By: Chelsea Hudson, LCPC
Regardless of the problem that brings a client to therapy, the number one topic discussed in my psychotherapy practice is relationship difficulties. Relationship challenges with friends, partners, family members or co-workers can be a major source of distress. I’m not sure about you, but throughout my many years of school before grad school, I was never taught how to effectively communicate. It’s just not something that was talked about, perhaps it just wasn’t “cool” to discuss. While it might feel unfamiliar at first, a willingness to practice a few key strategies discussed below can dramatically transform the quality of your relationships and help you get your needs met. Try it out, what have you got to lose?
- · With the exception of twins, we are all genetically unique
- · We are also all subject to different environmental experiences (generational, religious, educational, social, family of origin and political influences, as well as potential exposure to trauma)
Therefore, it’s unlikely that two people will agree on everything and it’s completely expected that at times you will have a perspective that differs to that of a loved one. It’s important to remember that there can be multiple perspectives that can be “true”, and having a different perspective to your loved one does not make either person’s perspective more or less true. They are just different.
If you do VALUE a particular relationship, the skills that follow can help you navigate your differences with your loved one to help you preserve the relationship.
So why do you value this particular relationship? Make a list and remind yourself of this value when you are dealing with difficult conflict and especially when your emotions are “running high”.
Basics Do’s & Don’ts
· Emotions: If at all possible, save difficult conversations for when you are at your calmest. If you are experiencing anxiety, anger, sadness, shame… you are more likely to use emotionally charged words and say something unhelpful to the relationship.
· Validate, Validate, Validate: When you notice the urge to accuse a loved one of something or point out their faults, say something encouraging instead. Thank them for something or point out their strengths. You might be thinking why on earth would I validate someone I am angry with? Two reasons: Firstly, validation makes them more likely to be receptive when you do make a request and takes them out of defensive mode. Secondly, it will help you gain some perspective, and lower your emotional intensity towards the situation because you will be reminded of why you care about the person and why the relationship is important to you.
· Body Language and Voice Tone: Non-verbals communicate more powerfully than verbals do. If your body language and tone don’t match your words, you will appear insincere. Use a quiet, gentle tone, and relaxed posture (sitting back, solid eye-contact, relaxed face and unfolded arms). Relaxing your posture can also signal to your brain to calm your emotions.
· “I – Statements”: Become familiar with saying “I feel….” Instead of “You make me feel”. Only you are truly in control of how you will feel about something. If you say “I feel…” then the other person really has nothing to defend or dispute because your feelings are your feelings.
· Raise your voice
· Use extremes such as “you always” and “you never”
· Bring up past wrongs
· Stray from the current topic
· Assume you know what the other person is thinking
Effective Communication Interaction
Person A) I feel…. when you…. because….
(For example: I feel disrespected when you leave your breadcrumbs on the counter because I have just cleaned the counter) Hint: Be specific as possible. Instead of saying “when you are messy” – describe factually how the person is making a mess so they know exactly what you’re referring to.
Person B) I’m hearing that… (summarize what you have heard to show you understand). Is that correct?
Person A) Yes that’s correct or No…. it’s….
Person B) Continues to reflect back until person A confirms that
person B understands what they are communicating
Person A) Therefore I would like it if… (For example: There I would like it if you scoop up your breadcrumbs and throw them away in future)
Person B) I’m hearing you would like it if…? (summarize what you believe the request is). Is that correct?
Person A) Yes that’s correct or No…. it’s….
Person B) Continues to reflect until person A confirms that person B understands what they are asking
Person B) Either agree to person A’s request or use the same process to explain how you feel and why you are not able to meet their request
If person A and B still hold different perspectives at the end of the exchange, decide if a compromise is possible. If not, return to why you both value the relationship and decide what you can each radically accept about the situation in order to preserve the relationship.
If it feels comfortable, let the other person know how much you care about them and move onto a new topic to get some space from the challenging conversation.
Note: During the conversation with your loved one, it’s important to TRULY LISTEN and practice “putting yourself in their shoes for a moment”. This will help you better understand their perspective, empathize with them, and be more willing to compromise.
DO NOT plan your defense or “work on your case” while your loved one is speaking. Their feelings are their feelings, there is nothing to dispute and you’ll also be more likely to miss what they are trying to communicate with you.
(The above communication skills are helpful because even if agreement on an issue is not achieved, each person still has the opportunity to be heard, validated and respected, and it’s likely that after the exchange, both parties are left a little less polarized on the issue. It also prevents the negative consequences that often result after exchanges where hurtful remarks are made)
Practice frequently and be patient with yourself. If you have been communicating one way your whole life, it will feel strange in the beginning, and may take a while for it to feel authentic.
Couples Therapy can help. Contact us today.