Talking constructively and effectively with your primary partner in life is both a skill and an art. It takes much deliberate effort, good judgment, and good intentions to make it work well. We are not born with these abilities — but only with the potential to develop them. We need to learn specific communication, conflict resolution, emotional regulation, and other relationship skills to enable us to reach our goals. We also need to develop certain emotional, mental, and communicative competencies (capabilities of consistently communicating constructively and effectively). That is, we need to become increasingly capable and competent — both verbally and non-verbally — in what we say, how we say it, when we say it, and in what we do. We need the abilities to reflect on our interactions together, be curious about what we observe — both about our partner and our self — and be as non-defensive, open, responsible, and psychologically mature as possible throughout the process.
A relatively small percentage of partners in committed relationships have had the opportunities to learn, practice, and master these skills — either in the families in which they grew up, or subsequently as adults. One of the reasons for this is that our educational system, society, and even some of the most popular and dominant counseling and psychotherapy methods that have been available to us have been over-focusing on cognitive (intellectual) knowledge and skills versus social and emotional skills and abilities. The current research in neuroscience (brain science), I believe, confirms this point of view.
So, it is time for many of us to re-focus our efforts and learn what is necessary to be able to communicate much more effectively and productively with our loved ones. I believe you can do a great deal on your own to improve the quality of your serious conversations together. While some of the ideas I will be sharing with you on this topic can be found in self-help books and magazine articles, others may be new to you.
Recall that the first word in the title of this article is “guidelines.” Consider the points I have outlined below to be ideas available to talk out with your partner. These are not “facts” or necessarily the “right way” to handle your discussions. Rather, they are suggestions for you to think about, and then decide for yourselves how helpful and beneficial they could be for you in improving your relationship. If you don’t particularly like some of the ways I have organized, structured, or presented the conversational guidelines below, you can modify them to suit your unique and specific needs. The most important bottom line is what works for you.
*** The first step is to agree with your partner that it is worthwhile, and in your best interests, to make a deliberate effort to work on improving your shared relationship skills. Key goals here are to enhance and improve the quality and satisfaction levels of your discussions, and to increase your levels of intimacy.
*** Next, it is important to plan well when you will be engaging in these focused conversations. Agree on a specific day and time period to talk. It is important to arrange for a talk that is neither too long nor too short. Then make sure you do not talk longer than planned. (You can later plan for longer talks if you see this as advantageous.) You will need time after the talk to reflect on how it has gone; this will involve what has gone well, and what has not. Make brief written notes so that you do not forget key points discussed and experienced. This written record (which may not seem “natural” for some people to do) could be quite useful before, or at the time of, or at your next talk.
*** Be sure to arrange your discussion so that you will have a minimum amount of distractions. (Examples: Turn off your cell phones and television before your talk begins. Make sure you fulfill certain work, household, and personal obligations and responsibilities prior to this prearranged, relationship building discussion time.)
*** Agree beforehand to honor the “equal time rule.” That is, each one of you will be talking (and then listening) 50% of the time. Talks usually are much more effective when they are true dialogues — not monologues.
*** Also, these kinds of conversations usually go better when you keep your turns of talking short. Try limiting your turns to a few sentences at a time. This allows the other to remember what you have said and then to respond to you. On the other hand, if let’s say that during your turn you make a half a dozen different points, your partner may then only respond to two or three of these — which is a natural tendency. Be careful to not fall into this trap.
*** Before your talk, agree on whether or not you might benefit by recording your conversation. One advantage of recording your interchange is that you can later listen back to it after you have run into a problem. You then might be in a better position to be more objective about yourself and your partner, and the conversation you have just engaged in. This might be a good way to learn about yourselves. On the other hand, you may decide together that recording your conversations has more drawbacks than advantages for your particular situation together.
*** Prior to your first intentionally planned, serious discussion about issues in your shared relationship, consider reading two other articles I have written (and posted on this website page): “How to Improve Your Communication Skills in Your Committed Relationship” and “What to Avoid Saying and Expressing in Your Intimate Relationship.” Reading these articles will increase the chances that your talk together will proceed more constructively and productively.
*** When you first start your talk, it is important to agree on an agenda. Both of you have equal responsibility to come into the discussion prepared to propose or suggest a particular topic, issue, or previous interchange to talk about. Usually, the more specific you can be, the better.
