3 Ways to Improve Your Communication and Your Relationships

By: Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
Conflict, arguments, tiffs, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, angry words, cold stares, sighs, rolling eyes, sarcastic rebuttals, grunts, stomping off, the silent treatment and so much more. If you’re in or have ever been in a relationship you know what I am talking about. No relationship is immune to communication challenges. My goal is not to actually remove them completely either. One, that would be unrealistic, and second, I believe that conflict can be productive. You see, conflict can be about two people working towards understanding and intimacy. However, in order for it to be productive, we need to address some of the obstacles to productive communication. I will provide some guidelines on three common stumbling blocks, however, bear in mind that there are other types of communication issues. The principles behind these guidelines are that we all long to be understood and that we all long to feel safe. Managing these two fundamental needs often leads to obstacles to productive communication.
1.       Prove That You’re Listening

And I don’t mean to say loudly, “I heard you already!” What this means is that sometimes conflict and miscommunication comes from one or both parties not attending to the other. When that happens, whether it’s because of distractions or disinterest or resentment, the other feels rejected, and sometimes the focus of the conversation shifts to this inattentiveness – off of the initial subject. And now things can get complicated, as the rejected person feels they have another grievance to address. If you feel someone is interrupting you, ask them politely to wait, explaining that you don’t want to miss what they want to tell you. You have now begun to demonstrate to them that you want to attend to them and have communicated respect. Next comes eye contact (when the situation permits – things like phone conversations and while driving do not apply). Again this communicates your attention and shows that you value the person (even if your value of the content is not very high). This may be something you need to choose to do, even if you don’t want to, for the sake of the person. As the person talks, be aware of your thoughts and practice reducing one thing and increasing another. That is, reduce the interruptions you are tempted to make and increase the responsiveness concerning the content. Responsiveness can involve anything from offering an editorial like “that’s cool!” to asking a question like “so, what was that like to have him apologize to you?”

2.       Identify your contribution

Often when things are not going so well relationally, we become defensive. We dig in our heels, point fingers and make excuses. Well, other people do that, I mean. Okay, I do it, too. Of course I do it, too. We’re conditioned to protect ourselves. And that’s what it feels like – protecting ourselves from an attack. And sometimes an attack is what it is. Although that also means that sometimes it isn’t. And we probably often respond the same way whether it is or isn’t an attack. Because sometimes when there is conflict, it isn’t just criticism; it’s someone attempting to address an issue. When someone is simply attacking you, yeah, take care of yourself (although they still may be providing valuable feedback, with poor delivery). At other times we may be quick to defend and so miss a chance to receive love of a different kind. Proverbs 27:6  says, Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” It’s much like when someone tells you your fly is unzipped (men) or when you have something in your teeth. It’s feedback that is uncomfortable, but you appreciate it because they have saved you from embarrassment. When someone brings to light a flaw we have, we may feel rather uncomfortable or annoyed. And yet, being made aware of it is to our benefit (Proverbs 19:20). So when someone brings a grievance, hold back on the excuses and consider what is being presented. Ask clarifying questions, like a detective seeking out the truth. Be curious about how you have affected the other person. And if you can find something that you can own up to and acknowledge it to the person, you will have shown that you value their input and are willing to receive love. What this does long term is set up a relationship that is willing to give and receive honest feedback from each other, which means it goes a long way when it is your turn to express a grievance. On the other hand, if you find that this person is not seeking to give honest feedback for your betterment, well, that takes us to point three.

3.       Speak Your Heart

Sometimes you are the one who has been misunderstood or hurt or wronged. How do you usually handle it? Are you more prone to use the martyr approach, where you decide to let it slide and not say anything (maybe nursing the resentment, often without even realizing you are doing it)? Might you tend towards the openly resentful type, who plots out how they will get satisfaction by helping the other person to know “how it feels”? Or maybe you are more the blast them type, making sure that they person won’t get away with it and will learn to respect you from now on. I’m sure there are a number of other approaches and types as well. But whatever type you tend towards, how do you feel about your approach? Does the way you handle your grievances bring about resolution of the problem and grow the relationship? If not, would you like to begin a new way that would do those things or at least have a higher success rate?

