Good Communication Basics

Good communication basics

Couples will often come to my office complaining of “communication” problems in their marriages. That can mean anything from grammar issues to total silence. When I ask them to tell me what communication problems means to each of them, the answers are often vastly different.  He thinks she talks too much so he just tunes her out;  she believes he never responds clearly, instead giving her one-word answers or just mumbles.

Good communication starts with paying attention

This applies both for the speaker and the listener.  If the listener is watching a game on TV or a favorite show, that’s a bad time to bring up something meaningful with the expectation of resolution.  Similarly, saying “We need to talk,” is a very fast way to create defensiveness in the listener.  Instead, choose a time where your partner is not in the middle of something and say, “When would be a good time for us to talk about ______.”  It’s playing fair to lay out the subject so the listener knows the subject and can figure out when they’re ready to pay attention.

It also requires both partners stick to one subject

Good communication also requires both partners stick to the one subject of the conversation. Keep the topic narrow.  For example, if you say, “We’re going to talk about money,” that’s much too broad and lowers the likelihood of resolution.  Instead, keep it narrow.  “We need to resolve the issue about paying off the Visa bill.”  The topic focuses the conversation and makes both people solution focused.

Stick to the topic which means not bringing up old business. When you introduce old, unresolved “stuff,” it leaves the agreed-upon subject behind and derails good communication.  One conversation = one topic.  

Set a goal to resolve the issue at hand

If both partners agree to this rule, the conversation is likely to go much more smoothly and resolution is likely.  Agreeing to resolution in advance means both partners will be focused on solutions and being focused on solutions allows you to work as a team rather than as adversaries.

Do not allow one partner to dominate

Another way to keep the conversation solution-focused is to not allow one partner to dominate the discourse. The easiest way to accomplish that is to limit each speaker to three sentences at a time. That way nobody dominates the dialog and both sides feel heard.  

If your conversations tend to wander, write the chosen topic down on a piece of paper and keep it visible to both parties.  If one starts to wander away from the topic, respectfully say, “I know you’d like to talk about ______ but right now can we please resolve (our chosen issue.)”  

Major key to good communication is R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Aretha Franklin was right.  It’s critical to staying solution-focused that partners treat the other’s ideas and thoughts with respect.  Respect keeps the volume low and the probability of resolution high. You’re being a team. Teammates are most effective when they respect one another.  If the conversation becomes disrespectful on one side or the other, ask respectfully why the other person is feeling uncomfortable – that’s the usual reason things get out of control in human exchanges – and address the discomfort, then come back to the chosen topic.  If the person can’t do that, then suggest you continue the conversation at another time.  That’s having good boundaries and good boundaries are imperative to finding solutions.

Boundaries mean you respect the other’s rights.  Good boundaries keep us from abusive or aggressive behavior.  Good boundaries mean you know where to draw the line between OK and not OK, physically, emotionally, verbally and in all other ways. Good boundaries make good relationships.

Brainstorming can be helpful to finding solutions you both can agree to.  That’s a technique in which you each offer ideas to resolve the problem and write them down, no matter how far out.  “We could pay off the Visa bill if we won the lottery.”  Once you’ve written down all the ideas, remove the ones that don’t seem reasonable or possible – winning the lottery, for example – and then choose the best remaining idea.

Finally, affirm your partner.  When you find resolutions or for good ideas, people like to be praised for coming up with something useful.  Affirmation encourages your partner to keep looking for solutions, not only at the moment but ongoing!

Bryn Collins
Psychologist, MA, LP
Bryn Collins is a Licensed Psychologist in private practice in Eagan, MN. She is the author of the books; Emotional Unavailability (Harper, McMillan) and the forthcoming Emotionally Unavailable Family. Her areas of specialization include Anxiety; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; Relationships; Crisis Intervention; Families or people under stress from divorce or custody issues; Abuse Survivors; Survivors of Relationships with Narcissists; Bipolar Disorder and more. Her approach in working with clients is one of open exchange and generation of solutions.