What does improving communication skills in relationship really mean?


Talking more?


Sure, for some opening up after not talking for a while can be progress. But quantity of words, more time and more effort do not necessarily "improve communication." I fact, those often get couples into more trouble, perpetual arguments with seemingly no way out.


Listening better?


Yeah, kind of... but still not really, that's just one aspect of the bigger picture.


In this article "improved communication"is really about becoming more effective. The effectiveness of your communication can be measured by the end result, "Do both of you feel understood to your satisfaction?"


In order to get to this idyllic place of peaceful and mutual understanding (even with opposing perspectives), the shift in mindset I'll outline at the end of the article is just as important as the communication tools you use.


Let's continue to paint the picture: What does improving communication skills in relationship really mean?


It means no more petty arguments or disconnection and conflict over simple misunderstandings or misperceptions, and understanding the real reason why these happen in the first place.


Read more on 8 Ways to Stop Fighting with Your Partner and 10 Keys to Effective Communication in Marriage.


It means joining each other in shared reality by checking your assumptions and engaging with curiosity instead of defence.


It means no more agitation, frustration and anger projected onto your partner as you try and convince them you’re right and they’re wrong, and if they could just see things your way then there wouldn’t be a problem.


It means creating emotional intimacy - feeling close and connected - with your words.


It means no more raising your voices just to try and be heard.


It means no more resistance or arguments just to set the precedent: your partner won’t get their way all the time and can’t control you.


It means recognizing what works and what doesn’t work; why, when, and how to shift from conflict to connection whenever you choose.


Improving communication refers to being more effective in two roles: Sender and Receiver and understanding how you're being ineffective. It's humbling work because both of you have responsibility to work together to create mutual understanding, which is possible even with opposing perspectives! I explain how in my article: Empathic Dialogue - How to Create Mutual Understanding.



Here are 12 Ways to improve communication for couples:


1) Share Responsibility

2) Say What You Mean - Be Honest

3) Commit to Changing your Communication Habits

4) Shift from a Victim Mindset to an Empowered Mindset

5) Shift from Past & Problem Focused to Present, Future & Outcome Focused

6) Shift from Blame to Appreciation

7) Shift from Competitive to Collaborative Mindset

8) Shift from Parallel Monologue to Applied Empathy Dialogue

9) Shift from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset

10) Shift from Demands to Requests

11) Shift from a Judgmental Listening to Active Empathic Listening

12) Shift from a Codependent or Independent to Interdependent



1) Share Responsibility


The first step to improved communication is seeing clearly that it’s no more your partner’s responsibility than yours to change the dynamic of your communication. For many couples, each person believes it is their partner who needs to change more than them.


When you minimize your responsibility for creating the change you desire, you’ve already lost. There’s a power imbalance in your relationship when you subtly or overtly judge your partner as being “the problem.” Plus, you’ve disempowered yourself by blaming your unhappiness on something outside of you that you can’t control: your partner.


When I brought up using an Applied Empathy Dialogue with my partner to shift us out of arguments fueled by speaking in Parallel Monologue format, my energy was condescending, agitated and forceful.


So, how did she receive my suggestion?


She resisted it strongly because of the way I brought it up. I didn’t make a request or suggestion, I made a demand basically insinuating she was stupid for not being open to communicating in a different way that I knew would end our arguments.


My work: Focus on connection and gentleness when making a request. Practice the art of enrolling my partner in something that I think would be good for both of us by painting the vision of what’s possible. Shift from forceful demands to sensitive, calibrated and non-attached requests. Respect her boundaries and inquire what she would need to feel safe to engage in the Applied Empathy Dialogue. Get more curious about her past, “What has she experienced in childhood that influenced the way she’s showing up today?”


Her work: Focus on letting go of past painful memories of being controlled and engage in the Applied Empathy Dialogue with curiosity and an open mind instead of resistance, trusting I have our best interests in mind.


Moving forward I’m being more mindful of how I make requests. I’m focusing on replacing the old pattern in me that wants to get it’s way and be right with more charismatic and vulnerable aspects of my personality. Similarly, she’s being more mindful of how she receives requests. She wants to make sure she’s changing her behaviour for herself first and for the benefit of our relationship, not just for me. Once I changed my energy, she felt safe to let her guard down and openly participated in the process.


2) Say What You Mean - Be Honest


There’s so much reading into what each other means in communication. We’ve been culturally trained to be conflict avoidant and not say what we actually mean. We say one thing but we mean something else. White lies, excuses, justifications, sugar-coating, people-pleasing, and conflict avoidance are all forms of diluting the truth which contribute to mistrust, energy wasted in guesswork and disconnection because we’re operating under so many assumptions.


Honesty in partnership is often lacking because we’ve learned to people-please and to tip-toe around each other to avoid upset and hurt. We’re afraid to have real conversations because we fear the outcome might be the end of our relationship if we’re actually honest with each other.