The “way” I want to propose involves speaking your heart. Now in order for someone to express their heart they need to know what is going on in their heart. I believe this is often what is lacking in some of the previously mentioned, common approaches, which is why they are ineffective (besides often wounding the other person and increasing misunderstanding and a host of other damages). So, what is involved in knowing your heart? In this context, it consists of asking ourselves what we are feeling about the event that upset us, what are our thoughts and perceptions about the event and what are our beliefs related to the event? At first, this process will take some time to sift through, and so I recommend requesting a time-out period in which to assess your heart and prepare to express it. Making this request in a respectful way will go a long way towards preparing the other person to be receptive. And receptive is what you really want. I know when you are upset you feel sometimes like what you want is to vent, to attack, to berate, or to win. But, let me assure you, beyond those short-term wants, you long-term want is to be heard. So, one way you could ask for this is something like this: “There is something that you said (or did) that is bothering me. I would like some time to collect my thoughts and then I would like to share it with you so that we could work it out. How about …” and then you offer a time to meet again.

Self Assessment
Next, you’ll want to get away from distractions and begin asking yourself some questions about what you are feeling and thinking about the upsetting event. Explore what about the event bothered you. Wonder to yourself if this experience is one you have felt before, and see if the feelings connect to familiar thought patterns and beliefs in you. What you are attempting to do is bring up from your subconscious into your consciousness the meaning of this type of experience. Often, understanding ourselves more deeply just involves being willing to patiently explore ourselves, without blame or judgment. The goal is understanding, which I believe is impossible to accomplish while holding a judgmental, condemning attitude.  If you encounter self criticism that you are unable to put aside, you may need to seek some help to address this issue so that you can deepen your self understanding. After you have gained more clarity on how this experience has upset you, you now have what you want to bring back to the person.

Expressing your Heart
When we have a grievance, a hurt, a disappointment with someone, I believe we long to be heard. We have been misunderstood in some way, and there was a loss of connection, a sense of alienation. And healing involves re-connecting:  being understood in the place where we had been missed. Because this is the soil where apologies can grow and forgiveness can take root. When someone gets how their words or actions impacted us, then if they care about us, they will be agreeable to apologize. So we make this our goal. When this is our goal we will dare to tell how their words or actions had adversely affected us. In essence what we are doing is opening our heart – opening up to the one who misunderstood or wounded us. That sounds rather scary, doesn’t it, which may be why you have learned to adopt one of those other approaches instead. And why it may be rather difficult to lay your style down. But this is “the way”.

Begin by identifying the offense. When this happened or when this was said. Then follow with an “I” statement – meaning – “I felt” or “I was hurt or angry or disappointed because…”. Give space for the person to consider what you have presented or ask clarifying questions. If the other person becomes defensive or belittles what you have shared, you could begin the process all over, explaining that they said something that bothered you and you need time to collect your thoughts. Or, if you think you can, you could try to stick to the process right there and respond with an “I” statement, something like, “when you say… I feel like you are belittling what I am offering.” Generally, the idea in fair fighting is to stay on the issue. But in this case, if the other person cannot receive feedback from you, then that needs to become the primary issue, otherwise how can you work on issues? This approach should get you both in the direction of working to understand each other better. And when you are going in that direction, good things can result.
Let me invite you to shift back through the three obstacles, with an eye for the principles that I stated at the beginning – the longing to be understood and the need to feel safe. See them permeating the three? Seek to develop your awareness of the struggle to satisfy these principles in your relationships and in your heart. How do you see this struggle play out uniquely for you? Have you identified one of the three that is often your go-to approach or weakness? Try sharing about this tendency with a friend. God bless you in your efforts!
I’d love to hear from you your feedback or questions.

Matt W.  Sandford, LMHC
Licensed Mental Health Counselor

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