Constructive couples communication: Fostering open listening skills in your relationship

In this increasingly stressful life, it seems to be harder than ever to keep a relationship working in a meaningful, healthy way.

If communication breaks down in any relationship, then the couple have lost the primary tool to understand the what, the why, and the how to move forward and find a solution to your problem.

The relationship can then become stuck in a pattern of arguments, tension, avoidance and resentment, which unfortunately sometimes then leads to separation.

How do you know if communication is breaking down in a relationship?

Open honest communication is critical for a healthy relationship to thrive and grow. Contrary to what most people believe, the key to good communication isn’t the ability to talk the most, but the ability to effectively actively listen to your partner and understand what they are communicating.

This is a skill that I find most couples that start counselling don’t have, hence why they are in counselling. So the couple has a mediator/psychologist to help them understand each other’s position, and then help to find a resolution to the stalemate.

It’s not rocket science, but it does take effort and good will from both partners to get communication working effectively.

How can we learn to communicate better?

Here are some guidelines to smoother communication:

1. Intend to resolve the issue, not change your partner’s mind.

Start with the intention of finding a resolution or compromise to the issue, not necessarily trying to change your partner’s position on the issue. To help this, the couple should on the “interests” of the relationship, not their “position”.

For example, I recently saw a couple for counselling who were arguing bitterly about what school their young children should attend: public or private. The couple had their set “positions”: private school vs. public school and were hopelessly stuck.

However, by focusing on the relationship “interest” – the best education for their children – they were then able to make progress towards finding a compromise.

2. Give the conversation the time and attention it needs.

If the issue is important, set aside some time where there will be no distractions or interruptions and turn off the phone.

3. Stay on track (and in the moment).

Stick to one issue at a time and don’t bring up “old unresolved stuff” into the conversation.

4. Don’t place blame – even accidentally.

It takes a bit of practice, but start with “I” statements.

For example: “I” feel uncomfortable when there is tension in the house.

If the conversation starts with “You”, then it is generally felt as an attack and your partner is most likely to “attack” back, so now you have an argument rather than a conversation. At that point, it’s very hard to get a useful outcome for either partner.

Linked to that is this rule – avoid the use of “Absolutes” such as:

  • Never (“You are never relaxed at home” )
  • Should (“You should do this”)
  • Always (“You always do this”)

There are not many absolutes in life and certainly very few in stressed relationships, just lots of grey.

5. Be considerate.

Don’t interrupt when your partner is speaking.

Your job when they are speaking is to try, as best you can, to understand where and why they are coming from their “position”.

6. Forget about “mind reading”.

Don’t dwell on assumptions about what you think your partner thinks.

There are two ways to find out what your partner is thinking or feeling (and sometimes they may not even know):

  • Listen when they are talking.
  • Ask questions if you are unclear or haven’t understood what they have said.

7. Show genuine interest in what your partner has to say.

Look at your partner and demonstrate your interest by positive body language. It will make a big difference to the outcome of that conversation and build confidence and trust for future conversations.

8. If the conversation starts to get heated and emotional, call “timeout”.

Either partner can do it if they start to feel uncomfortable, but the next step is the most important: if things get too much, call a timeout.

Make a time: be it 5 minutes or 5 hours, but say when you will come back and start the conversation again…and make sure you do.

Failure to re-engage when you have said you would just builds more distrust around the communication process.

If there is still too much emotional heat, you just disengage and make another time to start again.

Open, honest communication is the key to a successful relationship

If a couple can get foster open, honest communication and maintain it during stressful times, it will go a long way to developing a healthy, balanced relationship. The hard times will be a little easier, and the good times much more enjoyable.

Give these techniques a go – you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

If you are still having trouble as a couple navigating the communication issue, sometimes having a psychologist to help separate the positions and interests that couples bring to relationships is helpful.

Frank Chmela

Frank is an experienced psychologist with over 30+ years clinical experience. He has a special interest in the impact of trauma and stress on mental and physical health. Frank sees couples, adolescents, and adults 12 years and up. You can find out more about Frank here or book an appointment with him at our Hillarys clinic through HealthEngine.

Frank Chmela