Small lake in front of row of old english cottages. Image for article on how to improve your communication

How to improve your communication

The most common goal I hear from couples entering my therapy room is that they’d like to improve their communication.

Now communication needs 2 things: someone to listen, and someone to speak.  This may sound very obvious, but when we look closely it’s a much harder task than it seems.

So how can you approach a conversation with the best chance of a successful outcome?

I’ve written a separate article about how to listen (really listen).  In this article, I’ll lay out how to approach a conversation when you’re trying to describe what you’re thinking and feeling, particularly when it’s a difficult conversation. This approach will give you the best chance of a positive outcome.

I’ll lay out the 9 (yes NINE) important things to consider, followed by how to approach improving those conversations.

And when I say “partner” below, the approach applies to any relationship whether it’s your intimate partner, friends, family, colleagues etc.

9 important things to help improve your communication

No wonder communication is difficult, especially when it’s on a tricky topic.  We’ll take the following 9 things to bear in mind when you’re bringing a subject to talk to your partner about.

  1. Have the discussion when your partner is ready
  2. Work our what outcome you want from the discussion
  3. Recognise what the problem symbolises to you
  4. Be clear on the beliefs and attitudes you have about the problem
  5. Understand what you want from your partner during the discussion
  6. Consider what you can do to help your partner be more responsive to you
  7. Pay attention to your partner’s major concerns
  8. Manage your powerful reactions such as anger that is too intense
  9. Avoid whining, blaming, or being vague

I’ll say it bit more about each of those below.

Is your partner ready?

It’s important to check that your partner is ready to have the conversation with you.  If they are stressed, exhausted or in the middle of something they may not have the headspace.

You may feel an urgency to speak to them, but if you want to get the best outcome it’s important for both of you to be ready.

If you ask your partner and they say they’re not able to listen at the moment, respect that.  Ask them to agree with you a day and time when they will be ready instead, and it’s ok to expect them, in return, to respect your request too.

What outcome do you want from the discussion?

By understanding the destination, you have a better chance of choosing a path that gets you there. 

It can be easy if we’re feeling dysregulated to jump into a discussion – essentially in those situations we just want to feel better.  But what does “feel better” mean to you?  If it’s just for them to regulate your emotions for you, it might be worth taking a moment before jumping in.  If you’re feeling strong emotion, your brain’s logical and rational bits struggle to work, so much better if you can calm down at least a little first.

Are you looking to problem-solve, to share how you’re feeling, to be understood, to understand your partner, do you want your partner to change something in their behaviour, or something else?

What does the problem symbolise to you?

If you’re talking about a specific incident, is it symbolic of a bigger issue?

For example, your partner returning home late drunk from a night out might symbolise your concern about their relationship with alcohol, and disconnection from family life.  If you aren’t clear about what it symbolises, it’s easy to get into a downward cycle where, in this example, your partner feels as if you are trying to control them with a curfew, rather than the core issue of trying to understand why they are feeling disconnected and turning to alcohol.

What beliefs and attitudes do you have about the problem?

What is underpinning your concern?  This is core to how you approach the problem, and it’s important to own those. 

This is particularly important if it’s possible your partner has a different view to you.  This can be tricky if you expect your partner to agree completely with you on all issues and topics.  Learning to manage the discomfort of potentially differing viewpoints is key to a long-lasting relationship.

What do you want from your partner during the discussion?

If you understand what it is you want and then ask them for it, your partner has more chance of success. 

Too often my clients expect their partner to “just know” what it is they want. I would recommend that you assume they don’t have psychic powers, instead tell them.  Do you even know what you want from them during your discussion?

Do you want them just to listen and understand, to give ideas of how you might solve the problem, or something else?

How can you help your partner become more responsive to you?

It’s clear just from this article that there are lots of aspects to a successful discussion.  Remember you and your partner are meant to be a team, and team members help each other out.

I’m sure you know what triggers your partner, things they are sensitive about or an approach that will help them be more receptive.

It might be location of the discussion such as a walk in the afternoon rather than stood in the kitchen at 11pm, you may need to reassure them that you love them and that it’s not about blame, you may try to demonstrate you understand their point of view, or you may check your own body language to make sure it appears open rather than closed or defensive. 

Can you pay attention to your partner’s major concerns?

Whilst you may want your partner to listen to you, their opinions and concerns are also important.

If you think about your own experience, I imagine if someone shows you they understand your concerns, you’re more likely to pay attention to what they are saying.  And this is true of your partner too.

It’s also important to make sure you aren’t assuming what they are worried about, or misunderstanding what is significant to them.

How will you ensure your partners concerns are considered?

How will you manage your own reactions?

When we feel under high stress, such as in a difficult conversation, it can be easy to blame, dominate, withdraw, comply with resentment, whine or deny.  This is normal – we are designed to avoid pain or discomfort.

In a relationship it can be easy to expect our partners to take responsibility for our reactions.  And whilst in a strong relationship you learn how to help each other to regulate, the way to improve your relationship is to take responsibility for our own reactions. 

You may need a time out, feel your feet on the floor or to take deep breaths.

How can you self-soothe when things get tough?

How will you avoid whining, blaming, or being vague?

Particularly when we feel distressed, it can be really difficult to identify why you’re feeling upset.  It can be particularly tricky if an old trauma or bad experience is ignited.  In those circumstanced it’s really normal to complain, blame, or be vague about what’s happening. 

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to lead to a successful outcome.  Our partner may hear our distress, but have no idea of how to help or what’s needed of them.  And if your partner hears you blame them, their instinctive reaction is likely to defend themselves rather than try to understand more.  And even if they try to understand, you aren’t helping them out in that task if they feel attacked.

Taking time to understand why you’re feeling the way you do by following the earlier steps, will lead to a much better outcome.

Improve your communication step by step

OK so it’s great to have that long list of things to think about, reflect on and do.  But that’s a long list and trying to remember each of them can feel like an impossible task.  So how to tackle it?  I’ll lay out how I advise my clients, and how we practice it in the therapy room with my couples clients who want to improve their communication skills.

When you’re approaching any conversation, read the list above, and pick out just one or two things you want to remember, and try putting them into practice.  You might even tell your partner that’s what you’re trying to do.  Afterwards, have a think about how you did – did you manage to remember them at least a little bit? 

Over time, as you continue to try putting them into practice, they will become more instinctive.  Like any skill, even the most talented need to practice time and time again to attain a satisfactory level of competence.  And this is equally true when you want to improve your communication.

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Small lake in front of row of old english cottages. Image for article on how to improve your communication