He snatched the plate from my hand and set it down hard on the table. Surprised, I just looked at him. What was his problem? I was giving him his choice between the two biscuits. What a horrible way to treat someone who is trying to be nice to you!
Later that day, Eric suggested we talk about the uncomfortable exchange at the kitchen table. Calmly, we each explained what we interpreted from the situation (had we discussed it in the moment, I doubt my reaction would have been so calm). Eric said, “You have a habit of handing me stuff when I am in the middle of something. I was actively doing something and you were handing me a plate and expected me to stop whatever I was doing to take it.” It did not occur to me that I frequently hand Eric items when he is typing, or on his iPad, or cutting his food. I responded, “I was not trying to force the plate into your hands. I was offering you a piece of bread.”
The conversation pointed out a habit of which I was unaware and helped me understand Eric’s sudden reaction. His response was a result of viewing my actions through his lens. I did not say, “Which piece of bread would you like?” I just sat there with the plate in the air. He was probably thinking, “Here she goes again. Can she not see that I am clearly in the middle of something?” And, I was thinking, “I am trying to be nice by offering him first dibs.”
Misinterpretations happen frequently in relationships and we tend to be more gracious with others than we are with members of our own households. Thankfully, Eric brought up the small (but noteworthy) squabble for discussion, because I would have “let it go” (i.e., assumed he was just being a jerk and stash it in my heart).
Without open communication (which involves work and moments of discomfort), a relationship cannot grow properly. Of course, I am preaching to myself too. ~smile~ If you and your significant other can learn to communicate well now, you will be ahead of the game. There will always be surprises and more to learn, but a good foundation of communication is priceless.
40 Tips for Better Communication!
Typically, I like to point out 20 tips, tricks, or ideas to keep in step with this year’s theme of Hindsight (and it being 2020); but, as I began writing this one, I realized 20 is not enough! So, today’s post is 20 communication tips and another 20 more!
- Understand and respect your different styles. Eric is a fighter. He wants to figuratively duke it out until a solution is on the table. I am someone who flees. I hate confrontation and hope problems just work themselves out. So, some of our talks have been stressful! Eric does not like raised voices and I tend to raise my voice when I get overwhelmed. Knowing these tendencies before we resolve conflict is helpful.
- Communicate proactively rather than reactively. Set aside time to talk each day, or at least several times a week. Choose to dialogue when you are in a good place with each other, not only when something is wrong. Make communicating a habit. If you prioritize working on the relationship, you will have fewer reactive exchanges.
- Avoid the Blame Game. Get to the heart of the matter and work on fixing the problem. Blaming each other creates new problems and unnecessary hurt feelings. “The lawn mower is broken. What do we need to do to fix it?” Ultimately, you want the lawn mower fixed. Using language such as, “I told you to be careful driving over tree roots. I knew this was going to happen! Well, who can fix it?!?” is unhelpful. It inspires some people to fight, and other people (like me) to avoid bringing up problems in the future.
- Put away distractions. When your partner wants to talk to you, pause the show, put the phone down, and clear away anything which might compete for your attention. If you are in the middle of something important, ask to postpone the conversation for a short time until you can give it your full attention.
- Listen with your face. This is easier to do if you rid the area of distractions, but sometimes I still struggle to look at Eric and maintain focus. If you struggle with paying attention, ask your partner if you can ask questions or periodically paraphrase what he or she is saying to keep you engaged.
- Own your feelings. If something is bothering you, do not respond with, “I’m fine.” Instead, you can say, “I am not okay, but I am not ready to talk about it. Can you give me an hour?” Your partner cannot communicate with you about the problem if you pretend there is nothing bothering you. We have not met a mind reader yet!
- Take communication getaways. A change of scenery can help a couple reopen the lines of communication. A friend of mine used to go on long weekends with her husband when they had issues or plans to discuss. One of the best weekends Eric and I ever spent together was in a town two hours away. Small trips can reap big rewards!
