The most common reason a couple will seek therapy tends to be a communication breakdown in the relationship. Without knowing how to communicate, one or both parties feels like they are not being heard, and their needs are not being met. To an outside observer, the couple may seem to be communicating just fine. However, are they communicating in a way that will get them heard and understood?
When we’re frustrated or feeling unheard, we will often go into a conversation without a true understanding of our own needs, wants, and intended outcomes. Alternatively, we know exactly what we want and still don’t get it, even if we have communicated about it hundreds of times. If you have found yourself on either side of this equation, this article might be for you. Let’s go beyond what we need and dive into how to communicate in a manner where we are going to feel heard. We need to know how to communicate in a way that will result in some type of satisfactory resolution.
It’s like the old saying goes: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. This is good advice, but there is a bit more to it. How you say things is only one component of effective communication. What you say is just as important. The what is the main reason you are trying to speak to someone, therefore be sure you know what you’re trying to communicate. Know what your priorities are in having the conversation, and don’t lose sight of your end goal. Most importantly understand and communicate why it is important to you, and important to the relationship. Simply put: communicate what the issue is and what you need or want out of the conversation.
Some people are naturally great communicators, or have a high level of emotional intelligence and the ability to communicate effectively. However, it’s extremely common to fall short in the communication skills department as well – no matter how intelligent you are.
Understanding how to communicate the right way will help you avoid inadvertently communicating in a way that pushes your partner away. Communication skills can make or break a relationship.
Below are some tips that can help you better communicate and express yourself in a relationship:
1. Avoid Unhealthy Communication
Whenever possible, do not give the silent treatment or stonewall your partner or the person you’re dating. Avoid raised voices and be sure to avoid assumptions or accusations. Be mindful of non-verbal language (i.e. eye rolling and scoffing) and stay away from sarcasm and put-downs.
2. Clarify Your Priorities
Before you go into a specific interaction, figure out what your priorities are. Should you be prioritizing this relationship, your partner, or do you need to prioritize yourself? Likely, if you are trying to be heard in a relationship, you want to maintain the relationship, therefore the relationship is the priority. And if you need to prioritize yourself, well, that may be a different conversation altogether.
Relationships require a healthy amount of give and take to work, so when you’re prioritizing the relationship, compromise should be expected.
3. Identify Your Goal
Ask yourself this: what are you hoping to accomplish with your partner? Is there something you need your partner to do for you, or stop doing? Perhaps you simply want your partner to take out the trash. Great! Your goal is, “Get my partner to take out trash.”
Are you just hoping your partner will sit down with you and share how their day went? Great! The goal is better communication. The nature of your goal will likely change how and when you approach your partner. If you want the trash taken out, it’s probably not the best idea to ask them as they get into bed. Having a specific goal in mind is key to effective communication. It is also a necessary part of managing your own expectations. If you don’t have a specific goal in mind going into a conversation, you likely will be dissatisfied no matter what your partner does.
4. How to Communicate Better by Being Specific
Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill by communicating in an exaggerated or vague manner. If you want to communicate a need or a frustration to your partner, keep it simple, specific, and on topic.
For example, if you are upset because your partner stayed out all night and did not text you, communicate the specifics. Avoid going off about all the times they have done this, or other ways they don’t meet your needs. Stick to a specific incidence in which your partner stayed out too late.
Good communication sounds like: “The other night when you didn’t come home until 2 a.m., I got worried and felt disrespected.”
Bad communication sounds like: “You always stay out too late and never text me.”
The more specific you are with a request or a concern, the more likely it is that the other person will be able to meet your needs. Take this scenario: one partner feels they are doing more around the house than the other and they make vague statements such as, “I do more work around the house” or, “I wish you would clean up more.” While this expresses the issue, there is no direct request. It is unclear what steps the partner who is not cleaning enough could take to solve the problem.
Imagine the results if you got more specific. Instead, one should ask their partner to do a load of laundry on Thursday nights. This directedness leaves no room for interpretation, and you are effectively communicating an exact need.
5. Don’t Respond to a Need with a Need
This may be the most important tip in this article. Expressing concerns in a relationship should not ever be tit-for-tat. If your partner brings up a concern to you, focus on that. Don’t take this as an opportunity to express your concerns about them. Our brains can only process so much information at once.
In other words, when communicating with your partner, sometimes less is more! Learning how to communicate the healthy way requires an understanding that less is more, because if you don’t overwhelm your partner, they’re more likely to hear you. If you are frustrated because your partner leaves their shoes in the middle of the hallway, say that. Don’t go off about how messy they are all the time, or how they never pick up their things.
Furthermore, responding to a partner’s need with your own can come off as selfish and defensive, as you are both focussing on yourself while avoiding addressing each other’s needs. When you respond to their needs with one of your own, they certainly won’t feel heard. If what they say brings up something for you, it might be best to save that conversation for a different day.
6. Remember That They Can’t Read Your Mind
Despite what you might think, your partner does not always know what you’re thinking. What might be obvious to you is not always obvious to them. If you don’t know what your partner is feeling, ask them. We may think we are communicating a need by rolling our eyes when the house is messy, or by making passive comments like, “I never see you anymore.” But we aren’t —– something is being assumed here, and will likely get lost in translation. More often than not, couples will comment that the other person “Should have known”. We are not fortune-tellers (and even if you are, you probably can’t tell the future). So don’t assume your partner is. Shutting down, being passive-aggressive, or acting angry to “make them understand” is toxic and unhealthy. If you want to communicate, be open, direct, and don’t assume that what you’re thinking is obvious. Many relationship conflicts could be avoided if we let go of this assumption! In fact, many relationship conflicts could be avoided if we asked questions instead of assuming things – in general.
