How to Improve Communication in Relationships: 7 Essential Skills
Good communication is the key when it comes to positive social interaction. But what does a healthy conversation look like? And how can you improve communication in a romantic relationship? Read on for a summary of some important models and theories in the field of communication.
The Importance of Communication
“It is the encounters with people that make life worth living.” Guy de Maupassant
We all have a strong need for connectivity and belonging. This is why positive social interactions increase our subjective well-being and provide greater life satisfaction (Lyubomirsky, 2008). Nursing social relationships enhance happiness because spending time with friends or colleagues builds positive emotions, a key component of happiness (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002).
Yes, social relationships are vital for a happy and fulfilling life. Interactions can be verbal or nonverbal; we can even connect with each other through a smile. A vital element of positive social interaction, however, is good communication. But what does that signify?
What is Healthy Communication?
“All real living is meeting.” Martin Buber
A typical communication model includes a sender, a receiver and a (verbal or nonverbal) message which is encoded by the sender and decoded by the receiver. It also includes feedback, which is the response of the receiver to the message as well as noise, which is anything that can disrupt communication.
Encoding refers to the sender transforming a thought into a communicable message. The receiver, on the other hand interprets what he receives as the message (both verbal and nonverbal parts). So much for the theory. As you can imagine, a lot happens in between, as no message is ever decoded without a bias.
The way we decode a message is never the objective reality. We all have our own filters and explanatory styles which paint the picture of the world as we see it. What makes the process of communication even more complex is the fact that the message of the sender is hardly ever just factual information.
“We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.” Oliver Sacks
In his Four-Sides model of communication, Friedemann Schulz von Thun (1981) points out that every message has four facets to it:
Fact: What I inform about (data, facts, statements)
Self-revealing: What I reveal about myself (information about the sender)
Relationship: What I think about you (information about how we get along)
Appeal: What I want to make you do (an attempt to influence the receiver)
There is never the same emphasis put on each of the four facets, and the emphasis can be meant and understood differently. For instance, the husband saying “the sugar jar is empty” may be less about the fact that there is no sugar left in the jar, but the prompt for his wife to go and fill up the jar.
To make it even more complex, as a receiver we tend to have one of the four “ears” particularly well trained (factual ear, relationship ear, self-revelation ear or appeal ear). So if the wife has a well-trained relationship ear she may decode the sentence to be “you are very unreliable since you have forgotten to refill the sugar jar”. So she replies angrily “Well you are not very reliable yourself, you still haven’t fixed the light in the kitchen!” Do you recognize this type of conversation?
The underlying emphasis of both the sender and the receiver on the four facets can create a barrier to healthy communication. It is important to understand that what we hear may not be what the other person was trying to get across. Think about it: which one is your best developed “ear”? For instance, do you tend to hear an appeal in every sentence? Or do you often feel questioned (hence you are listening with your relationship “ear”)?
In order to engage in healthy communication, we need to be aware of the four facets. So the next time you feel questioned, go back to the original statement and think about the four facets. How else could you have interpreted the message? Focus on the actual facts of the message and use questions to clarify whether you understood what the other person was trying to tell you.
For some more information on the theory and some examples watch this 3 minute video:
What to Do If There’s No Communication in a Relationship
“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” M. Scott Peck
One of the most important communication skills is listening. Deep, positive relationships can only be developed by listening to each other (Weger, Castle, & Emmett, 2010). So if there is no communication in your relationship it may be due to the fact that there was no one truly listening while both of you were just trying to get a point across.
Here are the most common listening mistakes:
Daydreaming or thinking of something else (even something as simple as your list of groceries) while another person is speaking
Thinking of what to say next
Judging what the other person is saying
Listening with a specific goal/outcome in mind
Read more about active listening in this article.
But active listening is so much more than not talking. It is an art which requires a genuine interest in the other person, a curiosity rather than an anticipative mind. Active listening involves:
Nonverbal involvement (show your attention)
Paying attention to your vis-à-vis, not your own thoughts
To revive communication in a relationship try the following exercise: Person A gets ten minutes to talk about their day, whileperson B is listening actively and with a genuine interest. Person B is allowed to ask clarifying questions but should not interrupt person A. If there is a silence that’s fine. Relax.
