THE POWER OF COMMUNICATION: COMMON MISTAKES & HOW TO STRENGTHEN YOUR RELATIONSHIPS
Connecting with others is one of the most important promoters of joy and life satisfaction. Positive social interactions, including with our partners, enhance our wellbeing and make us feel fulfilled. Yet sometimes we forget to pay attention to the way we communicate with each other. This Valentine’s Day, psychologist Mora Neustadt talks about the power of communication and offers some tips to enhance our relationships.
“We need to talk” is a phrase that strikes dread or fear in most of us. It usually means something like “listen to me now” or “there’s something I need to say that you won’t be happy about”. These four words can put the recipient in defensive mode and turn the focus from “we-ness” to “me-ness”. This is just one example of an unhealthy communication tactic that almost every relationship has experienced.
But what is communication, exactly?
Communication can be defined as “the act or process of using words, sounds, signs or behaviours to express or exchange information or express. your ideas, thoughts, etc. to someone else”. However, there is an important element missing in this technical definition: effective listening is in fact often more important than the act of speaking. So, communication is about how we express ourselves, but also how we give room to the other to do the same while we hear and absorb what they have to say.
According to research, healthy relationships allow us to regulate our emotions, calm our primal alarm system and promote long periods of mental health and emotional wellbeing. Of course, it’s easy to understand that communication is the key to any relationship, but it’s not so easy to explain how to communicate well!
So, this Valentine’s Day, we encourage you to add to your list of gifts the most valuable of them all: the gift of communication.
4 tips to becoming a master of communication
1. Embrace vulnerability (in yourself but also in others)
How many times have you heard your partner say “I’ve had a really hard day at work”, and answered by explaining how your week was also hard? Often, hearing our partner talk about difficulties and challenges makes us want to share too. Though we might mean to show our partner that we empathise (and that they are not alone in their feelings), the risk is that we treat these conversations as a competitive sport in which neither person is being heard, or that we deflect attention away from our partner’s needs in that moment.
By engaging in active listening when your partner opens up – and leaving your own struggles for another moment – you are fuelling a stronger and more meaningful bond. Show empathy and validation, ask open questions, and put your own feelings, thoughts and comments on hold while you focus on your partner’s pain or sharing. In other words, be present. And, if you feel that you need this too, try asking in this way: “I’ve been feeling a bit off too. When would be a good time to share my feelings with you?”
2. Cultivate emotional safety
Emotional safety means being able to be our true self with another person. It’s the feeling that we can express who we are, from our hurts and fears to our dreams, without fear of being judged or punished for doing so. Yet, when it’s time to talk, we often use language that is threatening and that may create more distance in the relationship, such as all-or-nothing statements (“you always…”, “you never…”), comparisons (“you’re just like your father/mother/whoever”), or ultimatums (“I’m done”!, “if you don’t do X, it’s over”), and so on.
Being mindful of the words we choose and how we are communicating helps the other person to feel safe when sharing their thoughts and feelings, and in return makes them more likely to be receptive when we do so. (To learn more about how to feel safe in your relationships, you may like to explore the Routes of Safety Model).
3. Spend time alone
According to the 70/30 rule, spending about 70 percent of your time together and about 30 percent apart is important for creating a happy and harmonious relationship. Though you of course don’t have to measure this exactly, it is crucial to have alone time as it allows you to develop yourself away from the relationship and bring new experiences and ideas back into the relationship. When we feel whole and fulfilled, we come to the relationship with greater strength and clarity.
Yet it can be hard to ask for time alone (or to encourage our partners to take time alone). Sometimes we might communicate our need for solo time in a way that sounds critical (“I need space from you” or “you’re asking too much of me”). To avoid this kind of miscommunication, use affirming “I” statements and avoiding blaming or shaming your partner.
4. Make positive feedback a habit
It’s not uncommon for people in relationships to engage in negative thought patterns, and focus conversations on what is lacking, what needs improvement, and what the other person is doing wrong. As a result, we develop a negative bias that prevents us from seeing the positive aspects of the relationship.
Some of these conversations are inevitable. However, remember to also make time to talk about the things that are going well. Use words of affirmation to strengthen the communication, take some time to reflect on how the relationship has grown, and most importantly, remember to say thank you.
Learning to communicate effectively in a relationship takes practice. And the more you practise, the better you become at it! By embracing vulnerability, cultivating emotional safety, celebrating our individual time and making positive feedback a habit, we dissolve the fear associated with the words “we need to talk”. We instead look forward to those moments of complete support and connection that enhance the quality of our relationships.
Which of these tips are you going to try on this special day? What other techniques have helped you enhance the quality of communication in your relationships? Let’s keep adding to this list!
PHOTO: Kristina Litvjak/Unsplash