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  • AutorenbildBirgit Ohlin

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:

  1. Fact: What I inform about (data, facts, statements)

  2. Self-revealing: What I reveal about myself (information about the sender)

  3. Relationship: What I think about you (information about how we get along)

  4. 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.