positive change. For example, if a person was in conflict with a roommate because they always left their dirty cereal bowl in the sink, there are many ways to start a conversation about the cereal bowl. You might say, "Why do you always leave your dirty bowl in the sink for me to pick up?" but the odds are that this will just start a fight. The roommate might feel defensive, and argue that their intention is different, or come up with examples of times when they didn't leave their bowl in the sink.
A more positive way to start the conversation might be, "I noticed that your cereal bowl was left in the sink this morning. When that happens, I feel as if I am being made responsible for picking up after you, and that leaves me feeling uncomfortable. How can we resolve this situation?" That casts the two people as partners in resolving a shared goal. It assumes the best of the other person, and asks for their help fixing the problem. It also makes the problem what it really is, the first person's feelings. If they didn't care about the bowl, or didn't care that it was left out, there wouldn't be conflict.
Another indicator of successful relationship communication can be how quickly two people can put aside interpersonal conflict and face an external stressor for example. Take, for example, a couple who has gone out for dinner. On their way home, they begin a stressful conversation, and due to unrelated circumstances, get into a collision. Both of them are fine, but they need to call 911, get a tow truck, call the insurance, and handle their own adrenaline responses. Are they able to put aside their earlier conflict, tabling it for later, and handle the situation that's in front of them, or do they continue to allow the earlier stress to cause problems for their current situation?
It is important to note, of course, that communication difficulties cannot be resolved by one person on their own. When you invest time and energy into learning to communicate carefully and fairly, it can suddenly become glaringly obvious that the person you're communicating with is not putting forth the same effort. You might notice that they are not changing their communication style, are resorting to emotional and verbal manipulation to continue to get what they need, or are deliberately escalating situations to try and keep communication the way it has been in the past.
If you are locked in conflict with someone who is refusing to change their communication with you, it's worth hearing that you cannot change them. You cannot force them to change their communication. Especially if they're engaging in manipulative behavior, all that you can do is set healthy boundaries and continue to work within yourself. It may be time to enlist a professional therapist or counsellor, if the other person is willing, to try and learn new communication skills together, or you may need to consider whether the relationship is one that you want to continue to try and save.
Learning to improve communication can take a relationship from good to great, and help many couples find the resources necessary to stick together for the long haul. Listen, respond, and take care of each other with careful words.
Wilma Derksen, C.E.C., O.M.