*** As far as deciding on the content of what you will be talking about, different partners and different couples have different preferences and strategies. Some people prefer to start off with a minor and noncontroversial issue — that is, one that is least likely to lead to significant conflict between the two of you. Other people, though, prefer to start off with one of the most important unresolved and pressing problems between the two of you. This may seem more relevant and satisfying to you. Whichever approach you take — or one in between — will play an important part in how the discussion may turn out in the end. After having several planned talks with one another, you may wish to experiment with different approaches to setting the agenda of the discussion. You can be creative, imaginative, and flexible in this regard. You might, for example, decide to take turns with regard to which one of you sets the agenda at each of your planned talks. The bottom line is to find an approach — sometimes by trial or error — that works best for both of you.
*** When you are talking back and forth with one another, place a special emphasis on saying and expressing many more positive than negative messages to the other. Examples of “positive” messages/ communications are:
* Giving your partner compliments
* Expressing appreciation
* Telling them that what they just said helped you feel better understood
* Letting them know the ways in which you value and care about them
* Recognizing their good intentions and the ways in which they have changed for the better
* Being non-defensive in response to what they have just said to you
(Note: As you can realize, being positive in these and other ways will only be constructive and effective if you are authentic and genuine in what you say.)
*** Keep in mind that even more important than the actual words you say are the verbal and nonverbal accompaniments (additions) to your actual words. Examples of these most important dimensions of communication are:
* Your tone of voice (which might indicate how interested, frustrated, or patient you are with your partner). Included here is the rate, intensity, and inflection (pitch and loudness) of your voice.
* Facial expressions
* Level of eye contact
* Body language — including gestures. (Note: To “gesture” is to use motions of the hands, arms, legs, or body as a means of intentional [conscious] or unintentional [unconscious] communication/ expression.)
*** Keep in mind the following points: When talking — be brief, clear, and to the point. Also, continually monitor yourself so that you can actually respond to what the other has said before redirecting (changing the subject) to a thought (or issue, concern, point, etc.) you preferred to focus on. When talking, pay close attention to how well your partner seems to be listening to and understanding you, and when s/he wants to reply to what you have just said.
It is also important to meta-communicate — that is, to communicate about the communication process you are engaged in. (An example of “meta-communication”: “I’ve noticed over the last couple of minutes that we have begun to talk faster, louder, and more intensely with one another. I wonder what that is all about.”
*** Over my years of doing couple therapy, I have found that partners in a couple relationship often tend to run into problems and get bogged down when they attempt to talk out their shared difficulties and other challenges. Self-help books can help, but they are no substitute for regularly scheduled sessions with a therapist specializing in working with couples. Many relationship problems, and many relationships, in my view, are just too complex and deeply rooted to be able to be repaired and transformed by yourselves without the help of a trained, experienced, and competent therapist. This being said, I want to share with you three key principles (outlined below) that I find stand out as being potentially very useful and helpful to you.
*** The first important principle relating to how to have more successful dialogues with your partner is to put a priority on process over content. By this I mean, how you talk to one another (the process) is much more important than what you talk about (the content).
I will now give you an example of what I mean by the difference between focusing on process (that is, the manner or form of communication used in conversation) versus content (what we commonly focus on when we try to discuss issues with an intimate other).
Let’s say Leslie says to Lou in an accusing and critical tone (with the facial expressions that go along with this): “Why didn’t you bring home the pizza like we agreed?” (There’s much we could analyze about this statement and potential interaction, but I want to limit our discussion now to a couple of central points.)
*** First, an example of a (dysfunctional, or nonconstructive) “content” response to this question might be: (Said in a casual, matter-of-fact voice) “I was very busy. It just slipped my mind.” We can usually assume that an interaction like this one has occurred previously (if not repeatedly) in this relationship. Notice that neither one them says how they are feeling (an important point I will expand on soon), and neither one of them makes an effort to avoid pushing the other’s hot buttons (emotional trigger points, areas of sensitivity). That is, we can see from the start where this “conversation” is going — and it sure won’t be constructive! Part of focusing on the process is to be very tuned in to how constructive or not is the course of an evolving conversation, and then interrupt (put on pause and step back to observe) this conversation before it deteriorates even further.
