What is Communication?

With approximately half of the marriages in the U.S. ending in divorce, learning to communicate effectively with your partner is crucial. With some motivation and persistence, you can learn constructive communication patterns that can improve your significant relationships, rekindle the intimacy in your marriage and reward you with success and satisfaction in life. Here is an example of ineffective communication:

Jim: All you do is create problems! Why did you tell Henry he could try out for football when he hasn't been getting good grades? You always mess things up.

Priscilla (defensively): I do not mess things up! Your problem is you never do anything but sit in front of the TV. If you spent more time with Henry, he would be doing better at school. I always end up doing all the work, and sometimes I wonder why I even married you.

Jim (harshly): You are always putting too much on Henry's plate and setting him up for failure. What kind of mother are you, anyway?

Notice how they attack each other with an overuse of the word "you," they make exaggerated statements like "always" and "never," and they changed the subject three times. Their marriage is headed for trouble unless they improve their communication.

Effective communication is sending the message you want to deliver, in a way that helps facilitate understanding by the other person. It's a two-way process that helps you productively deal with the important topics and common conflicts that are part of being in a relationship.

If you grapple with a mental health challenge, you may want to find a coach, minister or friend to help you with issues that make effective communication difficult. Getting involved in relationship therapy can make a huge difference.

Here are six important skills that contribute to the art of effective communication:

1. Become Aware of Your Thoughts and Feelings

There are five core emotions -- sadness, anger, happiness, joy, love and fear -- and they often exist in a cluster. It's important to become aware of the range and depth of your feelings and to hang in there with them long enough to understand what and how you want to communicate. It can help to write down how you feel about a significant or stressful event. Pay attention to events during the day that seem significant. Turn inward and ask yourself, "How do I feel about this -- sad, mad, scared, frustrated, excited or loving?" Then use the journal technique below to help you become more connected to your feelings.

Eric often felt annoyed with his wife, Angela, for nagging him about picking up, but by staying with his feelings for a while, he was able to calm down and learn that he also felt hurt. In the process, Eric also became aware that, instead of talking to Angela about his negative thoughts, he would often resort to giving her the silent treatment, which infuriated her.

Communicating that you feel hurt is much more likely to be heard by a partner than communicating annoyance or anger, and it enables you to soften your message, which can contribute to an exceptional relationship.

2. Go from Confusion to Clarity

While you are trying to identify your deeper feelings, you may feel confused and try to get out of this state. However, learning to tolerate some uncertainty is central to cultivating stronger relationship skills.

Keep a journal or make notes: Regularly writing about your feelings or confusion can help you sort out your deeper feelings. Try on the different feelings and see what fits. Over time, getting to your core feelings leads to an inner depth and strength that can help your relationship make a leap to a higher level.

Eric kept a journal about his feelings and was able to tell Angela that old feelings about his mother were leading to his rebellious behavior in their relationship. When a partner is able to truthfully talk about a desire to rebel, he or she reduces the probability of actually rebelling.

Take responsibility: When both people take responsibility for their part in the stress or ineffective communication, significant progress is possible.

Angela decided to take charge of her part and communicate concerns in a more inviting way. She started to say things like "I would love it if you would pick up your clothes each day, and I want us to work together as a team." Eric worked to become aware of his feelings and to speak up rather than using the silent treatment. He also took more responsibility around the house by picking up after himself, which meant a great deal to Angela.

Say what you mean: Before relationship therapy, Angela would use an ineffective way to communicate her annoyance at Eric by saying, "You are such a slob; you never pick up your clothes," which is an attacking and defensive way to communicate. After relationship therapy, she said, "It annoys me when I see your mess, and it would mean a lot to me if you would pick up regularly." When Eric first heard this message, he was ready to overreact, but the words "it would mean a lot to me" triggered something positive in him, and he held back instead. He didn't know what he wanted to say and felt confused.

Take some time: Eric stayed with his confusion for several days, telling Angela that he needed to think things through. Angela respected Eric's need for some private time, and this understanding actually helped both of them. Angela's words "it would mean a lot to me" stayed with Eric, and he felt motivated to change. With the pressure off, he was able to clarify that he wanted to have more intimacy with Angela and that picking up was worth the extra effort.

