Undoubtedly, one of the most important ways to keep any relationship healthy is through solid and balanced communication. When both partners understand how to communicate properly, it can actually help them feel more connected and even loved — this can help them feel more secure, happy and stable in their relationship. Having someone actually care enough to listen to us makes us feel wanted and even validated.
But when effective communication is missing in a relationship, both people can end up feeling isolated, alone, disconnected and maybe even unwanted. They may even become irritable and defensive and this can then cause the relationship to devolve to one where negative things like mistrust, misunderstanding and resentments can begin to take root and grow into relationship breakdown.
When couples end up feeling isolated, alone, mistrusting or misunderstood and resentful, it’s crucial that they try to start learning communication skills, chiefly how to listen to and validate their partner.
If you find your relationship is lacking in communication and you and your partner are struggling to connect with and understand each other, below are some of the most important essential listening skills that can help improve your communication
Validate Each Other’s Feelings
Emotional validation means recognizing and communicating acceptance of your partner’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. To validate your partner really means to try and understand what they are saying and feeling from their point of view. This does not at all mean you have to fully agree with them. It just means that you really make an effort to see their particular perspective — that because you truly love and care about them, their thoughts, opinions and feelings are valid and important to you. It’s about trying to have a sense of openness and curiosity about what your partner is feeling.
You can validate them by saying something like:
What you’re saying makes sense, tell me more about that…
I can see how you might think/feel that…
I certainly hear what you’re saying and I understand…
I hear that you’re angry, frustrated sad, upset…
Yeah, I can see how that might make you feel really sad/frustrated/angry/tired…
You may not always fully understand your partner’s point of view. So maybe asking for clarification or for more information might help you understand and also help them feel more validated.
Can you explain that to me better?
Can you tell me more about that?
Can you clarify that for me?
What you’re saying makes sense, tell me more about that?
Watch Your Nonverbal Communication.
A famous scientific study by Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967 found that 55% of the communication of our attitudes and feelings is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and only 7% is the actual words spoken. So that means 80% + of our communication of attitudes and feelings takes place without any words! For a couple in a relationship, this is really a crucially important finding.
How can you tell if your partner is cross with you? Is it because they tell you? Or is it because they give you “the cold shoulder”, or a “dirty look”, maybe even a “look that could freeze water”? Sometimes it even feels like we can sense when our partner is upset with us, like a disturbance in the force. What this is, probably isn’t about changes in the vibrations of the universe, but that we can pick all of the small nuances and distinctions in our partner’s body language, actions or tone of voice
Look at the photo above, what do you see in their reactions, the woman is obviously concerned, angry or upset and she is letting her partner know about it, whereas the man looks upset, maybe angry, frustrated, maybe worried, and certainly overwhelmed.
When a couple tries to communicate and/or resolve a conflict, watching the nonverbal communication can be a key to making the communication productive. If every time you go to your partner with a problem they sigh deeply, act uninterested and grunt without putting down their phone, how many problems do you think will be solved? Not very many.
What if every time you and your partner tried to resolve a conflict one of you used a really strained voice, paced angrily and wagged their finger? How fast do you think those discussions would escalate to anger and unresolved conflict?
In my experience as a therapist and human being, nonverbal communications like hand gestures or tones of voice can actually be some of the things that make conflicts escalate and prevent them from being successfully resolved. Unresolved conflicts cause resentments and even contempt for our partner. Having a series of ongoing unresolved conflicts can even be marriage enders for many couples. Some people are also really really sensitive to the emotions of others and they are especially good at picking up the “signals” that other people put out, they are also very affected by having someone angry or upset with them. If this sounds like you, here is an article about exploring if you’re a Highly Sensitive Person.
So here are some things to try to keep your non-verbal/body language positive and conducive to sound communication:
- Use open, neutral body language, turn towards your partner with an open stance.
- Watch your tone of voice, if you feel it getting angry or strained maybe it’s time to take a break.
- Try not to point angrily, wave your hands around or wagging your finger, make fists or cross your arms angrily
- Try not to use negative facial signals like judgemental frowns, pursed lips or even sneers or snarls
- Avoid sudden or aggressive movements, angry gestures or pacing about
- Remember its almost always better to take a break and step away than escalate into a relationship-damaging conflict!!
“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” Dalai Lama
Reflect or Mirror Your Partner
This approach is about reflecting or “mirroring” what your partner is saying in their own words. Yes, it might feel a bit weird at first, but it can be an incredibly effective communication technique. It’s about really listening to what your partner is saying and “restating” it or “paraphrasing” back to them in an inquisitive and open way. It’s about letting them know you are truly listening and wanting to learn more about what they are saying or feeling.
When you reflect or mirror what your partner has said, you may start your response with something like:
It sounds like what you’re saying is…
I hear you saying that you’re feeling/thinking this…
It sounds like you’re feeling…
Am I understanding you right? You’re saying that you feel this way…
Reflecting helps your partner feel heard and it also allows the conversation to slow down, avoiding escalating into conflict. It also allows you to fully process what your partner is saying, and that can make a difficult conversation significantly easier. It’s not about just parroting your partners words, it’s about really listening, understanding and clarifying your partner’s thoughts and feelings because it’s important to you to do so!
By using and practising this reflecting skill, the more you will actually hear and understand what your partner says and in turn, understand how they feel.
Empathizing With Your Partner
The next step to improving your relationship communication is making an effort to recognize the emotions your partner is experiencing “in the moment”. This skill will require you to be brave and explore the often-vulnerable territory of feelings.
Empathizing is super important because it shows your partner that how they feel really matters to you.
To grow your empathy:
- Pay attention to the other person, really be interested in them and their ideas/beliefs/feelings. Be curious about their thoughts!
- Stop thinking in terms of right and wrong. The world is rarely that black and white, it’s usually shades of grey. Unless you’re doing algebra, right and wrong is usually a matter of perspective. Be flexible!!
- Really see your partner as your equal; truly see that their ideas/thoughts/opinions are as valid as yours. If you feel they aren’t and you feel superior, then sadly, your relationship probably won’t last.
- Make an honest effort to “walk a mile” in your partner’s shoes. Respect and appreciate their individual and unique human experience as valid, even if it’s different from yours.
- Don’t judge your partner’s ideas and opinions. Remember “love is a lack of judgement”
- If you’re talking about a conflict? Be present and in the moment with your partner, not remembering and resenting the last 3 times they “made you” upset or angry.
- Realize your partner (just like you) is human, flawed and imperfect; accept who they are and have reasonable expectations of them.
Though it may take some practice and time to get the hang of these new communication skills, the effort is worth it. And remember, when your partner practices these same skills, you will feel equally listened to, loved and respected!
Some couples may find they need a bit of help from a neutral third party. Couples therapy can provide a safe space for each partner to practice these listening skills. A trained therapist will be able to guide you and offer advice and adjustments.
Going to individual therapy can also help us explore and change any unproductive thoughts and behaviours we may have — like having skewed negative perceptions of our partner or help us in learning how to communicate in a way that makes our relationship grow and thrive!
If you want to improve your relationship it’s worth the time and effort! Good luck becoming a better communicator.