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Improving Communication with your Partner

It is important to first of all dispel the myth that good communication ought to come naturally in an intimate relationship when a couple is compatible. Effective communication is a skill that requires considerable practice and ongoing maintenance. Like any skill development, at first the behaviour may seem unnatural. However, as with all skills it will become much more natural with practice. There are three key components to effective communication. These include:

1) Sending information to your partner
2) Receiving information from your partner
3) Processing information from your partner

There are four behaviours that will help you to ensure that each these components is addressed. These include:

1) Levelling
2) Listening
3) Validating
4) Helpful self-talk

Each of these will now be discussed with examples of how these skills may be practiced.

Levelling
Levelling refers to telling your partner exactly how you feel about something in a clear but non-confrontational manner. The most important thing to keep in mind with levelling is that one ought to make “I” statements as opposed to “You” statements. Compare, for example, the words “You make me angry” with the words “When you didn’t help me clean up after dinner I felt angry”. The first of these statements is accusatory. It implies a level of negative intent and it gives no reference what it is that the other person has actually done that is disliked by the other. The second statement avoids the issue of blame. The second statement also makes it clear that the person’s anger is coming from a specific action and thus provides an opportunity for the other partner to change that behaviour.

Levelling is about being as clear and specific as possible about how you are feeling and why you believe you are feeling that way. It is best to keep in mind what is called the X-Y-Z statement. That is “When you do X, in situation Y, I feel Z”. For example:

“When you come home late, without telling me, I feel angry”
“When you make jokes about me, in front of our friends, I feel hurt”
“When you complement me, when we go out to dinner, I feel happy”

Notice that the last of these statements is reflecting on a positive emotion. It is very important that levelling is not limited to negative emotions. If a couple’s communication is focused on the negative then it may seem that the only emotions experienced in the relationship are negative. Just as it is important to address issues in the relationship, it is important to acknowledge all that is good about the relationship and the things that you appreciate in your partner.

Notice also the above statements refer to the behaviours of the other. This is extremely important for the reason that the other person knows exactly what it is that he or she might do to assist the other.

Common difficulties with levelling:

Character-assassination
Referring only to the behaviours of the other is extremely important for the reason that it avoids reference to personality. Character-assassination involves referring to the faulty character or personality of the other. This is extremely unhelpful for the reason that a person’s character is difficult to change. In contrast, changing a specific behaviour is not so great a challenge. It is also unhelpful for the reason that it is accusatory and non-specific.

Kitchen-sinking
This is, very simply, the act of throwing all criticisms that come to mind at your partner, often as a means of point scoring to “prove” that your dissatisfaction is more valid and that you are “right”. This can take many forms, but in essence it involves the raising many issues (often peripheral issues) all in one discussion. This approach typically results in an escalation of the argument and a missing of the original point. Essentially, it is important to ensure that when a given issue is raised that each partner try to stick to the point at hand, not referring to incidents of the past and not referring to other issues.

Difficulty paying compliments
Many couples report that it feels unnatural to pay compliments to each other. If you think back to the early stages of your relationship it is likely that you would have had little trouble paying each other compliments, yet somehow this may have faded over time. If it feels unnatural, perhaps due to being brought up in a family where compliments were a rare thing, this is not a reason to avoid it. To the contrary, it is important that you work towards becoming comfortable in paying compliments to each other by “levelling” in positive ways.

Practice Exercise
Sit down together each day and take 5-10 minutes to practice levelling with each other. This should involve statements of the kind mentioned above, and it is important that you each express both positive and negative emotions. Remember that it does not matter how big or small the incident that you refer to is. It may be helpful for you to use a tape recorder to tape these interactions. The purpose of this is to ask yourself how “you” could have handled the situation better, not to point out flaws in your partner’s approach. If this is used as a means of “proof” that your partner did not do the task properly then the purpose of the exercise has been lost. Remember, central to improving a relationship is to always focus on what you could be doing better, not to focus excessively on what your partner “should” be doing better.

Listening

Good listening is not just about being quiet whilst your partner speaks. The most common reasons that partners do not listen to each other is that they are each entirely focused on what they want to say and they think they already know in advance what their partner wants to say. Each is too busy planning his or her counter-point, which leaves no room for genuine listening.

