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How well you and your partner communicate may very well be the determining factor of whether or not your relationship survives. While couples go to therapy for many reasons such as money, parenting, feeling disconnected, intimacy issues, etc. at the basis of most of these problems is poor communication. Effective communication, on the other hand, not only prevents needless arguments that can slowly deteriorate a relationship, but it is one of the key factors to creating a strong intimate bond and that feeling of warmth and closeness that we all crave.
Below are 4 ways to improve common communication mistakes.
1. Don’t anticipate a conflict
As a practicing psychologist for almost 15 years, one of the most common communication mistakes I see is that people often avoid expressing how they feel because they don’t want to cause a conflict. The assumption that expressing your emotions will cause a conflict is the mistake. To be fair, most people jump to this conclusion because in the past they’ve experienced trying to express how they feel and it didn’t turn out well. But when you imagine something going badly, you prepare for it to go badly. When people expect a fight, they often avoid expressing negative emotions which can create a sense of awkward distance between two people, or they wait until they are so upset that they can’t hold them in any longer. Feelings which may have been brewing for many weeks come out in an explosion that feels like an attack to the other person.
Instead of doing this, imagine what it would be like to talk to your partner in a way that would feel calm. When you don’t expect a conversation to go badly and can anticipate a positive outcome, your approach and energy will be entirely different when you engage with your partner.
2. Don’t tell someone what they did wrong
When most people do get up the courage to have a discussion, the next most common mistake is that many people feel the need to justify how they are feeling by telling the other person what they did wrong. I feel upset because you are not spending enough time with me. I am angry at you for spending too much money. While expressing your emotions is critical to good communication, following it up with what the other person did wrong will immediately put the other person on the defensive and result in the other person being less able to hear what you are saying.
The reason most people do this is because expressing emotions, without justifying them can make you feel vulnerable. Which brings us to the next point.
3. Do state your feelings without justifying them
Communicating your emotions is critical to creating intimacy in a relationship but how you do it significantly effects the response you will get. The most effective way to do this is to tell someone how you feel without justifying your feelings. I feel sad. I feel hurt. I feel disappointed. While this sounds simple, for most people the idea of telling someone how they feel without justifying the feeling can be very anxiety provoking, because you feel vulnerable to your partner’s criticism and/or judgement. What if he/she thinks my feelings aren’t valid or worse what if he/she doesn’t care? But if the person you are speaking to cares about you, their natural response will be “Why?” That person is now engaged and has invited you into a conversation.
The best way to get better at this is to practice in non-threatening situations and with people you are less close to. Start by saying the words “I feel____” out loud, while looking at yourself in the mirror. Don’t justify the feeling by saying why you feel a certain way—just own the emotion without explaining it. It’s harder than it sounds. Then practice telling the people you encounter throughout the day how you feel. When the person taking your coffee order asks, “How are you?” instead of saying “fine,” as we are all conditioned to do, tell them how you really feel. I feel pretty good today, or I feel annoyed at the traffic. Work the words “I feel” into as many conversations as you can during the day. After a week or two, try it out with your partner.
4. Do tell the person what you would like and offer a solution
Most negative feelings are generated because of something you don’t like or don’t want. On the other side of what you don’t want, though, is something you do want: I feel angry because I don’t like being dismissed—I want to be heard. Or, I feel hurt because I don’t like that you are always busy—I want you to spend more time with me.
Instead of justifying your emotions, skip over the part about what you don’t want, and go directly to what you do want. Asking someone to stop doing something you don’t like such as criticizing you, is distinctly different from asking them to give you more of what you want such as support. I feel lonely—I’d really like it if we could spend more time together. Not only does this avoid putting the other person on the defensive, it empowers the other person to identify what they can do to make the situation better. This has the two-fold benefit of increasing the likelihood that your wants will be heard and met.
The reason these communication mistakes are so common is that they tend to serve as a way to self-protect in some way and they are often times very over practiced automatic responses you engage in. Changing your communication patterns will take the consistent awareness to do something different but the positive results will be well worth the effort.
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