“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


Road Ends in Water

Einstein’s words: “You cannot solve a problem at the level in which it was created” have never been truer than in those painfully dead end and stuck places we find ourselves.

Road Ends in Water images

Take for example, a person needing to share a vulnerability with their partner in order to get a need met. The stuck place of the relationship has a pre-set choreography that might go something like this: if either partner dares to risk being and speaking up with vulnerability, the partner chooses to get defensive, assuming the share is really an attack, thus putting the partner on the defensive. The choreography plays out where both partners blame other and defend self. This is followed by a well rehearsed need for both to retreat while off looking for inner validation. The original need is still unresolved and now has added stress from the blame and attack which ensued as one expressed a need. The ongoing choreography for this couple has each person returning to the relationship with unresolved issues and resentment, plus some painful wounds in need of healing. No place for safe expression, needs go unexpressed, or shared in toxic ways. The couple remains at a dead end, because the level at which the problems are created are unable to find resolution.

Another couple is afraid to share, with an unspoken agreement to keep sensitive topics submerged. Both walk on eggshells around these censored topics, unless and until they start drinking. Then all pent up and unexpressed things are unleashed in a blast of ugly attacks at the character of the partner. Until they find courage without a bottle, they are trapped in the level at which the problem exists. Original problems are heaped with added pain and hurtful attacks, undermining trust and safety. What they know to do, they continue to do and nothing improves between them. They are in despair and stuck; not wanting to end the relationship yet helpless to find resolution.

A third example illustrating this is the couple where one holds the role of silence, and walks on eggshells because they believe if they open up, their partner will retaliate in anger and aggressive words. To avoid the anger, they hold back, and build a silent arsenal of resentment. Guaranteed that until a new level of problem solving is implemented, this couple will find no satisfactory resolution.

It’s doubtful that people start out seeking a relationship, guaranteed to bring them to a stuck and miserable place every time certain topics or situations or behaviors show up. Yet many of us end up there.  Afraid to look for new ways towards resolution, people settle into a despair, stuck in the level of the problem. Fear of change, fear of stepping out of familiar, or fear itself keep us at the level at which the problem exists. We get stuck in familiar patterns, and find an odd comfort in the pain of familiar.
If the road we drive ends at a river we need to cross, we’d better find a bridge or learn to swim. Our car cannot ferry us across the water.
What river needs crossing in your life?
Where do you settle?  
How much frustration is stacked up at your dead end?
What would you do if not afraid?
By the way, among the many benefits of coaching is the ability to shake things up in a good way, and generate perspectives and options. If you're ready for movement and positive change, let's chat.