Why can’t I talk to my boyfriend?
We can’t stop arguing.
He doesn’t seem to understand what it’s like for me.
How can I understand what my girlfriend is thinking?
How can I make my wife happy?
How do I improve our Sex Life?
These are the statements I hear my couple counselling and relationship therapy clients say when I meet them. Very often, they have been doing a wonderful job of coping with their worries, just keeping on going and maintaining a functional relationship that just about allows them to juggle the demands of work, kids, life. But a functional relationship is just that: functional. It doesn’t bring joy, hope, love, satisfaction, or a sense of mutual appreciation. So many people come to see a couples counsellor because they are missing these aspects of the relationship.
But there is one key thing that can help you get those things from your relationship: communication. And you don’t necessarily need relationship therapy to improve it.
Communication is something we all do, every day, with friends, family, strangers, acquittances, people we pass in the street. We do lots of it in relationship counselling! Sometimes that communication is non verbal: a smile, a nod of the head, a raise of the eyebrows. Very often we use our words. But a lot of the time, as humans, we do communication badly. Sometimes really really badly.
So here are 5 top things to help you improve your communication skills:
- Stop Mindreading. This is something which comes up early on in couples counselling. Yes, you might know your partner really well, but even if you have been together 50 years that doesn’t mean you know exactly what is going on inside their brain all the time. Someone else’s belief system or point of view isn’t just something you can guess. You have to allow yourselves to be different people, with different minds and different perspectives. You can’t just assume that you know how they feel or think because that’s what you are feeling or thinking. So, if you stop trying to mind read each other, then you allow yourselves to take a step back, to actually see each other as different human beings. Which leads me onto the next point….
- Start asking. A key part of successful relationship counselling is about re-establishing curiosity in each other. At the beginning of a relationship, you are both new and exciting, so you take time to ask and find out about each other, but that gets lost in longer term relationships. So what do you need to do in order to find out what your partner is thinking or feeling? Well, you ask them! “How are you feeling about this? What do you think? I was wondering what your view on this was? I was feeling worried but I didn’t know if you felt the same as me? Could you let me know your feelings about this? It would help me if I knew how you felt?” All of those are easy, straightforward ways of finding out what is going on between your partner’s ears, without you having to guess or make assumptions.
- Start listening. How can you hear what your partner is saying, if you’re just waiting for your turn to speak? It’s very common to switch off from actually listening and instead you enter your own thought process, and start to compile your response to them or what you’re going to say next. Really listening to each other is hard, and it means trying to ignore the voice in your own head telling you to think about whether you agree or what you want to tell them. Tuning into your partner, giving them time to talk without interruption is key.
- Start summarising. One way that I help my couples counselling clients is to teach them the power of summarising. So once your partner has finished talking, you take a moment to summarise what you heard them say. “So you said you felt angry and sad and it felt like I didn’t care about you.” You can check out your understanding with them: “have I understood you correctly?” You can invite them to tell you more. Summarising shows your partner that you have really worked hard to listen to them and are trying to understand them.
- Practice good communication daily. Communication is a habit, and we get into bad habits easily. However the more we really focus on making these positive changes, the easier it can be to notice longer term change. My counselling clients who make the best changes are those who practice these new skills all the time. They don’t lose faith every time they bicker or disagree. They allow setbacks to happen, and they keep going and keep practicing better communication skills. It can feel clunky and awkward at first, but soon listening and summarising becomes second nature.
What helps you to improve communication in your relationship? I’d love to hear from you!