Not too long ago, relationship therapist and educator John Howard was a guest on The ONE Thing webinar with Jay Papasan. John has spent more than 15 years improving the relationships of his clients with a science-based approach to connection and communication and is an author and founder of the online relationship program, Ready, Set, Love. As he had a lot of excellent advice to share, the content clearly resonated with our readers and the session came to an end far too quickly.
Eager to share more information with our readers, John agreed to sit down for a follow-up interview to tackle the pressing questions we – and our readers – still had.
ONE Thing Team: What’s the ONE Thing a person can do to improve communication in his or her relationship and what’s a strategy tip to go with it?
John Howard: If there is ONE Thing I would emphasize, it’s that great communication is more about feeling connected than about communication tools. Connection is determined largely by more simple parts of the brain, while communication tools require higher and more complex processes that sometimes just make us feel stressed rather than connected.
We can drive a sense of connection more successfully by using the tips I shared in the webinar on the use of proximity, touch, eye contact, tone of voice and awareness of timing. If I had to share one strategy, I would say to try watching your partner’s face like a movie and not like a snapshot, so you can respond to the nuances that happen in conversation.
To really establish a connection you’ll have to do several things at once, like using physical proximity and touch more in conversation, paying attention to your tone of voice, and saying meaningful things into your partner’s eyes. I can sum all of these actions up into one encompassing strategy: pay attention and respond accordingly in the moment.
ONE Thing Team: How do you respond when a young person approaches you and asks, “What’s the ONE Thing I can do for my relationships such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”
John Howard: Learn how to make your partner feel safe, secure, supported and appreciated. Everyone is a little different. Some call these differences love languages. The bottom line is you need to know what makes your partner feel loved and secure and focus on getting really good at those things. Unfortunately, asking them what makes them feel good isn’t always a reliable source of information, so you’ll need to cobble it together both from what they say and from what you learn from experience.
ONE Thing Team: We’d love to hear the top three tips you can share with our readers on improving their relationships?
John Howard: My first suggestion is to create a culture of ultra-safe, non-judgmental communication. I’d also suggest using more touch and eye contact. It’s OK if it makes one or both of you uncomfortable at first, just keep training at it. Finally, recognize that there are things you may be doing in your relationships that you are unaware of that may be impacting trust and connection. Don’t be afraid to get into couple’s therapy to learn effective tips around how to address these behaviors and connect.
ONE Thing Team: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about relationships?
John Howard: Focus on security. There are many reasons we get into relationships, such as romance, money, parenting, or support. But the bottom line is that our nervous systems want relationships in order to feel more secure in the world. And it’s our nervous systems that determine in large part how close and connected we feel to others.
ONE Thing Team: Do you have a mentor or coach who helps you navigate your own relationships?
John Howard: Yes, my wife and I have been to couple’s therapy twice in our marriage and we’ll probably go again. I’m a big fan of being in therapy to learn and continue to grow. As a therapist myself, I also think I need to regularly have the client experience, and I genuinely believe a third party can often offer insight that is harder for those of us ‘in the system’ to be clear about.
I also have a relationship mentor in Dr. Stan Tatkin, author of Wired for Love, with whom I train as a couple’s therapist. While he teaches me as a professional, his vision and example of how to have an ultra-secure relationship has been inspirational to my personal life.
ONE Thing Team: You described three entities during our webinar: “you,” “me” and “the relationship we share.” What’s your advice on giving this third entity the attention it deserves?
John Howard: When it comes down to it, the relationships we share with others deserve a lot more attention than we typically give them. In fact, the cultural message many of us hear is that “Others can’t make us feel a certain way. Only we can be responsible for our own happiness.” This is a popular — although very misguided — message.
Relationships are unique. This means they can’t be predicted by how we operate as individuals. Each relationship brings out different qualities in each of us to different degrees. That third entity — the relationship — needs its own training. It is not simply a product of two people doing individual training on how to be better individuals. Relationships bring up a lot of issues in all of us — and they should. When we work through issues together we can heal the longstanding relationship wounds we carry from childhood that affect us as individuals.
ONE Thing Team: You taught us about the impact touch, proximity, eye contact and tone have on building communication. How can these be used to improve communication in a work setting?
John Howard: You’d be surprised how often I’m asked this question because people are very interested in building stronger professional networks and having meaningful connections with bosses, employees and co-workers. Primary romantic partnerships are very different from work relationships, which means we need to adapt the strategies a little, but the foundational concepts are still the same. Relationships are built on trust, connection and a sense of safety.
So at work, you might hold eye contact with someone just a little bit longer than usual when you want to make a deeper connection. You might use touch in a playful (and non-creepy!) fashion to convey familiarity to the nervous system, like a light touch on the arm when you’re saying something to someone. I often pat people on the back or put a hand on their shoulder when I say hello in work settings. It helps establish a closer rapport than if we’re always greeting one another from 2-3 feet away. Proximity needs to be gauged to the interaction: some people like more personal space than others. But a rule of thumb is to try to be as physically close as is still comfortable for the other person. Being closer communicates a trusted bond to the nervous system, but not if it crosses a line that makes the person you’re talking to nervous. Try modulating your tone of voice, sometimes making it soft and sweet and sometimes loud and crisp, just so you are being intentional with it — like an actor might — and not just running on automatic.
ONE Thing Team: Tell us about the best part of your job.
John Howard: The best part of my job is seeing people come closer together and share deep, embarrassing, shameful information with each other. It sounds painful, but it’s what deepens relationships. People have more love, care and empathy for one another when they have the full story of what’s hard for their partner. Yet, as people, we often don’t share the secrets that harbor our shame and guilt — we hide that stuff, and it makes our connections with others less meaningful. I love watching a couple fall more deeply in love after taking risks in sharing with each other.
ONE Thing Team: What’s your favorite part of the day?
John Howard: It’s probably the morning, because I treat every day as a blank canvas. I probably mentioned in the webinar that I’ve done a lot of spiritual work, and part of that is being in the moment and feeling what is being asked of me. The part of the day after waking up where I’m meditating on who I am and what to do that day is a special time.
We all have more to learn if we’re going to make our relationships as successful as possible. If this interview only whetted your appetite for more of John Howard’s relationship insight, try downloading his free guide, 5 Mistakes to Avoid in Relationship and consider signing up for his course. What were your aha’s from John’s advice? Let us know on social media!