After person A’s ten minutes are up (all of the allotted time needs to be used) person B gets to talk for ten minutes as well, while the same listening rules apply to person A. You will find that ten minutes is a very long time to listen, but you will also be amazed how much you learn about each other and how this exercise adds value to the quality of your relationship and your communication.
Having put emphasis on listening here are some techniques to improve communication in personal and intimate relationships.
How to Better Communicate in Personal Relationships
“For thought is a bird of space that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.” Kahlil Gibran
A great technique to improve communication in any personal relationship is Marshall B. Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication. It is based on the willingness and the ability to approach and perceive issues in a non-judgmental way. This is important because whenever you want to change someone, you will create resistance.
This technique is great to discuss an issue that is on your mind. For instance, your partner arrives late for your date and you feel angry and disappointed. For a positive outcome of the conversation follow these four steps:
Observation ≠ Interpretation/Evaluation
Firstly, try to communicate your observations without labeling or interpreting them. In the case of your date arriving late, it is just that: he is late. Your interpretation may be that the date (or you) doesn’t mean a great deal to him or that other that someone else was more important. So rather than buying into your interpretation, you could simply say “I realize you were late for our date”. This is a factual observation without any evaluation.
Feelings ≠ Thoughts
Secondly, it is important that you communicate your feelings. An argument often develops from hidden emotions. Make sure you understand your emotions and express them in a non-judgmental way. In the case of a late arrival of your date, you could say “I am feeling annoyed”, or “I am bothered by this because it makes me wonder whether you are looking forward to spending time with me”.
Need ≠ Strategy
Thirdly, you need to understand and express what our needs are. In doing so you give your partner the chance to decide whether he can and wants to meet them. For instance, you could say: “I would like to be treated with consideration and I would like to feel important to you“.
Request ≠ Demand
The fourth step is to make a clear request. What does your partner have to do for you to feel that your needs have been met? You could simply say: “That is why I ask you to arrive at the agreed time”.
The four step process is, as Rosenberg (2003) puts it, “simple but not easy” and it will take some time to get your head around it. It may feel weird at first, but you will find that your communication becomes a lot clearer. You are accepting your partner with all their flaws and asking them in a nonviolent way for what you need in order to be happy.
To learn more about nonviolent communication watch this entertaining but smart 12minute video or check out the book recommendations at the end of this article:
While nonviolent communication a great way to improve personal communications, there are also ways you can improve the way you respond as a receiver. Barbara Fredrickson (2003) has shown the benefit of positive emotions for wellbeing. Conversations provide great opportunities to increase positive emotions of others. Appreciative feedback in its nature needs to be supportive, inspiring and dealing from the strengths of the situation. A common model used is the Active constructive responding model (Gable, Reis, Impett, & Asher, 2004).
According to the model, messages can be either active or passive as well as constructive or destructive. For instance, your friend tells you that a presentation he gave went really well. There are different ways you can respond to him.
The way you react falls in one of four response types:
Nurturing (active constructive) “That is great! I’m so happy for you! Tell me more about it!”
Cold (passive constructive) “Oh, that is good”
Ignorant (passive destructive) “Sorry I don’t have time to listen to you right now”
Hurtful (active destructive) “That’s surprising, you’re usually pretty bad at delivering presentations”
For more examples, visit the following article: Active constructive responding.
If you aim to improve communication, make sure you respond in an active constructive way. Be enthusiastic and show genuine interest. An active constructive response would be if you were truly happy for him. “That is great! Well done! I’m so happy for you, I know how hard you worked on the powerpoint slides and preparing for the speech!”
Also, you could ask your friend what it was that went so well and what some of the positive comments were. By asking more questions you will allow the other person to relive the positive experience and experience positive emotions. Let them feel the upward spiral of positive emotions and float on the wave of happiness.