When you don’t have the communication tools, self-awareness, knowledge and emotional intelligence to navigate challenging situations, you avoid them altogether. The result is your relationship suffers; you might stay together but you don’t feel close or connected. Or, you stay together but the same petty stuff keeps coming up, those mico-misunderstandings that eventually extinguish emotional and physical intimacy. It’s exhausting and annoying! But it doesn’t have to be that way.


3) Commit to Changing your Communication Habits


When you improve your communication you’re engaging in habit change. One of the most challenging things for a human being is changing their behaviour.


Why?


Unfamiliarity, uncertainty and the unknown are perceived as threatening to the status quo which is known, familiar and ultimately safe.


Therefore the pain you know is better than the unknown better reality you’ve yet to experience or barely believe is possible. All your brain tells you is: change is hard work and will it even be worth it?


So, you settle for the same old pattern of conflict that much of our population calls “normal” simply because they don’t see any other way, or they’re unwilling to try.


Our drive for survival (to stay safe and comfortable) and deeply conditioned automatic behaviour can trump our own happiness if we’re not careful. You have to choose to intentionally condition new habits that serve effective communication, the byproducts of which are happiness and intimacy.


You can create a new normal for yourself and your partner that’s free from drama if you’re willing to do the work. Together you can stop unconsciously creating problems and complaints just to get your partner’s attention. (Yep, we do that!)


Read more on "What is Conscious Partnership?".


Let’s outline the old paradigm and new paradigm clearly so you can see the shift you’re making:


4) Shift from a Victim Mindset to an Empowered Mindset


Victim Mindset

  • I blame my partner for my problems and expect them to change first.


Empowered Mindset

  • I take 100% responsibility for changing myself and what is within my control.


5) Shift from Past & Problem Focused to Present, Future & Outcome Focused


Past & Problem Focused

  • Who’s fault was it?

  • What's wrong?

  • Stuck rehashing and arguing details of the past


Present, Future & Outcome Focused

  • What do we want to create together?

  • What’s most important to us right now?

  • What’s alive in you and me right now?


6) Shift from Blame to Appreciation


Blame

  • Reactive, judgmental and defensive

  • Sucked into the negativity bias, “What’s wrong?”


Appreciation

  • What progress are we making?

  • What are we doing right?

  • What can we be grateful for?

  • What can we celebrate?

  • How can I encourage my partner?


7) Shift from Competitive to Collaborative Mindset


Competition

  • Perceive your partner as an enemy

  • Fights: Me vs. You; Winner vs. Loser

  • Seeks to overpower, talk over, prove a point

  • Committed to being right


Collaboration

  • Trusted teammates; Allies in growth

  • Focus on the relationship using "us" and "we" language.

  • Seeks win-for-all solutions

  • Committed to connection and learning


8) Shift from Parallel Monologue to Applied Empathy Dialogue


Parallel Monologue

  • Both partners try to be heard at the same time, there is no designated listener and voices rise in volume as a result.


Applied Empathy Dialogue

  • Partners take turns being the Listener and the Speaker. Working toward mutual understanding, each partner validates and paraphrases the other’s perspective in a calm, respectful and curious manner.


Learn the Applied Empathy Dialogue and how to create mutual understanding even with opposing perspectives here.


9) Shift from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset


Fixed Mindset

  • Things have always been this way and always will be

  • I and my partner will always be this way, that's just who we are

  • Rigid and defending limitations

  • All-or-nothing-thinking; sees only 2 options

  • Know-It-All: Has all the answers


Growth Mindset

  • Assumes the best; there’s always potential to change

  • Fluid and explores opportunities

  • Creative thinking; sees multiple options and possibilities

  • Student: Open to learning something new


10) Shift from Demands to Requests


Demands

  • Entitled, forceful, insensitive, impatient

  • Use force, fear, authority or power-over to convince, manipulate, control or get your way.

  • Rigid and pushy


Requests

  • Open and unattached

  • Clear on why you’re asking for something

  • Uses role-modeling to influence, inspire and empower

  • Vulnerable and focuses on enrollment

Learn How to Make Requests for Change here.



11) Shift from Judgmental Listening to Active Empathic Listening


Judgmental Listening

  • Waiting for your turn to speak

  • Listen for, "Do I agree or disagree?"

  • Listen for solutions.

  • Listen to confirm what you already believe

  • Unwilling to validate your partner’s perspective for fear of proving them right and you wrong.


Active Empathic Listening

  • Listen to understand not to respond

  • Listen with the same passion in which you want to be heard.

  • Curious to learn, "What don’t I understand?"

  • Demonstrates understanding through paraphrasing and validation


12) Shift from a Codependent or Independent to Interdependent


Codependent

  • You lose your sense of self and tend to consider your partner's needs before your own. Sometimes you bend over backwards for your partner because you fear losing them, being alone or not being worthy of love if you don't.


Independent

  • Your partner is free to be. You do you and they do them.


Interdependent

  • Recognize that you're a two-person psychological system that relies on each other so it's in your best interest to serve, encourage, nurture and celebrate your partner. You focus on strengthening the 3rd entity that is your relationship. You trust each other and rely upon each other: You've got your back and your partners back. You're in each other's care and feel connected on a visceral level.