None of us are born knowing how to communicate, we learn patterns through growing up in our family system. Therefore, if your family did not know how to communicate effectively chances are you will not either. We then carry those faulty patterns into our relationships and pass them down to our children, the cycle continues. Therefore, it is important to learn from past mistake and gain new skills to communicate openly and effectively with those in our lives. We all have conflict and will have arguments in our most intimate relationships (family, romantic, work, etc.). The work I do with families and couples is not about removing conflict but about improving the communication so the real feelings and messages are relayed.
I look at communication as having 3 different components:
1. what not to do
2. how to express feelings
3. how to be a good listener.
I will first address what NOT to do; things that you should look out for as an indication that you need help with your communication. John Gottman first discussed the faulty communication patterns of couples when he discussed the four horsemen (www.gottman.com). These represent four ways that people perpetuate negative communication and do not work towards resolving issues but often times inflame the already strained relationship.
The first horseman is criticism. This is picking out the negative and attack the persons character in a personal manner. Instead, the person needs to focus on their own feelings without blaming the other person. I good way to do this is using "I messages", which will be addressed later. The second horseman is defensiveness. This is when the person lashes out in an attempt to protect themselves from what they perceive as an attack from the other person. Some of this can be addressed by learning how to accept some responsibility in the situation. The third horseman is contempt.This is seen through sarcasm or being hostile and uncaring. Gottman points out that this is the largest predictor of divorce.The goal is to help develop respect and a renewed investment in the relationship. The final horseman is stonewalling. This occurs during a conflict when the situation becomes too emotionally intense and one or both people withdraw from the conversation (they put up a wall). The goal is to teach people to self-sooth and get to a place where they can return to the conversation without the heightened emotions.
Now that you know what faulty patterns and behaviors to look for; what's next? The following are two positive skills that can improve communication; "I messages" and "A/B conversations". The first are "I messages" which is designed to help people more clearly express their own feelings. This type of communication helps to reduce defensiveness and opens communication to get underlying needs met. The basic format is "I feel_________, when you_______because_______." So instead of blaming and causing defensiveness, "You are always late and it makes me so angry" you can say "I feel angry when you are late because I get worried that you might be hurt.". This explains your feeling, while also explaining why the feelings happened and where those feelings were coming from. You can also add a second part to the formula in the form of a request, "In the future could you______ so I can______?" So using the earlier example; "In the future could you call or txt me when you are running late so I can have peace of mind?" The main goal in this communication pattern is to clearly explain feelings, reduce defensiveness, and clarify expectations.
The final communication skill I discuss with clients frequently is the "A/B conversation". This helps to teach couples how to truly listen to what is being said and not simply wait for silence so they can speak. While in my office I have one person chose to be person A and one to be person B. Person A then becomes the talker and person B is the listener. I typically start off with a discussion that is benign and innocuous in nature, such as their favorite movie or food. I give the directions that person A is to explain fully why they love that particular food so much in about 2-3 sentences; person B can only listen. After person A is done, I ask person B to summarize what A just said. They are not permitted to make any assumptions or inferences, they cannot correct or give their own opinion, they are only to summarize. If person B starts engaging in any of the above disallowed behaviors I redirect them to summarize only. After person B summarizes I check with person A to see if person B missed anything, if they did person B will have to try again. They repeat that step until person B received and understood all the information. I then discuss with person A how it felt to be heard in such a complete way and how it was for person B to have to listen and not give input. This type of active and complete listening is crucial for people to feel and actually be heard. I then reverse the roles and have them do the exercise 3 or 4 more times. After they have practice with simple issues I have them each chose an actual difficult topic and I guide them through that discussion utilizing "I messages" and the "A/B conversation" method.
Learning to communicate effectively can be a difficult process since our patterns are often rooted in a long family history. However, with concerted efforts learning new skills it is quite possible to have positive and open communication in a relationship. Remember, there are 3 keys to positive communication; 1. What not to do 2. How to express your feelings 3. How to be an effective listener.