“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
Growing up, we all heard the saying, “It’s not what you say it’s how you say it.” And it’s true – what we say to one another goes far beyond the words we speak. Our tone, our body language, and our level of emotional intelligence are all key parts of the way we convey ideas and feelings to one another. Communication is a two-way street. When we are talking to one another, we aren’t just sending out information, we’re receiving it as well. How clued in we are to others is just as important to being a good communicator as eloquence or good posture.
When it comes to our most intimate relationships, making sure we’re adept communicators becomes more important. If we tune out mid-conversation, we leave people feeling that we don’t care and aren’t listening. When we use harsh words to express our feelings, we can hurt those we’re closest to. Don’t let your relationship die a premature death. When you learn how to communicate with your significant others, you’ll gain an essential skill for growing old together.
Talk Less, Understand More
This one is an oldie but a goodie. The first step to being an effective communicator is simply making a commitment to being a good listener. On average, a person spends about 45% of their time listening. But are we actually understanding what the other person is saying to us? When we don’t aim to understand, we aren’t getting the full scope of what the other person is saying to us. That leaves room for errors in communication, misunderstandings or even hurt feelings.
Often times when we listen to others, we are so preoccupied with what we want to say that we don’t listen to what we’re being told. In the world of improv, this is what is referred to as “rehearsal dropout”. Instead of focusing on the person in front of us, we focus inward. This prevents us from fully hearing what someone is telling us. And when we aren’t listening to what someone is telling us, we can’t actually know how to effectively respond. Instead, clear your mind. Look at the person in front of you. Actually stop and take a moment to listen so you can better respond later.
This is called being an “active empathetic listener,” and is a cornerstone of successful communication. Empathetic listening requires us to focus solely on the person we’re interacting with. It’s an extension of mental mindfulness that allows us to be fully present in the moment with the people in our lives. Moreover, engaging in active listening gives the speaker the impression that we genuinely care: it makes the speaker feel an increased sense of value, emotional support, and connectedness to the listener.
We know, sometimes the ten millionth conversation about groceries or our partner’s work drama can be taxing – especially when there’s a great episode of Black Mirror queued up, ready to go on our TV. While we sometimes make the decision to “say the right things” so we can get on with our lives, the truth is that we’re only setting aside problems that we’ll have to handle later. When it comes to our relationship with our partners, we need time to decompress. The important thing to do is to schedule time to really engage with your partner without distraction. Agree to a one on one dinner once a week. Dedicate the first thirty minutes of the morning to talk about what you both have going on for the day. Instead of ordering in, engage in an activity together like cooking dinner.
In that time, agree with your partner to put all distractions aside. Then, instead of waiting for a break in the conversation to interject something you’ve just thought of – really commit to waiting. Let the other person speak, clear your mind, and simply pay attention to what they’re saying. Not only will you feel fully engaged, but by having a regular moment of quality time, you’ll also strengthen the bond of your relationship.
Think Because You Can Speak, Improve Your Vocabulary
In a letter to George Bainton, Mark Twain once wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” He wasn’t wrong. From Adam and Eve to the Greek god Hermes, nearly every culture shares stories about the power of words, and the ways in which that power can create joy or chaos. If we want to master communication, we have to master the words in our arsenal.
Language impacts our brains in more ways than you might realize. In one study, researchers took a look at the Piraha, an Amazonian tribe whose language doesn’t have any system for counting. In their research, they found that the Piraha were able to identify the quantity of objects and perform simple tasks of addition and subtraction in the moment. However, they couldn’t really remember anything. In fact, researchers have found that their language is so simple that they have no words for colors and they have extremely limited words for basic story-telling. That means they don’t have any art or drawings, and they have no works of fiction. This has such a large impact on their memory, that they have no individual or collective memories beyond two generations.
Could you imagine the history of your society being wiped clean every two generations? That’s their reality. And it’s all because they don’t have the words that help them prevent it from happening.
When you’re thinking of the old adage “think before you speak”, there’s a strong argument to be made that you “think because you can speak.” If you want to improve your articulation, and in the process, improve your memory and quality of conversation, then commit to improving your knowledge and mastery of your language.
In many cases, people think articulation or eloquence is an inherited skill. But that’s not always the case. A silver tongue is anyone’s for the taking if they’re willing to put in the practice. And that begins with increasing the number of words you have in your arsenal.
A good vocabulary is as good for the brain as home-cooked food is for the soul. The greater access we have to words, the more clear and efficient our thoughts become. Instead of having to use three words to describe something, with the right word, we can save time and energy just using one. The more words we have, the more opportunity we have to communicate at a higher level.
A great place to go to improve your working vocabulary is Merriam-Webster’s website. They have a ton of fun ways to learn and improve your working vocabulary, including quizzes, games, and (if you download the app), notifications on daily words for you to learn.
Find Clarity by Doing Some Math (Or Just Take a Timeout)
We can’t completely erase emotion from conversation. Try as we might, we can’t escape the fact that sometimes we have strong reactions that arise both consciously and subconsciously. Understanding emotion is a key part of communication. For one thing, it helps us connect with others more intimately. Taking the time to understand emotion, and emotional responses, is an important aspect of relating to others and sharing information. But there is a dilemma: If we speak without any emotion, we risk missing the mark. If we speak with the power of a full-on emotional cyclone, we risk being misunderstood. Taking a balanced approach and achieving emotional clarity is the best way to communicate both our feelings and intentions.