- Do not discuss anything important after 10:30 pm. Choose your discussion time wisely.Whenever I ignore the clock and bring up something “potentially hazardous” late in the evening, I regret it. When you are tired, you are less likely to be rational. Most conversations can wait. Those which can wait should wait until the light of day. Over the years, you will discover other times when it is best to abstain from conflict producing discussions (e.g., Friday evenings, after his team loses, when her work is extra stressful, etc.).
- Do not let the sun go down on your anger – but let the sun go down on your argument. Eric and I used to stay up late “trying to work through a problem.” What we were really doing is trying to win the fight. We should have been sleeping. Get sleep! Sometimes, sleep is all a couple needs to get back in sync with each other. You can go to bed without being wrathful. You and your partner can agree to take a rest break. “Honey, I love you. We are tired. We are not getting anywhere. Let us pick this back up tomorrow at 10 am on the couch.” There is no wrath in that statement and both people can rest.
- Only talk when you have “the floor.” Use an object – a pen, a cup, a stuffed animal – to be your “floor.” Whoever is holding the floor expresses himself or herself. “I feel hurt when you play video games instead of spending time with me.” Then, the person not holding the floor paraphrases what his or her partner just said. “You feel wounded when I choose video games over hanging out with you.” If the listener feels understood, he or she hands over the floor. This communication tool helps couples refrain from talking over each other and gives each party the opportunity to be heard. (Here’s a good video on the method: The Speaker Listener Technique)
- Have weekly meetings. Weekly meetings help us find time to communicate. When something irritates or hurts you throughout the week, write it down. Before you meet to discuss your list, look at it. Cross out the issues which have either been resolved or are no longer bothering you. Have the meeting and bring at least three positives to the meeting and no more than three negatives. See the previous point about the floor… and pass it back and forth so you each get the chance to speak. Limit the meeting to 30 or 60 minutes and then do something fun together. If these meetings turn into gripe summits, they will not last. These appointments help couples connect by designating a time to lay everything out on the table. “That really bothered me, but it is okay. We can talk about it on Saturday at our meeting.” It helps us move problems to the side knowing we will get the chance to discuss them later, and it keeps couples from frequently bombarding each other with complaints.
- Ask, “How is your heart?” rather than “How are you?” This question cuts to the core of a person. We can say, “I am fine” all day long when we really are not; but, the question, “How is your heart,” disarms our facade.
- Listen first. Advise Later. “I don’t know why she talks to me about her problems. She never takes my advice.” “I don’t know why he is always throwing advice in my face. He never listens.” This merry-go-round has been in place since the Garden of Eden. She wants to be heard (in most cases) and he wants to fix the problem. Men are born fixers, and they want to solve our problems because they love us (and sometimes so we will shut up). We ladies are not against your advice; we just want to feel heard more than we want the advice. After Eric listens to me, I am usually open to his input.
- Practice active listening. Active listening is not only looking at the person but engaging with him or her. “He said that to you? Wow.” “You mean to tell me she came back to your department after the way she acted last week?” When the conversation is more confrontational, remain calm and ask genuine questions. “Can you give me an example of when I insult you in public?” “Are you saying you feel disrespected when I stay out later than I said I would?”
- Listen as an ally (e.g., listen with your quills down instead of aimed). This person is your friend, first and foremost. Listen as you would to a friend instead of planning your retort. This is not always easy, but it is more successful than listening to respond.
- Mind your face, and your tone, and your body language. We communicate more with our bodies than with our mouths. “I love you” does not mean as much when your significant other is scowling at you. How you say it matters. What your face says matters. Your body language matters. It all communicates something. If your eyes are shooting daggers, wait until you calm down to talk.
- Check your biological needs. Are you sleepy? Are you hungry? Dehydrated? Is your heart rate up from stress at work? Before seeking to connect with your loved one, take care of those needs so you can be fully present. We are human and when our bodies are not functioning properly, it affects our minds which in turn affects our tongues and body language.
