Updated: Jul 18
Communication is one of the most difficult skills to master, but such a vital one for healthy relationships. Tuning in, remaining calm, and having a posture of listening can make a huge difference. You can also use active listening skills and responding with positive body language can help the other person feel heard, validated, and understood.
Tune in To Understand
People will often focus their attention on their retort to someone else instead of truly listening to the heart of the other person. What is the intent? What do they want you to know and understand? What is the deeper issue behind their words? Perhaps they want you to know they are scared. Maybe they are sharing a cry for connection. Sometimes it can come across as hysterical or unloving, but is that the true intention?
Refuse to React
You may have an emotional reaction to what the other person is saying. It is important to either ask for a moment to walk away and get control of your emotions or to push through and remain calm. If you become angry and elevated in your mood, the other person will likely do the same. It is easy to become defensive when you feel attacked. Defensiveness usually leads to arguments and division.
Maintaining eye contact shows that you are listening and engaged. It will help you to focus on the person speaking instead of focusing on your phone or other distractions. Nothing says "I don't care what you are saying" like looking away while the person is talking.
When someone is sharing their heart, it is validating to hear that the listener understands how they feel. Saying something like, "You feel out of control," or "What she said hurt," can let the speaker know you are not just listening, but understanding.
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Matching tones to the speaker is a good way to show responsiveness. If the person is excited, eyebrows should go up, arms out, and your voice should elevate in response. If the person is somber and feeling sad, an excited response would be totally inappropriate and could be offensive. Matching your response to their mood shows connection and that you are meeting them where they are.
Even if you don't like what the other person is saying, you can still show respect for who they are. There are kind ways to disagree without putting others down or attacking. When you show respect to your loved ones they will feel safe coming to you. When you show disrespect they will be more likely to avoid you and pull away from the relationship.
Four Communication Styles to Avoid
John Gottman with the Gottman Institute teaches about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse when it comes to communication. They are stonewalling, criticism, contempt, and defensiveness. Their research concludes that people who have these communication styles lead to unfulfilling relationships that will likely end in failure. This short video describes these traits well.
If you realize that you have an unhealthy communication style you can begin taking steps to correct it. It won't be easy or feel natural, but with time it will become easier. Poor communication styles are really just bad habits that need to be broken. It's best to focus on one thing at a time and be consistent with it. Slowly the habits will change and it will start to feel normal to communicate in a calm, caring way.
Hang in there and don't give up. Your family is worth it. And don't believe the lie that things will be better in a new, different relationship. Poor communication skills don't vanish when you get out of a relationship. They follow you until you decide you've had enough and are ready to do the hard work of learning a new way to communicate.
For more information on improving relationships, visit this series about building solid relationships:
Photo by EKATERINA BOLOVTSOVA: https://www.pexels.com/photo/happy-young-multiracial-couple-taking-on-sofa-at-home-4049517/