The 2 Secrets of Effective Communication


Further thoughts on how to best talk things out with your partner and get your needs met.

One way relationships last long term is by having effective communication. We hear this term a lot, but how exactly do we measure "effective"? In the case of relationships between two people, one of the major ways of measuring effective communication is in how we convey our needs to our partner. These needs run the gamut of emotional, intellectual, physical, logistical, sexual, and financial. Relationships suffer when either partner feels a lack of satisfaction with the other's ability to satisfy their needs at any given time. Studies show that the most effective communication in relationships involves using "I" statements, actively listening, and conveying empathy.

To be sure, all needs are not meant to be met by our partners. We live in an age where we expect our mate to be an all-in-one lover, therapist, breadwinner, cook, teacher, planner, filer—the list is endless.  While each partner must come to his or her own realistic expectations of the other, the common thread in any need is the desire to feel supported and unified, to feel like you're both in this together, like neither one is alone in their efforts to take care of the couple and family unit, nor is either alone in sharing their individual experiences with the other.

Here are two means of communication whereby both men and women can convey their needs to their partners. It might take practice—it might take twenty trials and errors, like learning to do a cartwheel—but you'll see how it clicks in. Ideally, you'll be able to tap into this process as part of your regular daily life when any related issue arises.

1. When you speak, use feeling statements.

Remember that poster in preschool with about 15 different facial expressions, each with a feeling associated with it (happy, sad, angry, worried, mischievous, proud, surprised, etc.)?  In the past few decades, the idea of using feeling statements has been encouraged since preschool days. This advice has become so prevalent that it's practically hackneyed, yet ironically, as adults, we still need to learn the skills to know how speak with feeling statements. Here's how:

The formula is: “When X [event] happens, it makes me feel Y [one or more feelings].”

Here is an excellent example of three feeling statements in one sentence:

"I feel worried about getting so much done by the end of the day, and I would feel really supported if we did some of the tasks together after you come home from work. I would feel comforted if I knew in which ways I could lean on you this evening."

Notice the formula: I feel x when, or I feel x because, or I would feel x if…

Note what there are not: Qualifiers such as "like, as though, as if" (which all mean the same thing.) We do not say, "I feel as if I'm doing all the work." This puts the partner on the defensive. Instead, we need to keep our words pointedly focused on our feelings about our needs, not what we think our partner is or is not doing.

If we don't feel understood by our partner, our feelings consume us, often resulting in our acting out or being passive-aggressive—both of which are harder to work through. When we use feelings to describe our needs, our partner will be better able to get an emotional grasp on our perspective, leading them to understand us better. In turn, understanding us will open the gates for our partner to better satisfy our needs.

2. When you listen, do so actively.

Open ears, close mouth, breathe quietly through nose. For now, it's about your partner, not about you. Your goal: To feel empathy.

While your partner is speaking in feeling statements, your job is to be there for them. Preferably, turn off all ringers, radios and TV, and close the tablet and laptop flaps.  Really hone in on the feelings your partner is using to describe what they need. Try to feel what they feel, even if you disagree. Make eye contact, and nod to show that you are listening.

When your partner finishes speaking, take a breath and gather your thoughts together. Then state that you heard what they said, understand how they feel, and hear what they need. Then repeat back what you heard to make sure your both on the same page.

Moving Forward

It might take a few conversational exchanges for your partner and you to both feel understood by each other. When you both keep up speaking in feeling statements and actively listening, you will likely get to the understanding you both need. From there, you can work out how to meet each partner's needs in a way which works best for you both. Compromise flows much more easily from a place of understanding.

Most importantly, these communication skills lay the foundation for intimacy building which, in turn, further fosters our attachment to our partner and expands the flexibility we need to keep our relationships thriving.

A Note to Parents

Parents can begin modeling this form of communication with their children. Boys and girls both can learn to speak in feeling statements, and to be actively listened to by their parents. This form of exchange can make parenting easier and provides tools for the children which can serve them well in their future relationships.


To learn more about Dr. Clark and the work that she does, please visit www.AliciaClarkPsyD.com, follow her on Twitter @DrAliciaClark, or find her on Facebook at AliciaHClarkPsyD