- Seek comfort spots. Along with keeping your biological needs in check, have conversation spots – a comfortable couch, outdoor chairs, etc. – where you have most of your important discussions. Some talks take a while and a splintery park bench might not be conducive to lengthy chats. Outer irritants impede communication.
- Take the Love Language Quiz. Showing love is an act of communication. Knowing how to show love most effectively to our partners is a tremendous skill to acquire. Not only that, but when our love tanks are full, our hearts are more tender and ready to communicate. Challenge the results of the quiz. Notice which feeds your soul the most – words of affirmation, physical touch, gifts, acts of service, or quality time. Which one of these would you keep if you had to get rid of the other four? Which one would your partner keep?
- Take the Apology Language Quiz. A huge part of communication within marriage is knowing how to apologize most effectively. Your sweetheart may not know you are trying to apologize if you are sending it in a language he or she does not speak.
- When possible, communicate your desires using concrete measures.“On a scale from 1-10, how do you feel about _______?” “How full is your love tank? Is it half full, or three quarters full?”
- Communicate while doing a task together. Men are more likely to connect while doing something rather than just sitting and talking. What can you and your partner do (running, cooking, yardwork, etc.) together which might pave the way for some good conversation?
- Keep sarcasm in check. Sarcasm can be a lot of fun, but couples can go too far. It is hard to know where the line between playful and hurtful is in your loved one’s heart. If you both enjoy sarcasm, be willing to say, “that hurt” if your partner goes too far. Otherwise, he or she will continue hurting you unknowingly.
- Write first, talk later. If you need to communicate something to your partner, but you cannot form the words easily, write it down first. Get your thoughts out of your head, organize them, and then approach him or her. If you do not need to write first and talk later (extraverts often do not), respect your partner’s need to do so, if applicable. Hounding your significant other to talk before he or she is ready is counterproductive and it may break communication down completely. When Eric learned to give me time to think and then come back to the conversation, our communication greatly improved.
- Find out how your significant other best connects. Eric connects through information. He enjoys sharing his data findings with me; but, my attention only touches his heart if I am engaged in the conversation – to show that I care.
- Stop hinting. Be respectfully blunt. “When we stop for gas, would you mind pumping it?” works better than parking the car, letting out a sigh, and waiting for him or her to ask, “Would you like me to pump the gas?”
- Stay on topic; avoid rabbit trails. When we talk too much, we can leave the other person confused. “So, what are you trying to say?” When making a point, respectful, short, and direct comments work better than long drawn out explanations. The more words we use, the more opportunity for a misunderstanding.
- Do not get historical. This goes along with the rabbit trails. Though not unheard of for men to go down memory lane, we ladies tend to struggle more with this one. When an argument breaks out, we often leave the current discussion and head back to another fight from three years ago. “And then after suggesting I change my dress, you spent half the night looking at that other woman!” “Wait a second. Where did that come from? Weren’t we talking about cleaning out the closets?” Stick to the situation at hand, and if you are going to use an example from yesteryear, explain why you are doing so and how it relates.
- Tell a story. Get your point across in a memorable way. Not everyone appreciates a good story, so only communicate in story form if your partner appreciates this approach (though, many people do).
- Accusations bad. Questions good. “You left the steak out all night.” “No, I did not! You said you were going to put it away!” “You dreamed that. I never said that!” Accusations lead to defensiveness and anger. “Did you know the steak stayed out all night?” “Oh, I thought you were going to put it away.” “I don’t remember saying that, but maybe I did.” One conversation ended in a fight while the other ended in a neutral exchange.
- Ask clarifying questions. Doing so is a delicate dance. You do not want to ask so many questions that your partner feels derailed and interrupted, but you want to ask enough that you show interest and that you are following the story. If possible, wait until your significant other finishes a thought before asking a question. If he or she talks fast, have an agreed upon sign for when you have a question (e.g., a raised hand, putting your hand on his or her arm, the sign for time out, etc.).
