Communication Strategies for Better Relationships, Part 1

Murray Molohon, M.A. Registered Psychologist

Theravive Counseling

Registered Psychologist: Counselling Services of Calgary

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Communication Strategies for Better Relationships (Part 1)

I think that effective communication is among the most important skill needed for relationships to function well. Learning effective communication skills helps couples to learn to talk politely, to better understand each other, to care for one another, to help each person to feel more connected to the other person and to deal effectively with problem solving a variety of issues. Effective communication that helps around supporting feelings and caring for one another may be required before good problem solving strategies will even be effective. I also believe that fewer relationships end when people care and interact supportively but cannot work out certain issues, than relationships that problem solve well but are cold and distant. Men may be guiltier of the tendency to want to overly problem solve issues while discussing and supporting feelings less during communication.
We were all raised in an environment that probably left at least some deficits in our ability to communicate and many of us seem to have been raised in environments that had large deficits in communication. Unfortunately a significant amount of problematic conflict or lost connection in relationship can occur because of poor or ineffective communication. We may find ourselves involved with people and places where our current communication abilities work to some extent and reduce the level of conflict in our lives. Unfortunately these abilities may not be effective for deeper or long term in-depth communication such as in a significant relationship. Significant relationships, which typically require good in-depth communication for the people in the relationship to be continually developing and growing together and to work through conflict effectively, will often expose the deficits we have in our ability to communicate. Typically a healthy, growing person will also be constantly looking to improve their relationships and communication, even if the current level of communication in their relationship is good or reasonable. The following are the areas I think address a number of common mistakes made in communication and suggest guidelines and ideas that lead to better communication.

Good Listening Skills
Good listening in this context is more of a passive skill and involves that the person who is listening does not interrupt, talk over another person or give any indications that they are not listening. Instead, they will hear what the person is saying and let the other person comfortably finish whatever it is that they are talking about. The person will not interrupt, which can be done verbally, i.e. talking at the same time as someone else is talking, or non-verbally, i.e. rolling their eyes or walking away while the person is still speaking. Good listening may involve making eye contact, offering encouraging words or gestures and avoiding words or actions that will not support the person who is talking to be able to freely and fully express whatever it is that they want to say.

Good Acknowledging Skills
In the context described here good acknowledging is more of an active skill. Acknowledging someone means you have heard and understood the person and can then give the person feedback that you have heard and understood them. One method to let a person know you have heard and understood them is by repeating back what they have said in as complete and natural a way as possible. Being able to repeat back the details about the issues and feelings that another person wants to be heard about is an important skill. Repeating back allows the other person to know you have paid attention to and have understood what they have said. If feelings and content are both shared by the person speaking, the listener can acknowledge both the feelings and the content. For example, the listener may say that they heard how disappointed that the other person was that a trip they were looking forward to was cancelled. The listener can also acknowledge only the feelings or only the content if that is what they heard. For example the listener may state that they heard the feelings of disappointment or they may state that they heard that the trip was cancelled. Essential to paraphrasing is that the listener not just hears the speaker but supports, advocates and shows interest in what the person is saying which may be demonstrated by asking further questions or by responding with an animated tone. Coldly repeating back what someone has said may discourage further openness and discussion. Adding your ideas or giving your interpretation about the feelings or issues the other person expressed, even if you are correct, before simply giving an acknowledgment may leave the person feeling unheard. For example, the person may state that they felt hurt when the other person walked away during a discussion. A response that adds how hurt the person was because walking away reminds them of other people who walked away on them provides an unstated interpretation. The person did not mention anything about other people walking away on them which can leave the person feeling unheard about what they did say. A complete acknowledgment should be given to what was said before a response is offered. For example, a simple acknowledgment may sound like, "I hear you are hurt by my walking away" and stating nothing further. I believe it is also important that the person who shared their feelings or issues has said or shown that they feel heard before the listener starts to talk about their feelings or issues.

Keeping Feelings and Issues Separate
I believe that keeping feelings and issues separate is often essential for good communication. Though feelings and issues are closely connected, trying to talk about both at the same time, when each area can require its own unique skills to understand and resolve, can complicate communication. Obviously discussing feelings usually requires discussing something about the issue to give background information to the feelings. However if feelings are the important and primary issue, talking mostly about feelings and less about the issue can help the listener understand the importance of the feelings being shared. Alternately talking mostly about the issue can help the listener to understand that the issue is the most important aspect of what is being shared. If someone wants their feelings heard, they may request a response to the feelings they shared in a statement regardless of how many feelings or issues were discussed.

