Couples Who Are Great At Communicating Know How To Do This One Thing Well

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Relationship Advice To Improve Effective Communication Skills Through Listening

In healthy relationships, there's nothing more vital than good communication skills, and couples who can communicate effectively know how to do one thing: listen.

I just finished Adam Grant’s Ted Talk on The Power of Powerless Communication in which, amongst other points, he cited two that emerged as commanding. 

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Grant said that the use of tentative language engages trust and brings people towards you instead of away. He also reminded us that Steven Covey has said that most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand, we listen with the intent to reply.

Or, in my words, people listen to respond, not listen to listen. He also reminded us what the Buddha said, "If your mouth is open you are not learning."

So, to learn how to be a better listener, you just need to ... listen.

I have intended to comment on the latter, in the context of effective communication skills for couples, for some time. Well, a long time. And not a day passes during my work with couples that I don’t see that in living color. I see that people listen to respond, not listen to listen.

Many simply cannot contain their responses. They are literally chomping at the bit to respond, prove their point, defend their wares. People so want to be heard, but within that context, so does the person from whom they are receiving. 

And what happens exactly when those to whom we make our best attempt to connect, to be heard, fail to acknowledge our words and feelings, particularly at the moment of painstaking vulnerability?

Many couples' number one complaint, as told to couples therapists, is their communication.

They assume this is the issue because it is through communication that they connect. Yet, effective communication is not in and of itself often the issue. It is through this that they are heard, validated, felt and acknowledged.

Years ago, in her benchmark book, You Just Don’t Understand, Men and Women in Conversation, Deborah Tannen, linguist and speech pattern student, concluded that for men communication is a means to an end, that is, often to establish pecking order or to get to the bottom line.

Yet, for women, communication is an end in and of itself. Yet for both, more women than men perhaps, it is through this process that connection exists.

With Emotional Focused Therapy (EFT), we look at "moments," and connection happens in moments. Disconnection happens in moments of rupture. We may have many moments, many times but it is within a moment that we have a break and we can have a repair. 

Now, how do you improve your listening skills?

Think about this example I use repetitively with couples and parents.

Little Bobby comes home from the playground and cries to his mother, "Johnny threw sand in my face and it got in my eyes and all the kids saw it."

He is clearly upset, sad, embarrassed and feeling a bit helpless given the circumstances with the other kids. What do most parents do? How do they respond?

Most parents instinctively want their children to experience no pain so they attempt to nurture and in order to soothe the child, they primarily say, "It’s going to be OK! Let’s get you cleaned up."

Now, that might sound uber nurturing to you yet there is a missing step, a step so critical that it is what provides regulation of emotions within the confines of this trauma. And that is, we have to be where our partner or child are.

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The missing step within this example would be to bend down, get eye level, and say something like, "I’m sorry that happened" (if they look sad, you also need to look sad) or if they are older, say "That sucks." 

No excuses for the other child. No fix it yet. Just a mirroring experience. This engages the arousal of our mirror neurons, which are so critical for connection. 

This step is so often excluded in all levels of communication.

In order to connect and join with each other, they have to be where the other is at times and they are so often so into their story and their side that they forget they are even in a relationship with another human. 

Listening improves connection and improves resiliency.

Connection improves not only intimacy but emotional regulation and ultimately resilience. This has been well established.

In her interpretation of several studies presented in her Ted Talk entitled How to Make Stress Your Friend, health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, concludes that not all stress is bad but, to the contrary,  that stress can be good for connection.  

She concludes essentially that the stress experience catapults us to reach out and through this collaboration we become emotionally regulated and, in the end, more resilient. 

If you believe you and your partner have a problem in communication think again. Communication is a reflection of what's inside.

So seek help from a qualified Couples Therapist who can help identify the issues and help you resolve the challenges in your relationship.

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Dr. Barbara Winter, Ph.D., holds a doctorate degree in clinical psychology. She has a private practice in Boca Raton, Florida, where she has specialized for over 30 years in issues related to sexuality, relationships, infidelity, divorce, trauma, and general psychiatric concerns.

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