We all know that communicating well is vital to keeping relationships healthy. By some accounts, communication is the backbone of all relationships – especially the romantic kind. If you can’t communicate well enough within a relationship to coordinate, problem solve, express your perspective, and share your feelings, the relationship will struggle for survival.
But you may find, as many of us do, that communicating well is a much more difficult task than it seems. Most people enter relationships with the intention to build open lines of communication and to express positivity towards this person that they (assumedly) like. So why is communicating well so hard?
One thing I’ve noticed while coaching couples is that those couples who communicate the best with each other seem to be doing it effortlessly. We could chalk it up to being a natural ability, like having a great pitching arm or a beautiful singing voice, but I don’t find that to be true.
Instead, I think we are approaching the idea of “good communication” all wrong, and a simple shift in perspective can drastically improve your communication skills.
So what are we doing wrong? We are focusing far too hard on the goal of “communicating well.” If you go to (almost) any couple’s therapist, he’ll tell you that you need to learn to “communicate better.” While that’s an admirable goal, “good communication” is just an abstract idea that, when put into practical application, has little-to-no meaning.
For example, is it “better” when communicating with your partner to be more truthful or more kind? Is truthful communication “good communication”… or is kind communication? I think most people would say that, ideally, one could be both truthful and kind at the same time.
But we all know from real-life experience that sometimes it’s nearly impossible to communicate something both truthfully and kindly. If a man is no longer sexually attracted to his wife after she’s had a baby, is there a way to make that truth kind? What if a woman’s disappointed with how much weight her husband gained after the wedding. Is the best communication, in that situation, to say nothing?
When the truth that needs to be communicated is inherently hurtful, the path towards the abstract goal of “good communication” gets infuriatingly obscure.
So, what should we do instead? We should follow in the footsteps of those couples who’s communication seems effortless and natural.
Instead of focusing on trying to communicate well, these couples simply focus on each other.
When I suggest you focus on each other, what I mean is that in the midst of a difficult conversation, keep engaged attention on the other person. Listen to what he’s saying with the intent to understand him better (not to formulate a rebuttal). Notice what he’s not saying. Watch his body language. Use your senses to pick up on his feelings. And above all, ask questions!
Using this approach, the difficult situation described above could be handled like this: The man who’s no longer sexually attracted to his wife could ask her how she’s been feeling about their sex life. It’s highly likely she will have her own concerns that line up with his.
She will likely know that their sex life has been dwindling and may express her own concerns about the way her body looks. By focusing on her, the husband will still be addressing the issue he needed to address – their lack of sex – but his wife will walk away feeling cared about and understood instead of devastated.
This approach, which puts your focus on the other person, flies in the face of our traditional notion of “communicating well”… which asks you to put your focus on yourself. But when your energy is directed at choosing every little word you say perfectly, it’s substantially harder to understand where the other person is at.
To sum up, “good communication” is a very poorly defined, abstract goal. It’s no wonder that we have a hard time achieving it! Instead, try focusing with sincere attention on your partner – her words, her gestures, her feelings – and responding to her in the moment.
If you can stay present and speak to the information she reveals as it comes, good communication will feel like it’s happening naturally. You’ll be so engaged with your partner that the goal of “communicating well” will be the farthest thing from your mind!