Many couples report communication problems as one of the main reasons they come to couples counseling. As renowned family therapist Virginia Satir said, ‘Communication is to relationships what breath is to life.’ My experience as a therapist and as a client in therapy validates this – most of the issues my wife and I have had usually come down to misunderstanding about an issue that was vitally important to one or both of us.
Humans are social beings, and our early ancestors survived by being able to signal to another when we needed help. So we are wired to feel a sense of uneasiness and even threat when we are not understood. Communication is rarely just about transferring information, though, particularly in an intimate relationship. Communication is the ability to share your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions in a way that can be received and understood by another.
Of course In an intimate relationship it’s not just thoughts like, ‘where should we go to dinner tonight?’ or ‘which neighborhood would I like to live in when we move?’ In intimate relationships, there are also thoughts like, ‘will my partner be there for me when I need them?’ and deep perceptions and feelings like, ‘am I lovable?’ or ‘does she think I’m competent?’
Improve Communication in a Relationship
Given the importance of communication and the risks of unintentionally communicating potentially painful messages, it makes sense that we’d want to do all we can to make communication as clear as possible. As referenced earlier, just because you think you’ve communicated something doesn’t mean it’s been received. Assuming that we’ve been understood, when we haven’t been, can lead to conflict in relationships.
Here are six basic things you can do to improve in-person communication in an interpersonal relationship:
1 – Put down your phone
Phones and other devices have changed our lives for the better and can help us stay in touch and connected in ways we couldn’t before. On the flipside, though, when misused or overused they can say to the other person that what’s going on in that device is more important in that moment than the person in front of you. That’s not a message you generally want to send to your partner. When you want to communicate with your partner in-person, put down your device and invite them to do the same.
2 – Make eye contact
Looking at your partner in the eyes can promote the release of oxytocin, a hormone in both men and women that is associated with bonding and connection. But eye contact should never be demanded, only requested. If your partner chronically has a hard time making eye contact with you, it could be a sign that there are some unresolved issues that need to be addressed.
3 – Touch
As with eye contact, this should be invited, not demanded. Physical touch such as a hand on a shoulder, holding hands, or stroking a back can make someone feel closer and safer, thereby enhancing communication. A 2009 study by Matthew Hertenstein found that participants were effectively able to communicate eight out of 12 emotions by using touch alone. Since American culture generally is less comfortable with touch compared to other developed countries, we have a harder time practicing it when we’re not being or feeling romantic. But it really helps with communication.
4 – Have equal time
This is not a hard and fast rule of exactly the same number of minutes in a conversation, but you can improve communication by being mindful of not dominating the conversation and giving the other person an opportunity to speak about themselves. If you find you struggle with this (particularly taking more time), agree on an amount of time for both people to take turns speaking and make use of the countdown timer on your phone to help you stick to the agreement.
5 – Give verbal and nonverbal encouragers
The majority of communication is non-verbal when you factor in tone of voice. Nonverbal encouragers, phrases like ‘hmm’, ‘oh’, ‘I see’, etc., let your partner know you’re listening and tracking with them. Nodding your head, and allowing yourself to have authentic reactions to what is shared can also make a big difference. I’ve witnessed in many sessions where communication comes to a halt because of a facial expression or gesture that communicated (often inadvertently)to their partner that they are not hearing them or are judging what they’re saying.
6 – Acknowledge feelings in your partner
This one’s a little bit more of an advanced skill. But if Ray Barone can learn it, so can you! Seriously, check out this clip from the show Everybody Loves Raymond where he learns about active listening, and then puts it into practice with his daughter.
Reflecting the feelings that you’ve heard your partner say, or that come to mind from your intuition based on what they’ve shared, can really enhance communication. This kind of focused attention says to your partner, ‘your thoughts and feelings matter to me…you matter to me’. To help you put words to the different subtleties and colors of emotions, download this feelings list.
Before you roll your eyes and dismiss this emphasis on naming feelings, check out this UCLA study that uses MRI brain imaging to show how naming feelings calms the ‘fight or flight’ part of our brain (the amygdala) and activates the part responsible for reasoning and problem solving (prefrontal cortex). A similar study showed that naming feelings helps with managing fear and anxiety more than a pep talk or trying to talk yourself out of what you’re feeling.