In the early stages of practicing to listen more effectively it is best to think of yourself as a tape-recorder, with a view to remembering most of the words said, or at least the central messages. Remember that you do not have to agree with everything that your partner says, but it is important to show that you have effectively listened to his or her perspective. Remember that effective listening is not just about receiving your partner’s message, but showing your partner that you have heard the message.

Here is an example of effective listening:

Sarah: I had a really difficult day at work today
Michael: Oh really, what happened?
Sarah: Oh one of the new guys really made a mess of a proposal, and as usual I had to pick up the pieces.
Michael: Sounds like they’ve been creating a lot of work for you lately! I think you need some time to relax before we have dinner. Would you like to go for a walk?

Now, contrast this with the response “Oh, you think you had a bad day…I had a shocker…”. This is very ineffective listening, but it is something that we can all relate to when faced with the problems of those that we love.

Practice Exercise
In order to practice this skill it is important to first level and then for the other to show that he or she has effectively listened to the message. Again it should be a matter of practicing for 5-10 minutes daily. You do not need to parrot back what was said. What is important is that the central message is not lost. If you are finding it difficult to put into your own words, then it may be best to parrot back the message in the early stages. It is important to check with your partner that you have understood correctly. For example:

Sarah: When you didn’t help me to clean up after dinner last night I felt upset
Michael: You said that when I didn’t help you to clean up after dinner last night you felt upset, is that right?
Sarah: Yes.

Validating

Validating is possibly the most important aspect of the process of communication. Validation is very simply about recognising your partner’s perspective as important and accepting this viewpoint. Rather than saying “it’s silly for you to feel like that”, it is important to convey the message: “Yes, I can see that’s how you feel”. It is important to make a distinction here between validating and agreeing. Validating is simply about accepting that your partner has a different viewpoint to you, and that this viewpoint is as worthy of recognition as your own.

An example of validating would be:
Levelling (Partner 1): When you said that I am boring this morning I felt hurt
Listening (Partner 2): You said that when I said that you were boring this morning it hurt you, is that right
Partner 1: Yes
Validating (Partner 2): Yes, I can see how that would make you feel hurt

It is very important to draw a distinction between intent and effect. For example, in relation to the example above, it may well be that when one of the partners said: “you are boring” he may have intended it as a joke. However, note that this partner does not deny the feelings of the other by saying something like “Oh you’re being silly, I was only joking”. It is OK to first validate the feelings and then to go on to explain that you were only joking and that you will try not to do that again because it hurt your partner, but be careful not to be dismissive of your partner’s emotion.

Practice exercise
To practice validating you will first need to go through the skills of levelling and listening before the listener is able to validate what has been said. When practicing the skill of validating, you must ask how it is that your words will convey a sense that you see your partner’s viewpoint as an understandable perspective on the situation. Once again, you need not agree with your partner, but you must show in some way that you see their perspective as an understandable response to the situation. Your sentences should take a form similar to the following:

“I understand where you are coming from…”
“It makes sense that you would feel that way…”

Take 5 to 10 minutes to take turns in practicing each of these skills.

Helpful Self-Talk

Remember that each person carries with him or her many unique beliefs and expectations about how a relationship ought to work. Many of these beliefs have come from the family in which you have grown up. It is important to recognise that the way you think, which stems from your deeper beliefs, influences the way in which you interact with others.

Becoming more aware of your thoughts requires stopping and thinking: “what is going through my head right now”. You will very likely find that despite your best efforts, you are sabotaging your attempts at better communication by negative expectations and unhelpful thinking.

Here are some examples of unhelpful vs. helpful thinking:

Unhelpful thoughts    

There’s no point telling her how I feel.

It’s silly for him to feel like that

There’s just no way that I can agree with what she’s saying

Helpful thoughts

It may feel a little strange to say how I feel, she doesn’t care anyway    but I can cope with a bit of discomfort for the sake of our relationship

If I just make an effort to really listen, I can then understand how he feels

It is impossible for us to agree on everything, we are different people who will often think and feel differently, and that’s OK

It cannot be emphasised enough that effective communication involves a set of skills that require practice like any other skills. Remember that these skills must be practiced for many weeks before they will start to become more natural to you. Remember too that habits come and go, and it may well be that you need to return to practicing these skills again when those bad habits start to slip back in.

Adapted from Montgomery and Evans (1995) Living and Loving Together

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