If you’re like most people, you’ve been on the “giving” and “receiving” end of one or many futile circular discussions. And in spite of your best intentions and long conversations, you and / or the others involved grew weary and gave up before arriving at meaningful solutions.
Lack of communication is an all-too-common occurrence in many relationships and when allowed to continue for prolonged periods of time can result in additional damage to already challenging relationships.
Over the last 27 years, I’ve personally worked with thousands of clients with similar challenges, and in addition to treating their root cause issues, I’ve provided them with simple, but effective, communication tools, which we use during (and after) counseling or therapy. Below, I’ve listed 13 of my favorite techniques, which you can use immediately to improve your ability to express your feelings and thoughts and listen better to others. They should not, however, be used a substitute for therapy or counseling.
01Use “I” not “you” statements. When you begin a difficult conversation with “You” (e.g. “You hurt my feelings”) your listener understandably feels blamed or attacked and their natural inclination is to defend themselves. Nothing productive happens when you put others on the defensive in this way; it’s a power struggle that no one ever wins. Instead, stick to what you’re feeling and begin with “I.” For example, you might say, “I am uncomfortable with what just happened”.
02Avoid using words like, “never” and “always”. These global statements are signals that you or your listener is frustrated and that your issues are escalating (If so, you should seek professional assistance). People rarely do or say anything “always” or “never” so tags like these can be particularly hurtful. Instead, address the issue that just occurred, and try leaving these words out of your vocabulary.
03Stay the course and focus on the present, not the past. When addressing a problem or issue within a relationship, it is vitally important to concentrate on “now,” and avoid bringing up unconstructive past conflicts. Problems are more solvable if they are dealt with as they are happening, so it’s best to deal with them sooner rather than later. Conflicts or issues that are not addressed within 20 minutes or less, may be a sign that unresolved past issues are spilling over into the current situation and professional help may be needed.
04Don’t guess; ask. Unless you’re a mind reader, it’s fruitless to presume that you know exactly what other people are thinking, feeling, wanting, or needing. So, why risk arriving at the wrong conclusion when you can simply ask what’s on their minds and get to the heart of the matter quickly. Also, don’t allow yourself to fall prey to this no-win statement: “If you really loved me you would know what to do or what I want.”
05Just say “no.” Setting boundaries by saying “no” is one of the best ways to prevent resentment and anger from creeping into your relationships. That way, when you say “yes” you and others will feel better knowing it’s been given authentically and openly.
06Validate, validate, validate. Ironically, many people are eager to criticize others – particularly spouses, partners, or other family members – yet, hesitate to provide positive feedback and encouragement. So, take the time to acknowledge and validate others when they do or say something you genuinely appreciate.
07Would you rather be right or happy? Rather than attempting to understand others’ perspectives many people – particularly couples – argue more about who is right and who is wrong. This approach gets them nowhere. If your goal is to effectively negotiate and work through issues, it’s important to try to see issues from perspectives other than your own. This can be especially difficult for people who were taught unhealthy communication styles during childhood; therapy, however, is a good way to relearn more productive skills.
08Make requests, not demands. Others are far more likely to grant your requests when asked, not ordered, to help you. Additionally, this is one of the best methods for keeping your dialogues open and allowing for negotiations, if needed. (Besides isn’t this how you would like to be treated?)
09Make time for your relationship. Nurture your relationships by devoting time to them. For example, it’s vitally important for couples to set aside time regularly for romance, recreation, communication, and relaxation. By the way, doing chores together does not qualify as quality couple time!
10Negotiate for what you want. Let’s face it, none of us get what we want all of the time – no matter how hard we try. People in balanced, respectful and/or loving relationships understand this and meet each other in the middle whenever necessary. Caution: Beware of people with a “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude!
11Agree rather than dictate or manipulate. People are much more responsive when asked – not told – to participate in processes. That’s why it’s so important to avoid misunderstandings by negotiating agreements and sticking to them, or renegotiating them before they’re due. This builds trust, which is vital for relationships to grow and flourish.
12Appreciate, appreciate, appreciate. Express your gratitude to others often. Let them know how much you appreciate what they do, who they are, and what they contribute to the relationship.
13Getting to know you (and me). While it’s wonderful to give to others, it’s more wonderful to give them what they want, not what we want them to want! Clear as mud? Here’s a simple example: Over dinner, Sue Smith relates the events of her particularly stressful day at work to her husband, John. John listens for a bit and then offers his advice on ways she can solve her problems. As he continues on with his “helpful” suggestions, he notices that Sue is getting more and more annoyed with him. John is baffled and can’t figure out why Sue is resisting his sage advice. However, John missed a key point – Sue wasn’t looking for solutions, she simply wanted to be heard and validated.
Another tip: The next time you pick out a gift for someone, let their preferences – not yours – be your guide!
By: Kathleen Dwyer Blair, LCSW, BCD