Take a time-out: Eric and Angela learned to take a time-out when they were heading toward destructive communication. If you notice that your communication with your partner or spouse is going nowhere, take a time-out from the discussion so you can each calm down and identify what you really want to communicate. A time-out can turn a problem area into an opportunity for greater intimacy.

3. Be an Activator, not a Procrastinator

Procrastination is a universal problem that can put your life on hold and interfere with creating a wonderful relationship. Many couples postpone bringing up sources of conflict because they imagine negative outcomes. Learning to be an activator, or self-starter, is essential to the discovery of an exceptional relationship with yourself and with others.

Activators do the following:
• bring up problems as soon as they become aware of them and figure out how to approach problems
• take charge and initiate action to communicate with others
• manage their anxiety by focusing on the other person, breathing, and making positive affirmations
• cultivate the motivation to work toward a mutual understanding and compromise by focusing on the benefits of positive resolution
• share positive feelings and appreciations as soon as they notice them
• vividly imagine a positive outcome and remind themselves that, with patience, they will achieve success

4. Take a Positive Approach

When you are upset by your partner, it can be difficult to take a positive approach, but negative feelings can lead to negative, reactive statements. Start the communication with something positive about your partner, and then dive into the discussion making sure your message is clear, effective and empathic. Keep in mind that the person requesting the change needs to be willing to make some change to support the partner’s efforts.

Ted felt that his wife, Rachel, was too rigid with their kids. He learned to communicate this in a positive way by saying, "Rachel, I know you love the kids and are a great mother, but I get angry and hurt when you start laying out a list of rules for the kids. I would love to see you be more supportive when the kids are doing well because you mean the world to them."

5. Overcome Resistance

Many people have visions about the kind of lives they want to lead, but they don't get around to taking the steps necessary to actualize their vision. Part of actualizing your potential in life is learning to do things when you don't want to.

The following mental-health rhyme can provide you with forward-moving thinking:

I can pull myself up, against my own resistance
To get a job done that I don't want to do
And I can do it over and over, for as long as it takes
To alter my existence, based on my insistence
That I can create the world that I want.

©2006 by Patrice Wolters

Learning to overcome resistance is sometimes the hardest part in making real change because you don't even want to get started. One good way to begin is by telling your partner how much you don't want to bring up a topic. Talking about not wanting to do something can lead to actually bringing up the uncomfortable part.

Most people avoid conflict because they don't want to hurt the other person, but in most cases they are really avoiding their own feelings and fear of being hurt. Remember, you can learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings, which will increase your probability of reaching the best stage of your life.

6. Communicate Empathically

This skill mostly involves "just listening" with your heart to what the other person is saying. With active listening, you can then paraphrase what you hear is being said back to the other person. Listen for the inner feelings and motivation of the other person, and focus on what you hear that they want. This method will help you to calm down and focus, and it will invite your partner to bring up uncomfortable topics.

Rachel might say to Ted, "I understand you're bothered by the number of rules I set and that you want me to be more balanced with the kids." This lets Ted know that Rachel heard him, lowers his annoyance, and enables Rachel to focus on Ted instead of her own feelings about being criticized.

If you've lost touch with the positive things about your partner, you can learn to find your way forward to a life-enhancing relationship. If you're not able to succeed on your own, brief relationship therapy can make all the difference. Remember there is hope, there is help and it can be just a phone call away.

Author's Bio: 

Patrice Wolters, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with over 22 years of experience. She specializes in relationship therapy, child and adolescent therapy and in the early identification and treatment of mood disorders in teenagers and young adults. She has helped many couples revitalize their marriages, improve family functioning and create healthy environments for children and teens. Dr. Wolters is particularly interested in helping parents cultivate resiliency, responsibility and healthy relationships in their children and teens. Her trademark "Go from a Maze to Amazing" represents her model of therapy, which is based in the emerging area of positive psychology. For more information about her approach to change and to read various articles she has written, go to http://www.patricewolters.com.