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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.

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

  • No judgment

  • Tolerating silence

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