Effective communication is the basis for any healthy relationship. It’s a skill we learn and practice throughout our life, and effective communication needs to be adaptive, creative, and flexible in order to be truly successful.
Here are 12 skills to help make communication within a relationship bring more connection and joy, rather than frustration and separation. Spend time reading through these 12 skills with your partner and collectively choose a couple to start with at first.
1. Have accountability for your actions
Most people struggle with healthy communication, and unhealthy patterns are created over years of our lives – a lack of, or ineffective skills are often reinforced in multiple relationships. It’s also a struggle as many of us aren’t / weren’t supported in understanding, owning, and expressing our thoughts and feelings authentically (another skill important to hone in adulthood).
Taking accountability for your own lack of skills and your own experiences will support you in learning new, effective skills, and create connections with others who also take accountability for themselves.
2. Be flexible with your communication style
Communication is deceptively simple and also extremely complex. We talk, we listen. We have verbal and non-verbal communication. We receive and we give. We observe and we are told. In order to grasp the complexities (and simplicities) of communication, you must be a student of your own communication style – your vulnerabilities and strengths.
You also need to observe and become familiar with your thoughts and feelings, AND you must be adaptable and flexible to other people’s communication styles, vulnerabilities, and strengths. All of this needs to be done with intention and a life-long commitment to learning and adapting with both old and new relationships.
3. Make sure it’s a team approach
Remind each other inside and outside of conflict that you are in this together. Together in partnership. Together in conflict. Together in joy. You are a team. Know why each of you actively choose to be in a partnership and keep redefining this concept together. Have the ‘team approach’ at the center of your relationship so that when you have moments of feeling ‘against’ each other, you can more easily swing back to a team approach mentality. This will be more effective, and both you and your partner will work to preserve and protect the relationship first and foremost.
4. Create a safe space to be vulnerable with one another
Know what you and your partner need to feel safe enough to open up to emotional vulnerability.
There are three safety categories:
• What you need from your partner (eye contact, active listening),
• What you need from your environment (dogs outside, kids asleep, tv off),
• What you need to provide for yourself (fed, not tired, emotionally regulated).
If you and your partner do not feel safe in all three categories, it will be difficult to have authentic, connected, relationship-centered conversations and communication.
Create safety parameters for your relationship as well. Have a bar that you do not cross in anger, for example if you both agree not to use certain words like “divorce” or “hate”. It is also your responsibility to know your partner’s emotional buttons and to not push them – this does not create trust nor safety – do not add fuel to any fire.
5. Be responsible for yourself
It is your responsibility to emotionally regulate yourself before, during, and after any communication or conflict. Your partner can help, and you can ask for things to change (remember you’re a team) but ultimately, it is your responsibility to take care of your emotional needs.
Communication will be more productive and balanced if each of you can trust that individually you are taking care of your own emotional needs. Have tools to help cope with sadness, anger, frustration, etc. and ensure that you have a support system outside of your partner and your relationship.
6. Be understanding with each other
Focus on understanding rather than being understood. Don’t listen with the intention to respond, try listening to understand – don’t tune out, tune in! Approach communication with this mindset and say it to your partner. “I want to understand you and I want to see your perspective.” Do not treat this as a court of law where someone is being interrogated. Do not die on the hill of details, and do not prioritize being right.
Yes, each person should be heard and have a chance to express differing points of view, but the focus needs to shift towards understanding the other’s point of view as opposed to refuting it. This ensures that you hear differences with an open and curious mind and heart.
Use techniques that showcase understanding such as “This is what I heard… What did I get right and where do I need to learn more? I want to make sure I understand what matters most to you.”
Try this exercise for understanding:
1) Write your perspective as fully as possible.
2) Write what you think is your partner’s perspective – it should be as long or longer than what you wrote about yours.
3) Write what you think your relationship needs from you in this matter. If you take this exercise seriously, your pattern of ‘having to win’ rather than understanding will shift.
7. Listen with intent
If you or your partner wants to debrief, share a story, or unload and vent, make the need clear before the story begins. Ask or state which of these you need from your partner:
1) To be a witness. As a witness, you listen attentively, acknowledge the emotions and experiences of the one seeking a witness. Desiring a witness, you want the experience to be known by your partner, but do not need or want comments or solutions.
2) To receive advice. As someone giving advice, you are actively helping to problem solve or support with different perspectives. Desiring advice, you are looking for someone to be an advisor for / with you.
3) To receive their thoughts. As someone giving thoughts, you are asking questions, offering reframes, but not suggesting advice nor solutions – you’re a bystander alongside your partner. Desiring thought, you are looking for someone to be “in it” with you, a supporting role.
8. Use humor respectfully
Well-timed and well-placed humor can diffuse a situation, lower stress and emotional intensity when trying to communicate. It often can create bonding and serve as a reminder of the team approach! Be mindful to not joke or tease as a passive aggressive way to get something across, though. Humor must originate from a genuine place of silliness or lightheartedness without being dismissive, mean or feel like a jab – this can also be a slippery slope when it comes to intent vs. impact, so choose wisely, but it’s a great tool!
9. Have perspective during a conflict
In conflict, little things can become very large within a millisecond and all safety and perspective flies out the window. Think of the Rule of 5s when it comes to perspective: Will this be important in 5 mins? 5 hours? 5 days? 5 weeks? 5 years?
Think through each of these timeframes. Use that process to monitor how much emotional energy you put into the conflict and communication and to provide yourself perspective. Do note this may differ from the importance your partner decides for themselves.
10. Create rules
And don’t break them! This is different for each couple, but they could include not threatening to break up, not telling family members about sensitive topics, not bringing up past hurts in a current, unrelated context, etc. Have one absolutely-not-ever-happening rule to abide by and commit to, and two others that are important that you can both maintain. There can be grace if there is a slip up with #2 and #3, but you need to be accountable and repair-focused if you violate any of them.
11. Lead and finish with appreciation
Practice with low-hanging fruit topics. Get really good at thanking each other, at pointing out the wins and when in conflict, start and end in thanking each other for caring enough to communicate with love and dedication.
12. Ending a Conflict
Learn to be okay with ending a conflict or conversation not being fully satisfied, without having resolution, and without having all your needs met. This doesn’t have to be catastrophic for the relationship or connection and often is the case. Also know how to transition out of conflict back into ‘normal life’ with repair as the focus (make physical contact, validate, and apologize). Throw up the white flag, if need be, it is okay to give in sometimes – not always, but sometimes! It is also okay to agree to disagree to move on and move through.