Whether you’re single, dating, or married, Valentine’s Day is a (cheesy) reminder of the importance of relationships in our lives. What better way to celebrate than to hone your healthy communication skills?
Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman is famous for predicting whether a couple will get divorced within minutes of meeting them. Dr. Gottman doesn’t have magical powers or the ability to see the future, He’s just really good at analyzing how people speak to each other. His team of researchers have studied thousands of diverse couples and they found that it’s communication – not conflict – that determines the success of a relationship. You can benefit from his decades of research by learning to use a handful of effective communication strategies.
First, it’s important to recognize and avoid the communication styles that can ruin relationships:
- Criticism: When you take a specific complaint (“You didn’t help me put the kids to bed tonight”) and present it as an attack on the other person (“You are useless when it comes to the kid’s nighttime routine”).
- Contempt: When you speak to your partner with the intent to make them feel bad using sarcasm, name-calling, or mocking (“Your laziness disgusts me”).
- Defensiveness: When you react with excuses or by putting the blame on your partner (“You know I don’t have time to help with the kids at bedtime. Why would you even ask me to help with that?”).
- Stonewalling: When one person stops interacting and withdraws from the conversation by giving the silent treatment or walking out of the room.
To get you started on the path to healthier communication, here are specific techniques to practice:
- Start gently: If you begin a conversation with harsh criticism, the situation is likely to escalate. Instead, use “I” statements and keep your complaint simple and direct (“I want to talk to you because I was upset when you didn’t help with the kids tonight” versus “Where the heck were you?”). By describing the problem without judgement or hyperbole, you prevent emotions from getting in the way of solving the issue.
- Listen reflectively: Start by keeping your mouth closed and paying attention to what the other person is saying. When there is a natural break in the conversation, reflect back your understanding of what they said. By paraphrasing both the content (“You don’t think I help enough with the kids at bedtime”) and the underlying message (“You feel overwhelmed”), you show the other person that you want to understand.
- Validate your partner: Even if you disagree with the specific content of your partner’s complaint, validate the other person’s emotional experience. Use phrases like “It sounds like…” and “What I’m hearing is…” so that the other person can correct your understanding as needed (“It sounds like you feel alone when I don’t help with the kids”).
- Speak assertively: Assertive communication is based on mutual respect and the idea that both partners’ needs are equally important. Using confident body language and a firm tone, state your view of the issue and the resolution you would like to see (“I am overwhelmed by having to handle the kids’ bedtime by myself. Would you be willing to give them their baths?”).
- Express appreciation: When you have issues with your partner, make an effort to point out when they do something you like. Thank them for doing little things around the house. Make eye contact. Compliment them. Small gestures can add up to a positive appreciation for each other and healthier communication during difficult times.
- Take responsibility: If you did something wrong, admit it! Even if it was not intentional or conscious at the time, accept that you likely played a role in the issue and can work collaboratively toward a solution (“I got caught up in my work and left you to handle the kids – I’m sorry. What would you like me to do differently?”).
- Keep calm: Conflict in a partnership is stressful. When you notice yourself getting heated, it’s okay to let the other person know you need a break from the conversation. If you start sweating, get flushed, or feel your heart racing, it’s probably time for a 5-10 minute breather.
Using the tools described above, you should be on your way to healthier communication in your relationship! For more information on healthy communication, visit https://www.gottman.com.
About the Author: Aviva Ariel-Donges, M.S.
|Aviva Ariel-Donges, M.S., is an intern at SRAHEC. She is currently finishing a master’s in public health and a doctorate in clinical health psychology at the University of Florida.|