For more information on this theory watch the following video:
How to Improve Communication in Romantic Relationships
“Perception is reality. If you are perceived to be something, you might as well be it because that’s the truth in people’s minds.” Steve Young
Unhealthy verbal communication often starts not with words but with negative thoughts or difficult emotions. If you are in a long-term romantic relationship, you have spent so much time with our partner that you feel you know them inside-out. You anticipate how they react in certain situations. You have painted a picture of who they are and you may fail to re-discover them.
This often has a negative impact on how we communicate in a romantic relationship. Because relationships are all about cultivating the differences and remaining curious who the other person really is and how they see the world. But, after so many years, how can you see your partner in a different light?
Marva Collins, an American educator well known for her tough but respectful teaching methods, has worked with impoverished and troubled students who therefore only have a small chance of succeeding in school. Yet her teaching methods allowed them to flourish and succeed. Her approach to appreciative communication based on a positive mindset is valuable in any relationship.
At the beginning of each semester, Collins would make a point to tell students they had already received their grades for the school year ahead. She told them that they had all received top marks. And their job during the semester was to make sure they did everything not to lose this standing. So rather than having the students prove to her that they were able to get top grades, she showed them that she believed in them. That they were worthy of the best education. This proved to be highly motivating and inspiring (Collins & Tamarkin, 1990).
Collins’ approach was based on creating the right perception for herself and others. She would treat students as if they were top Harvard graduates, as long as they did not prove her otherwise. Accordingly, students started off with the teacher’s full trust, encouragement, and appreciation.
Applied to a romantic relationship, this can greatly improve communication. Try the following experiment and see where it takes you. Assume only the best for your partner. Put them on a pedestal for being so great. And then talk to them in an appropriate way. Wouldn’t you like to be spoken to as if you were valued, appreciated, respected and loved no matter what? In response, how would you react to someone who thought so highly of you? What comes around goes around. You will see your communication improve drastically.
Communication in Long Distance Relationships
“If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” Mary Engelbreit
Communication can be difficult even when we are standing right next to each other, let alone when we are in a relationship with someone in a different part of the world. In long distance relationships, effective maintenance strategies are crucial. For instance, being optimistic is important. But studies also found that openly discussing the relationship and assuring commitment for the relationship are important strategies (Dainton & Aylor, 2002).
Fortunately, technology has made communicating in long distance relationships much easier, faster and cheaper. Especially when it comes to sharing information and assurance, a video call is much more effective than a text message. But technology is also giving us a lot more information on our partner’s behavior which can be intriguing. So while being in touch can be tricky in a normal relationship, in a long distance relationship the real challenge is the time in between.
The fact that your partner still hasn’t replied to your Whatsapp or Voxer message even though she has been online several times since you sent it has let your mind run free like a young horse, galloping from one assumption to the next. And the distance between you seems to accentuate this since you can’t just drive over to have a chat with her. Sound familiar? If you are finding yourself ruminating about what she might be up to, learning about thinking traps may be your best remedy. Because your negative thoughts will lead to unhealthy communication.
A thinking trap is an automatic way of thinking or responding to an event or stimuli that cause distress. It occurs when your emotional response does not match the importance of the situation (Reivich & Shatté, 2002). So if you are caught in a downward spiral, you may be caught in one of the following:
We exaggerate the negative consequences. For instance, if your partner does not respond to a message immediately or fails to call you at the agreed time, you jump to the conclusion that it must be because they have fallen head over heels in love with someone else and have eloped to Vegas. This thinking trap is particularly dangerous as our mind has a tendency to “close the gap”. We look for information to feed our story. So once you have decided that your partner is unfaithful, you are likely to see evidence in every corner, because this is the way your brain works.
Black & White Thinking
You have finally agreed to meet again in a few months’ time but then your partner tells you that May is actually not a good time. Therefore you decide that if he is not willing to make May work, you do not want to catch up with him this year at all. It is either black or white for you.
You feel misunderstood after you hang up the phone. The conversation was not flowing and you feel anxious and low. Something was not right. You can feel it in your stomach. You reason that because you feel that way, it must be true. Something was indeed wrong. Again, this is just a thinking trap. And you need to get out of it. Now.
