Effective communication is a foundational piece of successful relationships. While it is undoubtedly a skill we can improve with time and effort, it is also one of the most challenging skills to master (and I am not sure if we ever do perfect it!). Many of my clients identify communication as a growth area, whether they struggle to share feelings, be assertive, actively listen, manage conflict, or understand each other. Below are some communication tips I share in my PREPARE/ENRICH sessions with my premarital counseling and premarital education clients.
- Listen Actively: We often listen to respond or defend instead of listening to understand. Good communication means actively listening, without interruption, to understand and validate. It acknowledges both the content and the feelings of the speaker. How often has your partner been talking to you and you are formulating your comeback or thinking of all the times “you have done that too?” It is a powerful thing when we put aside our need to respond with our curiosity and interest in listening to what our partner is saying. Tip: When listening to your partner, pay attention by giving your undivided attention and reducing distractions. Put the phone away, turn the TV off. Show that you are listening by making eye contact and nodding. Provide feedback by paraphrasing what your partner has said or ask for clarification. For example, “What I am hearing is….” or “Is that what you mean?” Do not interrupt or talk over your partner. Give them the opportunity to complete their thoughts before responding. And if you cannot fully engage in the conversation, make an appointment to speak later when you can give your complete attention.
- Be Assertive: When we struggle to ask for what we want, speak up for ourselves, or share how we feel, our needs may not be met. Successful couples ask clearly and directly for what they want instead of assuming their partner can read their mind. They are positive, polite, and respectful when making constructive requests and take responsibility for their messages. And they take it a step further by stating explicitly how their partner can meet their wants and needs. Tip: Use “I” statements. Lead with “I need,” “I am feeling,” and “I want.” For example, “I feel like we are not spending enough quality time together. I would like us to set aside a date night once a week.” If you are the receiver, respond in a positive – or at least neutral – way to your partner’s request. If you cannot grant the request, state respectfully in detail why not. Intimacy is increased when you can speak up and feel heard and understood by the other person.
- Ask Questions: If you do not understand what your partner is asking or saying, instead of simply nodding and saying “uh-huh,” act like an investigative journalist and ask questions. When we do not understand what someone is saying, we tend to fill in the gaps with our assumptions or try to mind-read. Assumptions and mind-reading can lead to miscommunication, misunderstandings, confusion, and conflict. Tip: If you are unsure of your partner’s request or meaning, follow up with “Let me make sure I understand you. You said (repeat your understanding). Is that correct?”
- Set Expectations: What type of response are you seeking when you communicate with your partner? Are you merely verbally processing/venting and want them to be present, or are you looking for them to provide a solution, an opinion, or advice? Tip: Before you start your story about your bad day at work, tell your partner what you want from them. Say, “Hey, I had a rough day at work, and I just want to vent. I don’t need advice or a solution.” Or, “Hey, I had a rough day at work, and I would love your opinion on what I should do.” Telling your partner what you are looking for up front provides clear direction and leads to fewer unmet expectations.
- Set Aside Intentional Time: It is common for many couples to lead hectic, busy lives. It is easy to get lost in daily routines and obligations and find that your communication consists more of logistics and details than thoughts and feelings. When is the last time you set aside intentional together time to connect, share feelings, and talk about your relationship? If the answer is “not recently,” it’s time to do so. Tip: Be intentional about your time. Set aside a biweekly date night. Put the phones away, turn off the TV or computer, and check in with each other. What is going well in your relationship? Where can improvements be made? How can you be helpful to each other?