Many people believe that the No. 1 secret to maintaining a healthy relationship is having good communication skills. If you're in an intimate relationship and feel that you could improve in this area, here are some ways to keep the communication — and the relationship — flowing.
1: Understand Communication Styles
It's important to understand that communication challenges in male-female relationships stem from the different ways in which men's and women's brains are wired. "Men compartmentalize their feelings, but women remember everything," says Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom and The Wisdom of Menopause. "So when women bring up issues in a relationship, they tend to bring up everything that is related," she adds, noting that this is a big mistake. That's because most men find this approach overwhelming, or view "hashing over everything" as a character attack.
According to Dr. Northrup, the most important communication skill for women to learn is that you cannot expect your mate to be your best friend. Save the long-winded moaning sessions for your girlfriends.
Laurie Moore, Ph.D., author of Creative Intimacy and Choosing a Life Mate Wisely, advises people to choose a partner with whom they have enough in common. "You need some foundation from which communication can flow well from the beginning," says Dr Moore, who is a psychotherapist and a licensed marriage family therapist. When communication styles are vastly different, couples often spend more time learning how to communicate than actually communicating. Dr. Moore compares this to being from two different countries and not speaking the same language.
2: Speak Up
You know the old adage: "I just need to get it off my chest." Well, "there is a seamless connection between relationships and health," says Dr. Northrup, who notes that studies show that people in loving, supported relationships generally feel happier and have fewer health problems.
If you feel you're communicating clearly with your mate, but your mate doesn't want to hear you, Dr. Northrup suggests re-evaluating the situation. You may be compromising your health. Dr. Northrup says communication issues often surface at midlife, which is when many women begin to notice changes in their health, particularly their thyroid energy. "The function of the thyroid gland is influenced by our ability to have our say, something that, for women, has been societally blocked for thousands of years until relatively recently," says Dr. Northrup.
3: Communicate Without Blame
Kathlyn Hendricks, Ph.D., and Gay Hendricks, Ph.D, founders of the Hendricks Institute and authors of more than 17 books, including The Conscious Heart and Conscious Loving, say the most valuable skill they have learned over the years is how to communicate without blame.
"You need to learn to be sensitively aware of the uniqueness of your partner," says Kathlyn Hendricks. The Hendrickses teach people how to create harmony and intimacy and still "tell the microscopic truth." Their top five communication skills are:
- Listen generously. Reflect back what the person said accurately. Hear the person's feeling. Tune in to what the other person wants and feel what's underneath it. Listen with your third ear.
- Speak unarguably. That means speaking in statements of fact that can't be argued. For example, you may say to your partner: "I feel bad when you leave for work without saying good-bye." You're saying that you feed bad (a fact) when your partner does not say good-bye (also a fact), and that cannot be argued. This way of speaking places no blame and allows a conversation to happen without argument.
- Focus on appreciation. The Hendrickses recommend a 5-1 ratio of appreciation to complaint. Focus on positive aspects of your partner and your relationship.
- Turn your complaints into requests. For example, ask your partner: "If I make dinner, will you clean up?" Be committed to making clear agreements.
- Shift from blame to wonder. Ask yourself how you might be contributing to a communication problem. Kathlyn Hendricks asks people to "hmmm," which shifts you from your critical mind to your creative mind and, in turn, causes you to shift from being right to having a healthier relationship. Would you rather be right, or happy?
4: Use Communication Tools
Steve Stewart, author of 52 Simple Rules to Improve Your Relationship, says that each partner needs to get what he or she wants from a relationship for it to be successful. To help couples communicate more effectively, Stewart uses four simple but effective tools:
- Ask for what you want. Stewart says that most people don't ask for what they want because they think they can't get it. But the opposite is typically true. Most people are surprised to learn/to find out that they can get what they want simply by asking.
- Show your partner what you want to receive. "In other words," says Stewart, "give your partner what you would like your partner to give you."
- Learn to negotiate. Relationships are give and take. For example — "Honey, I will cook dinner, if you will do the dishes afterward."
- Learn to modify what you want. "Ask yourself if what you want is really something you have to have," says Stewart.
While Stewart believes that couples can overcome communication style barriers, he says sometimes it may be more work than it's worth. "If you're always giving in, or if you cannot ask your partner to give you anything, it may be time to move on.