The first step to getting out of a thinking trap is recognizing it. Once you have realized what is happening you are ready to pull yourself out of the downward spiral of negative thoughts.
Next, remind yourself that most events are neutral. It is the way you decide to look at them which categorizes them as good or bad. Your partner may be on Facebook after you have said good night and hung up the phone, but this is just a fact. No need to interpret or judge it. Allow yourself to readjust your lens and focus on yourself. What have you got planned for the rest of the evening? Remember, what you focus on grows, so invest your thoughts wisely.
So thirdly, change your focus. A great way to do this is mindfulness, a non-judgemental presence in the moment. Mindfulness will tame those wild running horses; studies show that meditation can reduce emotional and cognitive bias (Hanley et al., 2015).
Watch Jon Kabat-Zinn explain mindfulness in only five minutes:
How to Spot Defensive Communication (And Non-Verbal Signs)
“Words are the source of misunderstandings.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
What we say and how we say it creates a communication climate (the emotional tone of the conversation). This is important to know because a destructive communication climate can have a negative impact on the conversation. If people feel comfortable talking to you they will be more inclined to speak openly and share information.
However, when they are feeling uneasy during the conversation they may shut down. This stems from the fact that humans behave very much like animals when we are stressed: we either attack (fight) or run away (flight).
There are certain communication patterns which tend to increase or decrease defensiveness between people. Jack Gibb identified six behaviors which are likely to trigger an instinctive defensive reaction. Among them are judgmental language, hidden motives or lack of concern. If we spot any of those behaviors, without realizing we react defensively. Our body freezes and muscles tense up, arms may be crossed in front of the body. We can no longer accurately perceive
the motives, values, and emotions as we devote a considerable amount of mental energy on defending ourselves and the actual message gets lost. A defensive communication climate creates a barrier to open, clear and genuine communication (Forward, Czech, & Lee, 2011).
Gibb also identified six contrasting behaviors which can help maintain a supportive climate, such as a genuine desire to understand, respect and openness to finding a solution. The following table shows the twelve behavioral characteristics of supportive and defensive communication climates:
Evaluation (judgmental and accusatory language)
Control (manipulative lead)
Superiority (perceived power, intellectual ability)
Neutrality (lack of concern)
Certainty (unwillingness to compromise)
Strategy (hidden motives and deceit)
Description (genuine desire to understand)
Problem Orientation (open to finding a solution)
Equality (respect and politeness for everyone)
Empathy (worthy of affection)
Provisionalism (willingness to investigate)
Spontaneity (straightforwardness, directness)
Source: Forward, Czech & Lee (2011)
A defensive climate will never provide a good basis for a constructive conversation. So it is important you spot defensive communication patterns and turn them into supportive ones. Ask yourself if what you are planning to say may trigger defensiveness and actively try to create or maintain a supportive emotional tone in a conversation.
For more information on defensive communication watch this lecture:
“The dose makes the poison.” Paracelsus
We all know it: we tend to not communicate enough rather than too much. However, there can be too much of a good thing, especially when it comes to smartphone habits. Some couples are in touch via social media throughout the day even when they see each other every day, while others do not feel that need. There is no rule as to how much communication is healthy.
As with anything, if what has been established works for all parties, there is no need to change it.
However, if you do feel that you are overcommunicating and you would like to change that, ask yourself why your need to be in touch is prevailing. What is it that makes you want to reach out and connect? What is your motivation behind the message you send or the call you place? What are you hoping to get out of it?
Positive Psychology is all about flourishing in life. Finding solutions rather than trying to understanding problems. And while it is a human need to connect with others, most importantly we need to be connected with ourselves. So are you communicating with yourself as much as you are with others? What are they like, the conversations you have with yourself? Is your inner voice your best friend or your worst critic?
And what is your life all about? What – other than your alarm – is it that makes you get up in the morning and jump out of bed? What are the moments of flow in your life, when you forget about time, yourself and your smartphone because you are completely absorbed by the activity you are engaging in? When was the last time you were in nature, overwhelmed and stunned by its beauty and truly felt the positive emotions of awe? Can you see where this is going?
