5 Easy Ways To Communicate Better in Your Relationship
I’m sure you’ve heard this saying before: communication is the key 🔑 to any relationship. It sounds cliché but it’s true. I think it’s really easy to tell people that communication is important in a healthy relationship but it’s not as easy to explain how to communicate. And if we’re never taught how to use this key, then we’ll never be able to open the door to healthy communication.
Communication is defined as a lot of things but my favorite definition includes, “the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings”. I always say I’m a great talker, but I have to also be an equally great listener in order to be a great communicator. Communication is about expressing yourself in a healthy way, listening to your partner when they are doing the same, and really hearing and absorbing what the other person has to say.
Below are 5 tips for communicating better in your relationship:
1. Ask Open-Ended Questions
Communication is not just about talking about each other’s days and saying what you had to eat for lunch. It’s about being able to dig deep and get to know this person as well as you can. It’s not always easy to dig deep, especially for those who have never been comfortable talking about their feelings. And it’s not necessary to make every conversation a heart to heart.
There are ways to do this without pressuring your S.O. to spill their deepest secrets. For example, i nstead of asking yes or no questions like “Did you have a good day?” try asking more open-ended questions like, “How was your day?” Yes, they may respond with a brief non-answer (“good”, “fine”, “the same”), but asking open-ended questions gives them an opportunity to share more if they choose to. Keep in mind that not everyone opens up very easily. Be patient with your partner if they are not sharing all the time. We set boundaries around our emotions and everyone’s boundaries are different. So, be mindful and respectful of their emotional boundaries, and they should be equally mindful and respectful of yours.
Ultimately, the more you get to know your S.O. on a deeper level, the more open and honest you may be with each other. And honesty breeds trust, which are two very important pillars of a healthy relationship (hint: communication is another super important pillar!).
How to Effectively Communicate with Others
Our Michigan State research in medical education generated strong evidence for precise ways to be person-centered. I’ll outline them here as they apply in typical, everyday conversations. 2
Exchanging meaningful information and establishing a relationship go hand-in-hand—good communication begets a good relationship, a good relationship begets good communication. Identifying and responding to another’s emotions mediates the process.
Try the skills I’ll describe with someone you scarcely know as well as, say, your spouse, children, or boss. It will surprise you. For example, after using person-centered skills with his wife, one of my students revealed his astonishment at her response: “That’s the best conversation we’ve ever had, it seemed like you were really listening and cared about what I said.”
The key is listening attentively but not passively. In general, keeping your own ideas to yourself, pay special attention to comments the other person makes about themselves and issues important to them. What they say may not seem particularly exciting, maybe not even very interesting, but it’s important to them, so don’t interrupt with your story. If someone is worth speaking to, they’re worth listening to.
To actively listen, first show interest by making eye contact and leaning slightly forward. Then initiate the conversation with some variation of, “How are you doing?” or “How’s it going?” Next, draw out concerns and ideas you hear them state, perhaps saying something like, “Tell me more about your (job, classes, retirement).” Or simply restate—echo—what they just said, for example, “Your job’s not going well,” or “Your classes suck,” or “You’re being forced to retire.” These comments let the other person know you’re interested, following what they’re saying, and that you want them to keep going on the same track.
Finding the other’s emotion is the pinnacle of the interaction. 3 Therefore, continuing the conversation using similar encouraging comments, keep your ear attuned for information that might have some underlying emotion. Then focus the person on these comments, for example, stating, “Tell me more about your dog dying / losing your gym privileges / not being asked your opinion.” A caveat: People often mention a possibly emotional topic and quickly shift to another subject, perhaps “testing the water” to see if you will respond and want to hear more about important emotional issues for them. So listen carefully and take them back to possible emotionally charged issues.
After you reach the more tension-laden material and have probed a bit further to develop some understanding of the situation, it’s time to identify the emotion or feeling that accompanies it; for example, “How did that make you feel when your dog died?” or “What was the feeling when you could no longer exercise at the gym?” or “What emotion did you experience when you’d waited and they didn’t ask for your recommendation?” Next, try to better understand the feeling they express: “Tell me more about being depressed when she died / angry about the virus shutting down the gym because people won’t get their shots / upset about doing all the work and being ignored.”
Sometimes, however, it’s not that easy. The person will not express an emotion when you ask. They might respond, “I don’t know, nothing I guess, our family just didn’t talk about feelings.” But you still probe a bit more, for example, saying something like, “If that were me, I might be upset,” of course saying this only if true. When digging deeper in this way, use a less extreme emotion, like “upset” or “distressed” rather than more scary-sounding terms like “angry” or “depressed” that can put people off. Alternatively, instead of indicating how this would affect you, you might refer to someone else, perhaps commenting, “My brother was really upset when he had a check bounce and had to pay,” again, only if it’s actually true.
If you still have not gotten an emotion and if someone appears distressed, it is okay to observe something like, “I can tell by the look on your face that you were upset.” The efforts I’ve described usually will elicit one or more emotions; once again, ask them to elaborate so you develop a better understanding of the context of their emotional issue. On the other hand, if you still haven’t identified an emotion, that’s okay. Let it go. Don’t make someone uncomfortable by pressuring them.