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Ask The Therapist: Effective Communication

Effective Communication: The Power of an Introduction / Rivkah Weiss, M.S.W.

Q: I know communication is a key word when talking about couples relationships. I do try to communicate with my husband about my feelings, but it almost always ends with one of us getting defensive.  This essentially exacerbates the shutdown. How can I prevent this and enhance rather than inhibit our communication?

A: Communication is, indeed, a key word when it comes to relationships, but it is only half of the picture. The real goal is effective communication. How do we achieve that? Let’s start at the very beginning… quite literally.

Dr. John Gottman, a leading researcher in the field of marital therapy, found that 94% of the time, the way a discussion starts determines the way it will end. When the conversation begins with a softened start up, it significantly reduces feelings of defensiveness.  Which in turn increases both parties’ ability to listen and to be heard.

So, how do you start off the discussion on the right foot?

First, make a mission statement. State at the outset the topic for discussion, along with your goals. This allows the other side to get into the right state of mind, as opposed to being attacked suddenly when they aren’t prepared. For example, “I really want to talk about how I’ve been feeling since having the baby. It’s going to be hard for me to open up about this, so I’m asking that you really hear me out.”

Second, complain, and don’t blame. Try to avoid criticizing the other side, using statements such as “never” or “always”, or exhibiting negative body language like eye-rolling. Focus on what’s bothering you, rather than what your partner did wrong. For example, instead of “you never clean up after yourself”, say, “it overwhelms me when the house is messy.”

Third, use “I statements” instead of “you statements”. This is another way to avoid placing the blame on the other side. When you become vulnerable and express your own feelings, your partner is more likely to listen compassionately instead of getting defensive. “I feel alone right now” is more easily digestible than “you aren’t listening to me.”

Finally, talk clearly about what you need, in positive rather than negative terms. “It would mean a lot to me if we could spend some uninterrupted time together for the next 15 minutes”, rather than “I don’t want you to be on your phone when we talk.”

When you set a positive, vulnerable tone early on, you will have created a positive, vulnerable momentum. Once you get off to a good start, you’ve essentially completed most of the journey.

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