When I ask couples why they are seeking therapy, I often hear “We want to work on our communication.” In a previous post I laid out barriers to effective communication. In this post I list ways to communicate in a healthy way with your partner.
Assertive communication is about respecting your partner’s boundaries and your own. It includes being open and honest with how you are feeling while also acknowledging your partner’s emotions. Assertive communication is about being clear and kind in your requests and avoiding assumptions about your partner to prevent misunderstandings.
The way you speak to and think about yourself will impact the way you communicate with others. Those who can successfully challenge negative, irrational thoughts and think about themselves in a balanced way tend to communicate more effectively with others. Remember that your self-care is important for your own health as well as those around you.
Reading social cues
70% of communication is non-verbal. In addition to words, our body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice are also sending messages. Be aware of your own body language and stay attuned to your partner’s. Also consider the cultural context: body language that is a sign of respect in one culture could be considered offensive in another.
Give and take
The word negotiation has a business connotation but is a necessary skill for healthy communication in a relationship. While compromise is when each partner gives up something that they want in order to meet in the middle, negotiation happens when one person gets what they want in the present and the other gets what they want in the future. In this way, negotiation is more effective than compromise because each partner feels like they are not being deprived of something that is important to them. Open-mindedness is a prerequisite for healthy compromise and negotiation.
Empathy is feeling “with” someone, while sympathy is feeling “for” someone. To truly empathize with a partner who is experiencing challenges, we would need to access similar feelings within ourselves. Even if we cannot relate to the experience, we can probably relate to the emotion felt. For example, if your partner is feeling sad after losing a job, you may still be able to empathize even if you have never lost a job. This is because in the past you have felt sadness after a loss. In short, empathy drives connection while sympathy drives disconnection.
Couples who are experiencing unhealthy communication struggle to take the perspective of their partner. When each person focuses only on their own needs and feelings, empathy cannot exist, which further impedes healthy communication. It is important to recognize that we can never fully grasp what another person is undergoing, even if we know them well and have similar experiences. In other words, every emotional experience is unique.
Use “I” statements
Speak from your own perspective and do not attribute your feelings and experiences to others without their permission. For example, an “I” statement would be: “I feel frustrated because the dishes didn’t get done as we talked about,” not “You made me frustrated when you did not do the dishes.” In the former, the partner is speaking from their own experience, while in the latter they are blaming someone else and externalizing their feelings.
Take a time out
It is okay to take a break from a stressful situation. Not every conflict has to be addressed as it is happening. Healthy communication includes knowing when to walk away and to revisit the issue after each person has had a chance to gather their thoughts and reflect upon the situation.
Here you have a small sample of the essentials of healthy communication. Complete a checklist to identify which of the above you are doing well, and those that could be improved. Contact us for couples counseling in Chicago, and work with your Symmetry therapist to tackle this!