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How Can I Improve Communication With My Partner?

Natalia DeSouza, LPC

Many couples struggle to find ways to improve their communication skills and deepen intimacy. Conflict in relationships is completely normal, however, it is important for couples to learn how to navigate difficult moments without adding more strain on the relationship.

Dr. John Gottman describes three skills and one rule for positively communicating with a partner, especially during times of high stress and conflict. This conversational road map can help by strengthening the couple’s emotional connection by encouraging active listening, reflection, open-ended questions, empathy, and curiosity. Read on to learn more!

The One Rule: Understanding Must Precede Advice

In other words, the goal of the couple needs to be to understand each other’s point of view as opposed to allowing assumptions and problem-solving to take the lead. Oftentimes, jumping into advice-giving and problem-solving mode too soon, can lead to defensiveness and loss of connection, and should only be used when both partners feel fully understood. When trying to understand another person’s experience, it’s helpful to come from a place of curiosity, even when you think you might already know. Remember, you don’t need to agree with your partner to work towards understanding them. 

Skill #1: Put Your Feelings Into Words

The rule of thumb with this skill is when you can name the emotion coming up for you, you can start to regulate your nervous system, which can reduce stress levels in the body. Because emotions are often accompanied by body sensations, by tuning into your body and emotions, you can start to gain more knowledge about yourself, which then allows you to share that insight with your partner. You can start by searching emotion lists and emotion wheels online and encouraging your partner to do the same. Saying the words, “I feel frustrated, lonely, regretful, ashamed…,” can help your partner to better understand where you are coming from. As you and your partner work towards naming and understanding these emotions, this can help you to process and move through them in a healthy and connected way. 

Skill #2: Ask Open-Ended Questions

An open-ended question can open space for dialogue while simultaneously encouraging sharing between partners. Open-ended questions are crucial in helping each other explore your own emotions. Questions that start with being with, “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How,” can be used to learn more about your partner’s perspective. For instance, “What are you afraid of?” is a great open-ended question to ask if your partner shares with you whether they feel anxious or worried. On the other hand, closed-ended questions call for a “yes” or “no” response. For example, asking your partner, “Are you mad at me?” can be counter-productive in times of conflict. 

Skill #3: Express Empathy 

Empathy can be extremely difficult to practice in times of conflict. Our own pride, egos, and “need-to-be-right” mindset can make it that much more difficult to mindfully work towards understanding a partner’s perspective. The first two skills help by giving couples a sense of what is happening for the other person while encouraging them to explore their wants, needs, feelings, and thoughts. 

Empathy can be shown by understanding that each person’s experience makes sense. Empathy is shown by expressing to your partner that you respect and understand their experience, even though you may not agree or feel the same way about the situation. Empathy is not about agreeing on who is in the wrong, but rather, an active, mutual, continuous process of showing your partner that, although you may have different perspectives, both can be true, valid, and important. Empathy makes us feel heard, seen, understood, and not alone, and it is a critical component in navigating difficult conversations.

We hope this has helped shed some light on effective communication methods you can use to improve communication in your relationship. If you would like to get support in your relationship, talking to a counselor can help. Explore our counseling services to find out more about how we can help, and contact Symmetry Counseling to schedule an appointment for couples therapy in Chicago.

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