Want to improve communication in your relationships? It starts with YOU!
Many of us have difficulty communicating with loved ones due to how we were raised, traumatic experiences we’ve had, or cultural messages we’ve received over time. If you want to work on your communication so you and important others in your life can better hear and understand each other, there are a few ways you can start on your own.
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your awareness on the present moment, noticing thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that arise without placing judgment on our experience. What does this have to do with communication? Staying mindful keeps us in tune with our thoughts and feelings, aligning us with our true intentions. The more present we are in the moment, the more intentional we can be about the words we use, rather than saying things in the heat of the moment that we will regret later.
We can be mindful in communication by applying these principles to others; being able to listen to their thoughts and feelings without judgment. Mindfulness allows us to notice when we start to feel our heart racing in anxiety, or our chest tightening in defensiveness. When we notice these sensations arising, mindfulness encourages us to refrain from judgment and be curious about where these feelings come from. Emotions like these often cause us to lash out or push others away, especially if we judge these emotions, leading to shame or regret. Mindful communication gives us important clues into triggers that may get in the way of clear communication, and notice behavioral patterns we may have in our relationships.
Recognize your triggers
Does a certain subject, question, or tone of voice trigger you to be fearful, irritated or defensive? Through the practice of mindful communication, you can begin to be curious about these triggers, and start to define if the difficult emotions arising are due to the person you are communicating with, or something in the past. If triggers are coming up in a relationship where it feels safe to share, this can lead others to better understand you and ultimately feel closer to you. However, remember that triggers are an explanation, not an excuse. If certain triggers are continually causing problems in your relationships with others, consider working through these with a trauma-informed therapist.
Learn about assertiveness
Assertiveness training comes from both feminist and cognitive behavioral therapies, and the purpose is to teach people to clearly and confidently express their needs and wants to others. So what is the difference between passive, aggressive, and assertive communication? If you have a more passive style of relating, you often avoid communicating because you want to keep the peace, you might tend to convince yourself your needs don’t matter, or allow yourself to be bullied into doing something you don’t want to do. This can damage your self-esteem, and often create resentment towards others. Aggressive communication is the opposite; thinking only your needs matter without considering others, and using yelling, aggression, or even violence in order to bully others into getting your way and damaging their self-esteem. Assertiveness, instead, involves both talking and listening, recognizing that yours and others needs both matter, and calming and clearly communicating to reach a compromise, ultimately building your own self-esteem while respecting others. If you don’t believe your needs and boundaries matter and it’s getting in the way of being assertive, you may want to work on building your self-esteem so you can get to this place.
Use “I” statements
Utilizing “I” statements comes from a variety of individual and couple’s therapy approaches, including Assertiveness Training, Emotionally Focused Therapy, and The Gottman Method. Most of us don’t do well listening empathetically when we are feeling attacked, and that’s due to our biology. When we begin to feel attacked, our fight or flight response turns on as a defense mechanism. Once we are in this animal-like state, the part of our brain that can empathize turns off, and our body goes into survival mode. If we want others to hear us without becoming defensive, changing the statements we make from “You” to “I” can make a world of difference.
For example, instead of making a generalizing, blaming statement like, “You clearly don’t care about me because you never call me back”, you could say “When I don’t get a call back, I feel hurt, and I don’t feel cared for”. This simple rephrasing takes the blame out of the statement, instead making the focus on your feelings, leading to greater understanding from the other person. Steering clear of generalizations like “always” and “never” also helps, because these are almost “never” true. Generalizations like these can also trigger a defense response, and the person being “blamed” might begin to look for examples to disprove the statement. You can even practice mindfulness now as you read the two different statements, and notice the difference in how your body feels as you read each one.
Know that there is never a “right” time to have a hard conversation
Many people say they don’t want to ruin a good time, or positive moments by bringing up difficult topics. This often leads us to put off hard conversations until it’s too late, because in reality, there is never an ideal time to have a difficult conversation. However, having difficult conversations actually brings us closer in relationships. If you are worried the other person will be upset by you bringing up a difficult subject, ask for conversational consent. Asking, “Is this a good time to talk about ___?”, or even scheduling a conversation c
an help offset this, making it feel like the conversation is less “out of nowhere”. And once you talk about it, it will feel like a weight lifted off your shoulders.
Don’t give up!
Sometimes we try new ways of communicating with others and it doesn't go the way we hoped. If you try some of these tips and things seem to go wrong, don’t give up. This happens because of a concept called “homeostasis” that occurs in all relationships and systems. Basically, homeostasis maintains patterns of behavior and interactions in relationships, and when one person throws off that normal pattern, people tend to freak out. It may catch friends, family, and romantic partners off guard if you suddenly change your communication style, because they are so used to you behaving differently. They may push back on new boundaries you try to create, but try to remain patient; after some time, they will get used to it and begin to adapt, creating a new, healthier homeostatic balance in the relationship.