Emotional clarity and a sense of well-being show a strong correlation with one another in a number of studies. It can be easy to speak in anger, to lash out in resentment. Instead of responding to another complaint about the dirty dishes in the sink or a stressful discussion about the finances, take a time-out and do some math. No really, take a quick break and run through a few problems verbally in your head. Make them hard enough to make you think, but easy enough so that you can figure out the answers fairly quickly without getting frustrated. Mental math engages the logical section of your brain and gives the emotional part of your brain a quick breather. Crisscrossing will actually help you approach what you say with a different mindset, making it easier to gather and organize your thoughts.
Aside from doing math problems in your head, sometimes conversations just need a time out. Talk with your partner next time you’re with them, and ask them to agree to a “time out” rule. Basically what this tool allows you to do is to call time out in the middle of a conversation to separate yourselves from a heated situation. When one partner calls a time out, the two of you have to separate from each other for fifteen minutes. No talking, no nothing. This gives you both time to calm down and reflect on what you really wanted to say in the first place. Often times, after you take a break from a heated conversation, you’ll find that you won’t even remember what you were upset about in the first place.
The important thing to keep in mind when using this tool is that it only works if the two of you respect it. If a partner calls a time out and it’s respected, the other partner should expect to have their time out respected whenever it’s called in the future.
Mastering Body Language
Body language allows us to pick up on unspoken feelings of hesitation, anxiety, or excitement. In a German study that followed the development in communication skills in young children, researchers found that children who showed early signs of being adept at non-verbal communication were more likely to become better communicators later on in life than their counterparts.
We convey a million different messages to the people around us every day, often without even having to open our mouths. Body language is a natural part of the way humans communicate with one another. The good news about that is that we’re born naturals at non-verbal communication. The bad news is we aren’t always good at using it intentionally and to our advantage.
Sometimes we’re unaware of how others interpret our words because we don’t know how we’re actually communicating them. A good exercise in understanding how your own body language comes across is to practice talking in the mirror. The next time you’re on the phone with someone, head over to the closest mirror and pay attention to what you’re saying and how your body is expressing it. What is your face doing? Are you frowning or smiling? Are your arms hanging by your side or are you crossing them over your chest? Are you tense or are you relaxed?
Aside from mastering communication on your end, getting an idea of what your body language communicates to others is an important step in figuring out how to interpret the body language of others. Take stock of your movement and the movements of those around you, and learn how to interpret them.
Another great exercise is to simply ask your partner what their body language is expressing. If their arms are crossed, ask them why. If they don’t know, then share with them how it makes you feel, and what message it’s communicating to you.
The “Speaker Listener Technique”
“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain — it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” — Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams
One of the best ways to be a better partner is to be an empathetic one. It’s what ties complete strangers together, and enables us to share our lives with those closest to us. When it comes to communication, if we want to truly understand one another, we have to be empathetic.
The truth of the matter is we don’t always get where someone else is coming from. Despite our best intentions, we do things that sometimes end up hurting the people we care about the most. The key to opening a dialogue and building a bridge to understanding is empathy.
In fact, trying to be empathetic has been linked to improved conflict resolution and longevity in romantic relationships. This is because it helps us see beyond ourselves. When we consider what our partner is feeling, to walk a mile in their shoes so to speak, we gain insight. Instead of simply feeling sympathy, it transports us – we take on the other person’s point of view. Moreover, it shifts the focus from wanting to win an argument to wanting to gain understanding. In turn, that leads to happier resolutions.
A great tool to establish empathy with your partner is to use repetition. When you’re in the middle of a conflict, it’s not enough to be heard, we want to be understood. Repeating what someone else says to you is the best way to let your partner know that you’re engaged and empathetic to the conversation at hand.
It’s called the “Speaker Listener Technique”. And while it may seem a little wonky, it really works. When responding to your partner begin with “What I hear you saying is ______.” and immediately follow up with “Is that right?” Give them some time to explain if they feel misunderstood. When you both have clarity, then continue the conversation. If you feel like you’re not being understood, ask them to repeat back to you what you said in the same fashion. This can sometimes catch the person off-guard, especially if you’re in a knock-down-drag-out argument. But, above all else, it provides the groundwork for empathy to emerge.
The best time to pull out this kind of tool isn’t always in the heat of battle, however. Like the time-out method we described above, it’s best to lay some ground rules for these kinds of tools before invoking them. Next time you’re with your partner, take them through the exercise, and reach a mutual agreement to respect the tool when it’s used.
Get to Work!
Relationships are never easy and they always require work. But a lack of communication doesn’t have to end up the source of eternal conflict. We all have different communication styles, different moods, different modes of operating – and those things can even change over time. The important thing is to make sure you’re never discouraged and to make the commitment to keep trying new methods. Relationships are a part of our Seven Buckets, and when our personal relationships get out of whack, its impact ripples through the other areas of our lives.
If you need a place to start a communication conversation with your partner, try using our Honest Expectations questionnaire to help get things rolling. What are your tips for better communication? Make sure to swing by our Facebook page and tell us about it!