“How do we communicate better?”

The most common request I hear as a relationship coach is

“How do I/we communicate better?”

and the single most expressed complaint is the lack of good communication. Requests to improve communication move me to curiosity.

Questions I ask couples include:

  • What are you saying, and how are you saying it, when you best communicate? Is it physical expression? Are you stellar at storytelling and communicating stories of your friends’ experiences, or your children’s? Do you sometimes know what your partner is thinking without having spoken a word? Do you excel at seeing your partner’s heart through their eyes? How do you best communicate?
  • What situations, or topics, are difficult to talk about?
  • When do you notice trouble communicating? Is it all the time? Sometimes? When? 
  • How does your partner answer these questions? Where are your perspectives aligned?

Everyone is challenged to be their best communicator when overly stressed, under tight deadlines, fatigued, hungry, exhausted, or ill. Cut yourself some slack if you occasionally bomb the talk under these circumstances. If you consistently seem to fall short of your objectives in communication, realize that unless you have a natural ability to communicate well (in which case you probably are not reading this article), or you seriously studied speech, writing, communication, debate, etc, you picked up what you know of communication from your home and social environment. Give yourself, and others, permission to be beginner communication students.

Talking is easy. Saying what you want to say so that you get the results you want to get is more complex than simply talking.  One couple, Mary and Joe, come to me with a request, to learn how to communicate better. As they sit in my office, Joe is looking down at the floor, obviously distressed, while Mary shares a painful event from earlier in her day at work. Each is caught up in their own story and not connecting with the other. I wonder how often their communication looks like this? To feel heard and acknowledged, Mary needs her partner, Joe, to make eye contact and move his body closer to hers. These she needs to feel heard and valued in this moment. All of this IS communication, though it is not so much about the words spoken as the unspoken actions. It is critical that partners be aware of the physicality of each person. Highly important elements of communication include eye contact, moving closer to partner, touching (holding a hand, or putting an arm around the partner’s shoulder, etc.), and turning towards a partner. Mary’s caught up in her own hurt and the emotional challenge to share and risk her vulnerability. Joe may be listening, or may be off in his own world. In either case, Joe misses a key opportunity to validate Mary’s hurt by making eye contact with her.  If he is having his own challenge listening or supporting, Joe has a responsibility to voice what’s going on for him. In the absence of his sharing, Mary makes something up, probably something negative, and the couple misses a point of connection. Communication takes a hit. Their relationship is dinged.

Everyone needs “Three A’s”: Acceptance, Appreciation, and Acknowledgment, from partners, family, parents, employer, friends; basically from everyone who counts in a person’s life. It is most important for couples to exchange these three A’s regularly and consistently. When communicating, we seek acceptance, acknowledgment and appreciation. Mary had a troubling work experience and needed her partner, Joe, to look at her as acknowledgment of her hurt, and accept her by physically turning toward her, demonstrating his care for her well being. Failing to communicate Acceptance, Appreciation and Acknowledgment is still a communication.

When we validate, we demonstrate our support, acceptance, or recognition of our partner. Such recognition is like depositing "emotional currency” into a relationship bank account. Oh, you didn’t know your relationship had such an account? I invite you to think of your relationship in banking analogies, as an account ready for deposits and withdrawals. Your actions and words fall into one of the two activities. I challenge you to think in these terms, pausing before you respond to your partner. How about setting a goal of building a robust relationship account? Whatever we do in relationship falls into one of two categories: deposit or withdrawal. Listening, really listening, by making eye contact and being curious about what is going on for your partner, are wonderful ways to contribute emotional currency deposits.


Questions for reflection and personal/relational growth:

  • What can you do or say to communicate your acknowledgment of your partner?
  • How do you demonstrate your appreciation? If you say you appreciate, how genuine and heartfelt are your words? What could boost them up a level?
  • How does your partner acknowledge you? Is it enough? Is it genuine?  Is there a withholding? 
  • Are you and your partner different in your communication styles, yet able to be balanced in your differences? 
  • Where and how do you communicate well? Pause and reflect on this. Write down everything about your communication that you do well. Once you have captured this, go to part two: how can you take what you do well and apply it to other situations? 

© 2015 Maren Beckman