*** The second important principle to keep in mind is to give priority to focusing on the distinction between thoughts and feelings. This is a principle that is often minimized or overlooked in both self-help books and professional books and journals. Often, when I ask many new clients what they feeling at a particular point, they tell me instead what they are thinking. They are not differentiating (making the distinction between) emotions (feelings) and cognitions (thoughts, intellectual activities, etc.). This is a very important distinction with many consequences and implications. (For further clarification on this important issue, see my article entitled “The Primary Importance of Feelings in Couple Therapy.”)
*** On a practical level, when you are attempting to have a serious discussion about your relationship, it is crucial that you stop the conversation frequently to talk about the feelings you are having at the present moment, and the feelings you are perceiving (picking up on) from your partner. All too frequently, one (negative, unpleasant) feeling piles up after another until one partner reaches an emotional “critical mass” — “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” (That is, your or your partner’s unexpressed feelings and reactions will tend to “silently” accumulate until one of you either suddenly explodes or withdraws. This will end any attempt you have made together to constructively talk out your unresolved issues.)
*** If you find you have ongoing difficulties distinguishing feelings from thoughts (emotions from cognitions), distinguishing one feeling from another, finding the appropriate word labels for different feelings, accurately expressing the degree to which you are having a feeling or combination of feelings, expressing these feelings constructively, or being either overly emotional or lacking in conscious emotional reactions, I would suggest you consider arranging a consultation with a therapist who puts a priority on deeper self-knowledge, and these necessary, core communication skills. (Note that “communication,” as used here, refers to both interpersonal (external) and intrapsychic [internal — within yourself] exchanges and dialogues.)
*** The third important principle related to how to have more successful dialogues with your partner is to learn the skills involved with doing “detailed, slow motion analysis.” By this I mean, it is important for both of you to work together to pay much attention to seemingly small details in your verbal and nonverbal interchanges, and to considerably slow down the pace of your discussions. This communication principle involves effective information processing.
*** A great deal of meaning can be communicated in a short period of time — especially between two intimate partners. By slowing down your conversation you can give yourself the time you need to take in, digest, and metabolize (or psychologically work through) what has been communicated. Put another way, you can think of looking at your conversation through a magnifying glass, or think of how you can press the pause button on your DVD’s remote control so that you can freeze one particular frame of a “movie” so that you can examine it in a more detailed, and comprehensive way.
*** Often, (enthusiastic) partners attempt to accomplish too much in a particular conversation. This can be counterproductive — that is, work against your best interests. Be careful to not allow yourselves to become overloaded and overwhelmed. This can set you back rather than move you forward as you had intended. You can begin modestly (thinking small) before you attempt to tackle the central, most important, problems, difficulties, and challenges in your relationship — (what we might call looking at your relationship with a wide-angle lens).
*** At the conclusion of your present talk, you can decide when the you will talk next. An alternative to this is for the two of you to agree (if this is possible schedule-wise) to have a “standing” (regularly scheduled) discussion time. This way you will not have to spend your time renegotiating each time when you will talk next. You can then plan your schedules weeks in advance. Thus, in the big picture, you will be organizing and structuring your relational communication. Talking about deeper issues in your relationship will be given a higher degree of priority. Less of importance will “fall between the cracks” as a result.
Congratulations on coming this far in reading through these rather lengthy discussion guidelines. This in part tells us that you have the motivation and persistence to improve your relational life — and at least give it your best shot. With some couples, there is a certain amount of uncertainty and ambiguity (uncertainty of meaning or significance) concerning where this all will be going – where it will lead. While there are no guarantees that the particular relationship you are trying to repair and improve will work out, the ideas and skills you have learned here can always be used to your advantage in another, or other, relationships in the future. So, there will be valuable payoffs for you, down the road, no matter how this particular, current relationship turns out.
Hopefully, these proposed guidelines will help give you a foundation for putting together or devising your own set of guidelines that best meet your unique and specific needs and circumstances. This is a creative effort that will probably be subject to many revisions and fine tunings during upcoming, ever-changing circumstances. I wish you well on your challenging, yet exciting journey towards a more fulfilling and satisfying relationship together.