In my experience the person who is listening will tend to respond to the issue and not the feelings when feelings and issues are both shared. However, usually having the feelings heard in an emotionally laden issue is the most important aspect of the conversation to be heard about. Often, the person who has shared both feelings and issues will feel unheard if the other person responds to the issue and not to their feelings. Commonly, the person who believes that their feelings were unheard will tend to not be able to move on in the discussion until their feelings have been heard and may not be able to hear or respond to what the other person has shared.

Communicating Feelings First
If in doubt as to whether to share feelings or issues first I suggest starting with sharing feelings. Quite often complications occur in conversations trying to work out issues when strong feelings exist in one person or the other that are not dealt with first. Often people do not even recognize or may overlook the effect on communication when strong feelings exist. Of course the idea of discussing feelings first may depend on the type of conversation you are having. Some conversations will require a simple decision; others may be information gathering conversations which do not require sharing feelings first. However, if communication has broken down and even if what you are trying to discuss is fairly simple, often it is helpful to structure the conversation to discussing feelings first.

I suggest discussing as wide a range of feelings as possible when trying to communicate painful feelings. Often multiple feelings are being experienced in a conversation which cannot be resolved by expressing only a few feelings (full feeling range is discussed in section I3). For example, if I state that I am feeling sad and angry when I am feeling hurt, lonely, disappointed, frustrated, scared and confused; I may not feel better and may become more frustrated as a result. Using a list of feeling words to choose from may be helpful to express a broader and more accurate range of feelings. It is important to watch out for cover up feelings such as anger which is often used to cover up or mask more vulnerable feelings such as hurt or sadness. Feelings of hurt or sadness can also be used to cover up other feelings such as anger or frustration. Discussing a broad and accurate range of feelings may involve describing a number of feeling words, some that may apply and some that may not in trying to discover the feeling words that match what is being felt. If a particular feeling word does not apply you can move on to the next feeling word until you hit the feeling word that does apply.
In expressing feelings and trying to keep feelings and issues separate, there may still be a need to refer to the issue. Some people can describe that they are experiencing feelings like hurt and sadness and then they feel better whereas others need to say they feel hurt and sad and then briefly comment on why they feel hurt and sad to feel better. I think it is ok to briefly discuss why you feel the way you do. I recommend, however, keeping the details of why the feelings are there short, factual and expressed from your perspective, otherwise you may find yourself getting away from dealing with just the feelings. Some people find it helpful putting off dealing with the issues while discussing feelings by having an agreement where they know ahead of time that the issues will be discussed right after the feelings are dealt with. After both people have shared their feelings accurately and have felt heard, they may now be able to more objectively deal with the issues. Problem solving issues that seemed difficult previously may seem much easier or even self evident after hearing each other’s feelings and simply exploring the issues in a positive manner. Note that after moving on to discuss the issue, new feelings may surface which may require both people to revert back to discussing feelings again before being able to finish discussing the issue.

Talk About Your Perspective
Whether or not you have valid feelings or issues to discuss, how a feeling or issue is phrased can lead to good or bad results in the conversation. Positive communication can be enhanced by talking about your feelings and issues from your perspective. Talking about an issue or feelings that are not from your perspective may come across as being blaming, telling the other person what the truth is or telling others what they believe. Any of these possibilities may lead to conflict in a discussion. Using "I" or "my understanding of the situation is" statements are examples of techniques to use to indicate that your thoughts are from your understanding or perspective. For example stating that I felt hurt and upset rather than ‘you hurt me’ is an example of speaking from my perspective. A statement like ‘you hurt me’ may be perceived as an opinion or an accusation that the other person may disagree with or become defensive about. The other person may then comment on their differing opinion or defensively explain their actions, either way the feelings the first person was trying to express may be left unheard and un-responded to. Simply stating that I felt hurt and upset is more clearly my perspective and less of an opinion to be debated about. A common mistake made in communication is to mix using your perspective, such as with using an "I" statement for part of the statement and then using blaming or accusing comments in other parts of the statement. For example, if I state that I was hurt when you acted terribly, is a mix of an "I" and a blaming statement. Another mistake to avoid is in using "I" statements with the correct words which are accompanied with a blaming or accusing tone. It is important to note that even though the words of a statement may be correct, blame or accusations may still be happening with how the statement was said.

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