Humans have achieved the incredible ability to use language to express our thoughts and feelings. Yet we’ve all experienced frustration while trying to connect with others, be direct, and own our desires, preferences, and opinions.
Healthy communication is a vital skill to succeed in any profession—as well as to sustain any type of lasting, healthy relationship, whether with family, friends, a lover, or even acquaintances.
In my book The Rewired Life, I explore the many reasons some of us struggle to find our voices. We may have experienced early trauma or been told that we shouldn’t speak up or that our voice did not matter. These messages twisted our communication patterns, causing us to become passive aggressive, shut down, or feel misunderstood. As adults, these failed communication strategies are preventing us from reaching our goals and building the relationships that we truly want. To rebuild on solid ground, we need to understand and dismantle the patterns.
We all want a relationship that is based on love, transparency, vulnerability, and communication and to feel like somebody knows our real, authentic self. Begin creating strong communication skills by using “I” statements, practicing active listening, and expressing your emotional needs. All three are great places to start on your path to getting your needs met while communicating openly in relationships.
In couples therapy 101, the therapist will have the couple learn to use “I” statements. This means that instead of attacking your partner with “you” statements, you take down your defenses and let your mate know how you are feeling. For example, instead of saying, “You never help me around the house,” you would say, “I feel upset when you don’t help around the house.” It sounds less accusatory and more approachable. Coming from a place of honesty and vulnerability helps you share what is really bothering you without pointing the finger at the other person.
Active listening involves giving feedback at regular intervals to the person speaking, such as a nod, a gesture, or a verbal affirmation to let them know you’re following along. This can also be accomplished with prolonged eye contact and positive facial expressions. These encouraging responses should be kept brief so they don’t draw attention away from the speaker, but most people will be grateful to receive your approval while they’re talking.
If you don’t understand something, it’s best to stop and ask questions to clarify. The tools of summarizing, probing, reflecting, and paraphrasing what has been said work well to keep the conversation on track and make sure both parties are on the same page.
All of this should be done without interrupting the other person. When we interrupt, it means we’re thinking more about what we are planning to say than what the other person is trying to communicate. Interrupting is sometimes a normal expression of enthusiasm, so if you find yourself doing it, simply acknowledge it and allow the other person to resume.
When it’s your turn to talk, start by giving appropriate feedback, which may mean validating the other person’s emotions or story. You can say things such as “I’m so sorry to hear that happened” or “I hear your frustration.” Sometimes people aren’t looking for advice but simply want to be heard.
Expressing emotional needs
Unless your significant other is psychic, there’s a good chance he or she cannot read your mind. You may think you are being obvious about how you feel or what you are thinking, but if you aren’t saying it clearly, your partner is clueless. Stop thinking about how upset you are and communicate it through words. Express your emotional needs, such as “I want to feel like more of a priority to you” or “I feel disconnected to you at times. Can we spend more quality time together?” This way of communicating helps you see where you really stand in relationships. Give the other person the chance to respond to these requests. The person could say “Of course you are a priority, and I didn’t know that was bothering you.” Communicating your emotional needs can bring you closer without toxic name-calling or criticism.
We all have the capability to set these practices in motion. It takes effort, but I know we can all be more mindful in how we communicate. I promise the quality of our relationships will improve.
Erica Spiegelman is a wellness specialist, recovery counselor, and author of the new book The Rewired Life (2018) as well as Rewired: A Bold New Approach to Addiction & Recovery (2015), the Rewired Workbook (2017), the Rewired Coloring Book (2017), all published by Hatherleigh Press. Erica holds a bachelor’s degree in literature from the University of Arizona and is a California State Certified Drug and Alcohol Counselor (CADAC)-II from UCLA. For more information, visit Erica’s website or follow @Erica Spiegelman on Instagram.
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