Remember that what we focus on grows. So why don’t you grow some excitement in your life?! Do things differently, leave your comfort zone and focus on what is good. Try to meet your own needs rather than hoping for other people to do so. Focus more on yourself and less on others. And see how your communication with others changes.
However, it is crucial especially in intimate relationships to find a way of communicating which works for both partners. Maybe you simply would like to be in touch more often. In this case, use nonviolent communications as outlined earlier to express your Needs.
Books on Communication in Relationships
Here is are our three picks when it comes to books on improving communication in relationships:
1. Nonviolent Communication (Marshall B. Rosenberg)
2. Miteinander Reden 1 (Friedemann Schulz von Thun), this book is not available in English
3. Games People Play (Eric Berne)
Quotes on Communication in Relationships
“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.” Roy T. Bennett
“When you give yourself permission to communicate what matters to you in every situation you will have peace despite rejection or disapproval. Putting a voice to your soul helps you to let go of the negative energy of fear and regret.” Shannon L. Alder
“Having not said anything the first time, it was somehow even more difficult to broach the subject the second time around.” Douglas Adams
“We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” Zeno of Citium
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” William Shakespeare
A Take Home Message
Like painting or singing, communication is an art which requires skills that need practice. If you would like to improve communication in your relationships with friends or with your spouse, remember the following three things.
Firstly, unhealthy communication starts with negative thoughts or difficult emotions. Words are only the result of those thoughts and emotions. So be mindful of what is going through your mind when you talk with someone. Try to understand and communicate your emotions.
Secondly, be aware of your inner lens which is responsible for how you decode a message. Paraphrasing is a great tool when you are unsure whether what you have understood is what the other person was trying to say. Simply use your own words to summarise how you understood the message.
And thirdly, listening is the better skill to practice than talking. Focus on your friend’s facial expression as they tell a story. Try to listen without thinking of what to say next. And try not to judge what you hear.
You will see your relationships improve with these three simple steps. Why? Because good communication is a sign of appreciation. I am curious what you have to say. I enjoy speaking with you. And I value our time together.
This article was first published on https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/communication-in-relationships/
Collins, M., & Tamarkin, C. (1990). Marva Collins' Way (Second ed.). Illinois (Chicago): Westside Preparatory School
Dainton, M., & Aylor, B. (2002). Patterns of Communication Chabnel Use in the Maintenance of Long-Distance Relationships. Commmunication Research Reports, 19(2), 118-129.
Forward, G. L., Czech, K., & Lee, C. M. (2011). Assessing Gibb's Supportive and Defensive Communication Climate: An Examination of Measurement and Construct Validity. Communication Research Reports, 28(1), 1-15.
Fredrickson, B. (2003). The value of positive emotions: The emerging science of positive psychology is comming to understand why it's good to feel good. American Scientist, 91(July-August), 330-335.
Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What Do You Do When Things Go Right? The Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Benefits of Sharing Positive Events. American Psychological Association, 87(2), 228-245.
Hanley, A., Garland, E., Canto, A., Warner, A., Hanley, R., Dehili, V., & Proctor, A. (2015).
Dispositional mindfulness and bias in self-theories. Mindfulness, 6(2), 202-207.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want: Penguin Press.
Reivich, K., & Shatté, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Essential Skills for Overcoming Life's Inevitable Obstacles. New York City: Broadway Books.
Rosenberg, M. B. (2003). Nonviolent Communication - A Language of Life. Encinitas US: PuddleDancer.
Schulz von Thun, F. (1981). Miteinander reden 1 – Störungen und Klärungen. Allgemeine Psychologie der Kommunikation. Reinbek Rowohlt.
Weger, H., Castle, G. R., & Emmett, M. C. (2010). Active Listening in Peer Interviews: The Influence of Message Paraphrasing on Perceptions of Listening Skill. International Journal of Listening, 24(1), 34-49. doi: 10.1080/10904010903466311