Successful Communication Strategies for Couples

Successful Communication Strategies for Couples

As a therapist, I listen carefully to the ways that couples communicate with one another, and the quality of their conversations.  I was recently on vacation, and listening to couples around me, and noticed unsuccessful communication patterns.

A couple in the restaurant was arguing.  The wife was shut down and angry, and moved to a different table for several minutes. When the couple talked, or rather when he spoke, he blamed his wife for prioritizing her kids, and not spending enough time with him. The husband was talking loudly, and never left space for her to respond.  He patronized her, and she shut down. This couple needs help to learn some strategies for effective listening and problem-solving.

How could this couple learn to communicate so that each person feels heard and understood?

Having a therapist in the room is a good start.  This way, both parties are held accountable and they are invested in learning communication tools.  If they are both invested in the marriage and have motivation and accountability, they will learn and change how they listen and respond.

Mindful listening is needed to help relationships flourish, and for both parties to feel heard, understood, and validated.  Usually this involves slowing communication down, and listening to understand, not just to respond.

Practical tips for successful communication

1. Stay grounded and present in your body; breathe from your diaphragm.  Four count breathing is best.   When people get stressed out, they stop breathing deeply; shallow breathing leads to fight – flight – freeze response, and when this is triggered, the amygdala takes over, and people are not in their adult capacity.  When this occurs, the best strategy is to agree to a ‘time out’ and agree upon a time to come back together to finish the discussion, once everyone is calm and collected.

2. Use “I language.”  An example would be to say, “I feel hurt and misunderstood.”  This keeps the focus on how you feel and what you need, instead of blaming the other person, which makes them feel defensive. When a conversation begins with “you should” or “you do this,”  the partner will automatically feel defensive, and the conversation primed for failure.

3. Go on a walk to talk about difficult things.  When we walk side by side, we are automatically self-regulating, breathing deeply, and doing a version of EMDR with our footsteps.  It is less confrontational than sitting and staring at each other.

4. Choose your timing carefully.  Try to be conscientious about when your partner has had a hard day or is exhausted at the end of the workweek.  It is always best to set a time to talk when both parties can be present, rested, and ready to engage.

5. Mirroring the other person is essential.  In the case of the couple mentioned above, the wife would say something like, “It sounds like you feel ignored and not prioritized.”  This will help her partner to feel heard, and understood.  Then ask to make sure that is accurate.  “Is that how you feel?”

6. Validation comes next.  To validate her partner, she might say, “If I were you, I would probably feel undervalued or resentful too.”  It isn’t an admission of right or wrong, but rather helps the spouse feel like their perspective is valid or reasonable.

7. Finally, conflict resolution occurs.  Once mirroring and validation occur, couples will be ready to problem-solve.  There can be many ways of negotiating through the conflict.  I recommend writing several different solutions down on a whiteboard, or piece of paper.  Then you can talk through the pros and cons of each solution.

Although these steps seem fairly easy and reasonable to do, sometimes they are difficult, especially when couples have developed unhealthy communication patterns.  Please seek counseling help in order to help you and your partner learn, grow, and develop the tools to mirror and validate one another, and learn how to resolve conflict successfully.

In Don Miguel Ruiz’ book The Four Agreements, there are a couple of good principles to remember in communication. Mindful listening is key, and please remember not to take anything personally. 90% of the time, if people haven’t worked on themself, what they say and do is a projection of their own reality.  Even if couples have been together a long time, don’t make assumptions about what the other person is thinking.  This is when mirroring helps; remember to check things out, and make sure that what you are hearing is an accurate interpretation of what your partner said.  We need to ask and not assume, what our spouse is thinking or feeling, and validate their point of view.

Many couples don’t seek therapy until it is too late; they are hostile towards one another, or so established in unhealthy patterns, that it is difficult to change.

Couples usually don’t think of coming in for counseling when their communication breaks down. If unhealthy communication patterns don’t change, couples either get divorced or stay unhappily married.  These problems can be solved successfully.

Your relationship is worth spending time and money on.

Set yourself up for success, and call today to learn more tips for effective communication.

Jayma Jamieson, MA, NCC, LPC