Communication is essential in all relationships but can also be very intimidating because there is a risk of miscommunicating, feeling rejected, conflict, or being shut down/dismissed. Some of us may have even received messages that it is not ok, or not safe, to communicate with parents, family members, significant others. Communication is necessary to build emotional connection and to allow others to know you.
Here are some tips for effective and healthy communication:
- Slow Down – Don’t start a conversation when you are emotionally charged. Take a pause to identify why you are feeling what you are feeling. Most of the time, these feelings automatically present as anger but are really a primary emotion like sadness, hurt, shame, disappointment, guilt, anxiety, worry, etc. It is helpful to identify the primary emotion and communicate that instead of anger. When we communicate in an angry way, we are more likely to be met with defensiveness. Really think about the message you are trying to send and be mindful in communicating the real message. It is also helpful to take a moment to identify if the statement, opinion, or conversation is helpful and kind.Taking time outs may be helpful.Time outs are different then when you were a kid and sent to a corner because you misbehaved. A time out from a conversation is a break in which you and the other person identify X amount of time to break and then to come back to together. During this break, both people should be thinking about those primary emotions that are triggered and the message they want the other person to hear. Both people should also focus on coping skills and self-soothing during this time. It is very important to come back together within the time identified so that the trust of reconnecting and repairing remains in tact.
- Body Language – Be mindful of your body language when you are in a conversation. Pay attention to your eye contact, body posture, gestures and space between you and the other person(s). Your body language can communicate reassurance to your message or it can contradict your message. If you are talking with children, it is helpful to get down on their level. This may mean that you are sitting down, on the floor, or kneeling. Standing over kids may be intimidating and this may lead to the message being misheard.Brene’ Brown, in her e-course “Gifts of Imperfect Parenting”, encourages people to observe their facial reactions when engaging in 30 different emotions. She asks participants of the course to take pictures of themself in each emotion. This is helpful to understand how others may perceive you when you are emotionally charged.
I encourage you to be open to others’ observations of your body language if these are shared with you. If someone says “You look angry”, take a moment to reflect on what you are doing that gives that perception.
- I messages – Using I messages is helpful to communicate what is happening for you. I messages are statements that begin with I am/feel/think/observe _________________. An example is “I feel hurt when we are in a miscommunication” or “I feel disappointed when I don’t feel heard”. In EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), we help clients identify how their behaviors impact their partners through statements like “The more I ___________________ (action), the more you __________________ (action)” and “I show you ________________ (defensive/protective strategy) but underneath I feel _____________________ (Primary emotions). If you wanted to help me with this feeling then right now you could ___________________”. Examples of the above statements are: The more I yell, the more you pull away and shut down. I show you anger by yelling but underneath I feel hurt and unimportant. If you wanted to help me with this feeling right now you could validate me and reassure me that you love me.
- Listen – Listen to the other person in the conversation. Many people are so focused on how they will respond that they miss the message the other person is communicating. It’s ok to listen and then take time to slow down and respond. I encourage couples and families to repeat what they have heard the other person say during a conversation, just to make sure that everyone is on the same page. While this technique is awkward at first, it allows the couple or family to identify the miscommunication right away and correct it. I use this with my kids regularly. When one of the boys has a rude tone towards the other one, I might say something like “It sounds like you are upset, being mean, annoyed, etc, with your brother. Is that true? What’s going on?” This helps diffuse an argument in the moment or clarify that there is nothing wrong and maybe I misheard a tone. (This is also a way to reflect my observations of them and creates a teachable moment).
- Validate others’ thoughts and feelings – I was in a training for EFT and remember the trainer saying “Validate first, make meaning second”. I LOVED this! This statement is a great rule to follow for every relationship/interaction. What validate first means, is to validate the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Validation is not sympathy, it is acknowledging that you see and understand their thoughts and feelings and that these thoughts and feelings are valid. Validation may sound like “It makes sense that this is upsetting”. “I totally get why you are disappointed in me”. “It’s ok for you to not like me right now”. Validation helps the other person feel heard, understood and important.Make meaning second, means that you can help the other person understand the situation or your perspective once there has been validation. If you try to explain prior to validating, your message is likely to be lost or misheard. I’d encourage you to think back to a time you did not feel heard or validated and how you responded to the other person explaining their side. Making meaning may sound like “I totally understand why you are upset with me and disappointed (validation) that I won’t let you have a candy bar. I already let you have a dessert and another dessert is not healthy (making meaning)”.
Sometimes it is hard to validate someone when we do not agree with their reaction. I have this experience a lot with my children. I remember my youngest son having a melt down over the color of the cup I gave him at snack time. I remember being frustrated and thinking to myself “why does the color of the cup matter” and “this is so annoying”. I had to use all the techniques listed above and remember that even though the color of the cup seems insignificant to me, it was significant to my son. I was able to validate his frustration and explain why he was given that cup. I believe I said something like “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize how important this is. I can see now that you really wanted the blue cup and are sad that I gave you a different color. The cup you want is in the dishwasher so you can keep this cup or we can look for another cup.” Crisis was averted! Now I know to ask if it matters which cup when I’m getting drinks/snacks for the kiddos.
- Be honest and authentic – Honest and authentic communication is important because it allows for you to heal any disconnection in the relationship or injuries. Think about what keeps you from being honest and/or authentic. Most times, this barrier is fear. I will ask clients to process their fears of being open, honest and authentic. Usually, there is a fear of being rejected or dismissed. If you are worried about this, it may be helpful to practice being honest and authentic in baby steps. It may also be helpful to say something like “This is really hard for me to talk about and I really need you to hear me and support me.” This gives your partner a warning and a signal that you are taking a risk and have a need. Please remember that being vulnerable is scary and difficult but also so important for connection and healing. If you feel like you cannot be honest and/or authentic, it may be helpful to seek outside help.
Other helpful links
This post was written by Minon Maier – LMFT