Who among us couldn’t stand to improve the way we communicate better in our relationships?
Whether this is romantic, platonic, or familial, these practical, actionable tips can help you communicate better with a variety of people in your life.
Tool #1: Frame the Conversation for Success.
If you’re a human in any kind of relationship, there are likely going to be moments where you have conversations with someone about your needs, wants, and opinions. And sometimes the person you’re talking to has different needs, wants, and opinions.
Ever happened to you? I’m guessing so. I’m also going to take a guess here that sometimes those conversations haven’t gone exactly the way you want them to.
That makes sense: expressing our emotions can be vulnerable and can frequently trigger defensiveness both in ourselves and in the other person (those darn porcupine quills that get in the way!).
One of the ways we can set ourselves up for success if we need to have a potentially challenging conversation with someone (and reduce the possibility of quill spikes) is to practice a conversation frame that looks like this:
- Check in with them and get their permission about talking at this time.
- State the reason why you want to have this conversation (hint: it’s because you care).
- State the action/event/trigger of the conversation objectively (as a video camera might have recorded it).
- Name the impact or, in other words, how this made you feel (eg: “I feel sad.” not “I feel like you don’t care if I’m sad.”).
- Check in with the other person about their intent versus impact.
- Make a request (not a demand) for what you would like instead.
- Be available to hear the other person’s response and perspective.
Tool #2: Reflect, Empathize, and Validate the Other.
Creating a good frame for potentially challenging conversations is a great first step to try and ensure that more connection happens between you and the other person, but using the framework without practicing reflective, empathetic listening and validation of the other’s experience doesn’t result in connection: it just results in you elegantly stating your demands if the other’s perspective isn’t taken into account.
We’re looking for real connection here, so try the following reflective, empathetic listening and validation steps to help connection happen during a challenging conversation:
- First, allow space for the other person to share their experience.
- Seek to understand the other person’s experience by offering what they said back to them.
- Practice genuinely empathizing with their perspective (note: empathy doesn’t have to mean agreeing, it means connecting with something in yourself that understands their experience or feeling).
- Validate their perspective.
Tool #3: Slow Things Down When Tempers Speed Up.
Despite our best intentions to communicate skillfully and despite how much we may love someone, rupture in relationship is inevitable and conversations don’t always go so well. That’s why I think it’s super helpful for all of us to have a handful of mini-intervention tools to use when tempers start to speed up so we can slow things down, repair if necessary, and increase our chances of coming back together in connection:
- Practice Timeouts. Kindergarten-ish though it may seem, taking timeouts (with a very specific frame) when conflict is happening between you and another can be a really wise move if either or both of you are feeling too emotional or too defensive to communicate productively. In order to practice a timeout effectively, both individuals have to agree to take one (even though one may want to continue and the other needs to take a break, it’s important to come to some kind of consensus to take one), and both have to agree on the time that will be taken (ten minutes, five?) and who will re-initiate after the timeout is over. A timeout is counterproductive if one person just storms off and takes one and doesn’t provide the other person with any sense of security that they will return and the conflict will be re-addressed. Use that timeout to ground, to breathe, to move the energy in your body, to reconnect back to why you care about that person in the first place, come back together after the timeout is over and try again.
- Establish a Safe Word. Creating a mutually-agreed upon safe word that either or both of you can use in private or in public when things are escalating can be a good way to pause the conversation and bring some mindfulness to how you’re just not connecting at that moment. And, bonus, if the word is really funny (think “Tardis!” or “Chewbacca!”) it can bring about some comic relief in an otherwise tense time and help you guys connect back together in some shared humor.
- Create Some Relational Ground Rules. Taking the time to establish some “rules of engagement” for your relationships before conflict occurs can be a great, bonding experience and also something highly effective you can fall back on when you’re in the midst of conflict. Here’s a few ground rules I think are key in relationship: 1) There is no right and wrong; 2) You’re not having this conversation to convince each other of your own righteous truth, you’re having it to try to connect; 3) The idea is to make space for each other and your differences in the relationship; 4) You’re in it together, you’re not on opposites sides so trust that you both want what’s best for one another.
And if you’re interested in more help to improve your romantic relationship and are curious about couples counseling, please feel free to reach out to us to set up a complimentary 20-minute consult call so we can match you with the best therapist for your situation.