Effective communication is key to building and maintaining healthy relationships, and while it doesn’t necessarily come naturally to all of us, the good news is effective communication skills can be learned and practiced. Couples will almost inevitably experience conflict at some stage in their relationship, and effective communication can be used to not only resolve conflict, it can help build strong emotional bonds that reduce the frequency of conflict in the first place.
According to Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, conflict in relationships is often driven by unmet emotional needs and a sense of disconnection from a partner. Couples who learn to identify and express their emotions in a constructive way are able to build a stronger bond and are more likely to behave towards each other in a way that allows them to feel heard and validated, even if they don’t agree with each other’s perspectives. This, in turn, builds security and resilience in the relationship, them to resolve conflict more effectively, and results in a more satisfying relationship.
Below are some communication strategies that can help you communicate better with your partner and more effectively resolve conflict when it arises:
Know what you are trying to achieve
Begin the conversation knowing what it is you are trying to achieve, for example, resolving recurring conflict over one partner’s tendency to be late. Stay focused on the present issue and avoid reference to the past, especially past wounds, as this can derail the conversation quickly.
Use active listening
Active listening involves paying attention to what the other person is saying and trying to understand their perspective. Too often we are focused on our response to the other person to really listen, which can lead to making assumptions, jumping to conclusions, and misunderstandings. Try taking the time to ask questions and paraphrase what you believe was said, to ensure you have understood correctly.
Focus on your part in an issue, and your own feelings about it, to avoid power struggles and playing the blame game. Use ‘I’ words, not ‘You’ which sounds like an accusation. For example, instead of saying ‘You are always late’, say ‘I feel stressed when you are late and I would like to arrive at our appointment feeling calm’. Using ‘I’ statements is more likely to avoid a defensive response from your partner and encourage them to listen instead of tune out.
Avoid criticism and contempt
Criticism and contempt are two of the biggest relationship killers, mutual respect is critical to maintain a healthy relationship. When discussing an issue, remain respectful and focused on the issue or problematic behaviour rather than turn it into a personal attack on your partner’s character, as this can lead to resentment and further damage the relationship. Be willing to be honest about what you are feeling and avoid being dismissive of other people’s feelings either through words, body language or tone of voice. If true feelings are not addressed the issue is likely to remain unresolved.
Don’t argue to be right
Often there are different and equally valid perspectives to an issue. Arguing to be right can result in the conversation going in circles without a resolution. Prioritise the health of the relationship and accept there is not always a clear cut answer, sometimes it is enough to air the issue and continue on, as maybe all that is needed is for both parties to feel heard and validated. View the conversation as a learning experience as opposed to a threat to our own identity. Avoid all or nothing thinking when it comes to judgements about others or about ourselves – for example, even if we have been in the wrong that does not make us a bad person.
Know when to take a break
It is important to monitor an argument for when it is getting out of hand. Gottman defines flooding in relationships as “a sensation of feeling psychologically and physically overwhelmed during conflict, making it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving conversation.” Recognise when emotions are escalating or flooding may be occurring and suggest taking a break, agreeing to come back to the discussion when both of you are feeling calmer and can focus on problem solving the issue.
Try to focus on finding a solution that works for both parties. Reach a compromise by mutual exploration of the issue, making suggestions as opposed to demands and by keeping an open mind in regards to the suggestions made by the other person. Let go of the need to control. It may be that you do know better and that you are right, but people are entitled to make their own decisions, even if they are mistakes. Mistakes and consequences are life’s greatest learning tool, resulting in greater experience, wisdom, and an improvement in perception and judgement in the future.
Most importantly, remember that we are all human, be willing to accept each other as flawed and be willing to forgive.