7. Express Feelings, Not Demands
One of the biggest things that gets in the way of effective communication of a need is one person feeling attacked or burdened. Someone can easily feel attacked if the other person doesn’t know how to communicate their issue the right way.
This is especially hard in the beginning of a relationship. You are testing the waters with a new person and want to make sure you get what you need out of this new relationship, but you also don’t want to sound too needy or pushy. Everyone feels that way, and there’s a very simple way to deal with it. For example: maybe the person you have been dating has not texted you in a few days.
Your first instinct might be to ask them, “Why haven’t you texted me back?”, but tread lightly with this, as this can be interpreted as “demanding” they text you. Instead, express how it makes you feel when you don’t hear from them.
For example, a healthier and more effective way of communicating is: “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you, and getting texts from you when I’m at work makes my day. When we go days without talking, I feel a little down.” Follow up with a specific goal: “Can we agree to text more as we get to know each other?”
This style of communication is effective because it’s not combative in nature, it takes away the blame, and will help avoid situations where Mr. Does-Not-Text shuts down rather than addresses the issue. Now it has become a request, rather than demand.
8. Listen and Validate
If you want to be heard in a relationship, you also need to listen. Whether you’re simply asking your partner how their day went, or making a request about something that’s important to you, they too want to feel heard and understood. For example, imagine you and your partner just moved in together and have been struggling with sharing a bedroom for the first time. One of you likes heavy blankets and snores, the other person uses their reading lamp before bed —– you both need to work together to figure out how you can co-sleep in a way that works, and feel rested. Making changes (separate blankets, earplugs, an eye mask, a dimmer reading light) is the first step, but you must also check-in with one another to see how these changes are working. Simply asking, “How did you sleep last night?” does not leave much room for the other person to express themselves if they struggle with communication.
It would be more helpful to ask open-ended questions such as: “What worked well last night with our sleeping arrangement?” This way, you might avoid the one-word answer that good communicators dread: “fine.” If you are giving your partner space to communicate, make sure you’re actively listening and validating their feelings in return. The tricky part of validation is that you need to remember that you can validate them even if you don’t agree with what they are saying. Read that again if you need to.
How do you do this? Validate the emotion they’re expressing, not the statement itself. Returning to our example, your partner may respond to your question about the sleeping arrangements in a negative way, “Nothing worked! This is stupid!” In this case, you would not want to validate that “this is stupid.” Instead, recognize the emotion behind this statement, which in this case is frustration. An example of a response: “It sounds like you are frustrated with this situation, and I can understand why you would feel this way.” By acknowledging and validating your partner’s emotional experience, you are communicated that their experience matters.
You’re not dismissing their experience or their feelings, and they’ll feel heard.
9. Express How This Could Benefit You Both
If you are able to get your specific needs met in the conversation and communicate effectively, the relationship is more likely to succeed. For example, if your goal is to have your partner be “unplugged” when hanging out, make sure to let them know how this will benefit both of you. Although this request is a need you want to be met, you are more likely to get what you want if you make it clear as to how this will benefit both of you. In this case, being “unplugged” while spending time together will strengthen communication, allow you both to spend quality time together without distractions, make each person in the relationship feel like a priority, and ultimately make your relationship stronger and improve your bond.
10. Compromise, Because Relationships are About Give and Take
Is there room for some give and take? Some people forget how crucial give and take is in a relationship. Coming to an understanding is the goal of most communication. Whether you are addressing a conflict in your relationship or having a discussion about what kind of dog you would adopt, ultimately some sort of compromise could be in the best interest of both of you. You want a date night every Saturday night, your partner can’t commit to that. Is there a middle ground you are willing to come to in order to move forward? Date night every two weeks?
The ability to compromise requires a lot of emotional intelligence (EQ). Your DNA plays a part in how emotionally intelligent you are, but anyone can improve their EQ. You can always take a DNA test and read about your genetic traits, such as whether or not you’re genetically more likely to have higher or lower emotional intelligence.
11. Sometimes, it’s Okay to Go to Bed Angry
Common advice when it comes to healthy relationships is: “Never go to bed angry.” This can often be more harmful than helpful. Sometimes, going to bed angry and taking space from a conversation that is not going anywhere is exactly what we need. Perhaps if you didn’t resume tomorrow, all that would happen is that the conflict would escalate instead of resolve.
When emotions are high, we tend to lose the ability to communicate effectively. In this case, both parties can agree to literally put the conversation to bed and come back to it in the morning. More often than not, couples admit to saying things they don’t mean in the heat of the moment. Or, they mean it, but it has come out the wrong way. There is a point when our emotions run so hot that we are unable to access the reasonable part of our brains. When the emotional center in the brain is on fire, so is our attitude and lack of patience. Our emotions are serving an important purpose in this instance and letting us know it’s likely not the best time to be hashing anything out. Listen to your gut and walk away. Come back when emotions calm down and you’re able to think with facts instead of feelings.
Ultimately, communication is a skill, and all skills take practice. This is not a one-stop shop for being the best communicator, but rather a guide to make you more mindful about you and your partner’s communication styles. Keep in mind we can only control how we communicate, we can’t control how one responds to our communication! If you are having trouble communicating, consider reaching out to a qualified therapist to help guide you towards healthier communication habits.