- Take your moods to God and your anger to your husband. Some of the best advice I ever received came from a college marriage and family professor. He told us ladies to take our moods to God. If we are grumpy and not sure why, we should not take those moods out on the men in our lives. Instead, we should go to the Lord in prayer and ask for help with our attitudes. However, if we are truly angry about something, we should confront our husbands (respectfully) and not hold it inside. If it is a mood, go to God. If it is anger, communicate it and resolve it. (Some fellas are moody too, so the same rules apply. ~smile~)
- Avoid always and never. If you are over twelve, you have probably heard this advice. Always and never are typically exaggerations and are easily dismissed. They also feel like unfair accusations. Words such as often and usually are better. Which of the following evokes the most anger: “You always cut me off when I am talking to you,” or “You often cut me off when I am talking to you”?
- Stop stuffing. Have you ever seen the TV show Hoarders, or know a hoarder personally? That is what happens to us emotionally when we choose not to communicate. We stuff our issues inside until we are trapped. Even a poorly executed attempt to communicate is better than refusing to communicate at all.
- Take notes. This may sound strange, but we are a forgetful people! If your partner communicates something important to you, write it down and review it so it does not go in one ear and out the other. We retain little of what we hear, more of what we write down, and 100% of what we memorize (which is one reason memorizing Scripture is so powerful).
- Resist defensiveness. It is human nature to bristle when someone suggests you are not perfect. But, reacting defensively does not benefit anyone long term. Hear your partner out and then respond calmly. Defensiveness cuts communication off at the knees. You may end up being glad your loved one brought a shortcoming to your attention. Even if you are not, remaining calm and listening keeps your communication lines open for business.
- Do not underestimate the power of humor but be careful when you use it. Laughter lightens the load; but, when someone is trying to have a serious conversation, laughter can feel dismissive or even demeaning. After you both have the chance to talk and both people feel heard, bring humor into the mix. Ending tough discussions with some levity is good for the heart and the relationship.
- Avoid snarky retorts such as “How does it feel to want?” and “People in Hell want ice water too” when your loved one expresses a desire. Believe it or not, there will be days the sound of your spouse’s breathing will get on your nerves. It does not mean you do not love him or her. Sometimes being in the same space for a long time makes us edgy. If you feel venom about to ooze from your face, relocate for a bit, if possible. Pray. Get yourself together. Then return with a happier heart!
- Do not compare each other to exes or your relationship to other relationships. Nothing good comes out of comparing. The road of comparison always leads to disappointment.
- Use the Sandwich Method. When communicating something difficult, start with a positive, end with a positive, and sandwich the complaint or suggestion in the middle. It is a softer approach and easier to digest. In between tough conversations give a lot of compliments, hugs, kisses, and smiles. We turn our ears off when the person in our life complains more than praises.
Conquering communication in your relationship can be frustrating, but it was not meant to be figured out in one day. Even in your 80s, you will still learn new ways to communicate with your spouse. Some of your funniest moments might come from botched attempts at communication. Even if you do not laugh at them in the beginning, you probably will someday! Some examples:
When we were dating, I did not always have the best phone service, so Eric would say, “You are breaking up.” But, all I heard was “breaking up.” Each time, my stomach dropped for a split second thinking he was trying to break up with me. This happened several times. ~smile~
During our 2007 trip to California, I assumed Eric knew he was supposed to be watching our nephew; but later when he got lost, I realized Eric had not gotten the “memo.” Thus, our most noteworthy fight happened in the Winnie the Pooh store at Disneyland. True story. All because of miscommunication. (Our nephew was fine. He was just a few yards away.)
Keep at it and you will get better. As with any skill, communication techniques take time to learn. Being determined is half the battle!
On a scale from 1-10, how satisfied are you with how you and your partner communicate?
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