Updated: Jul 31, 2019
Communication is the heart of any relationship. As a psychologist but also as a divorce-child, a sister and a girlfriend, I deeply believe that so many issues occur because we don't communicate properly.
I would love to say "Yet it is so easy" - but it's not. I know it's not. Changing the way you talk means changing the way you think.
"Changing the way you talk means changing the way you think"
However, if you want to invest in your relationships and better communication I have gathered a list of communication tips I have been taught over the years. And truly, many of these have changed my life.
I could just list the tips but I think it's always easier to understand tips in context. So if you allow me (and, of course, you can just scroll down to read the tips immediately) let me tell you about my (ongoing) journey with having difficult conversations. Because having fun together is easy. It's talking about the hard things that you realize the strengths and (unfortunately also) the weaknesses of your relationship.
"Because having fun together is easy. It's talking about the hard things that you realize the strengths and (unfortunately also) the weaknesses of your relationship."
"When I grew up my parents used to fight a lot."
When I grew up my parents used to fight a lot. My mother would cry and my father very angry. I also have two younger siblings and my sister and I used to fight many times a day. In fact, my family has a history of people choosing to break off contact with others.
I don't want to give the impression of having had a terrible childhood - I really didn't. I love my parents. In fact, today, I am actually very close to my sister and I have asked for her advice when having to make many difficult decisions.
But it wasn't always like that.
When it came to fighting I pretty much assumed that it works like this:
There is a situation you are not happy about. You don't want to make it an issue so you don't say anything...
.... until you're stressed, annoyed or it just becomes too much and you burst out against the other person.
You fight, you yell.
At some point you stop talking and leave each other alone for a while.
You forget about it and just move on.
Honestly, doesn't sound too bad right? And trust me - it totally works. You can coexist with other people according to this model. But can you share a life, can you foster a trusting relationship like this?
Spoiler alert: no.
When I was seventeen I entered my first relationship and to be honest... I didn't think it would last a week. So when we had our first fight, I was crying and sobbing apologetically (it was my fault) when my partner stopped me for a second and I distinctly remember him saying: "Julia - this doesn't mean I don't love you anymore. It just means that we will have to talk through this and we'll make sure this doesn't happen again. And then we'll talk about something fun"
1. The goal is to grow not to win
A partner, a family member or a friend - everyone will make mistakes and cause misunderstandings. You too! If you enter a fight trying to "win the debate" you have already lost. Yes, I think it's essential to explain your point of view (more on that later) but the goal should be mutual understanding and not determining who is right/wrong/guilty.
"The goal should be mutual understanding and
not determining who is right/wrong/guilty"
The goal is to find out why one or both of you are hurt and how you can make sure that doesn't happen again.
This completely reframes the conversation. Why would you yell and get angry when you know that the other person also just cares about the growth of the relationship?
"Why would you yell when you know the other person cares?"
Now, some of you may ask: well: this is two-sided. What if my partner doesn't enter the fight with good intentions? Well, as someone who used to be terrible at fighting: everyone can learn how to communicate better. But only if they want. You cannot force someone to change.
A few weeks after that initial fight with my boyfriend, there was another difficult situation. I was the one who was hurt by something he had done but I knew he had to leave to catch his bus home and I didn't want to fight so I didn't bring it up. I didn't try to hide my annoyance, though and snapped at him. He got upset: "Why are you talking to me like that?".
I don't actually remember the exact few sentences that followed but they were short and harsh. I am pretty sure it ended with one of us saying "fine" and the other one snapping back: "fine". And he left to take his bus.
I turned around, tears in my eyes and started walking home. They didn't even have the chance to roll down my face yet when I heard footsteps behind me.
"Julia, I don't ever want to leave you in tears".
He missed his bus and we talked. Now without the time pressure, I explained why I had been in a bad mood in the first place.
2. Take time for "Storytime"
Every reaction and every emotion has a story. We sometimes expect people to read our minds - to simply "know" the story behind our actions. But people could have the exact same experience but react completely differently. When you are in a messy fight: take a break for "storytime". Take a breath and calmly explain how you experienced something, including all thoughts, feelings and memories related to it.
"Take a breath and calmly explain how you experienced something, including all thoughts, feelings and memories related to it."
This may extend way beyond the situation. If someone said something to you that your peers in sixth grade always used to bully you - you are going to have a negative reaction the other person doesn't expect.
Or in the fight I just mentioned I had just given a very bad presentation and I knew it. The presentation was part of a club I was leading which I felt was not going well and I was at a loss at how to improve it. I felt very vulnerable. My boyfriend, after attending my presentation, very bluntly told me that it hadn't been very good. It wasn't news to me but it hurt to hear it from him, especially in such a direct way.
When he turned around that day, missing the last bus home, he gave me a chance to explain all that and my vulnerability.
It gave him the chance to see my perspective. And he took it.
3. Try to take the other's perspective
Storytime only works if you are willing to listen and actually try to understand where the other person is coming from. That can be really hard but remember that acknowledging the other person's perspective does not invalidate your own feelings and opinions.
"Acknowledging the other person's perspective does not
invalidate your own feelings and opinions."
They can coexist! And considering both of them equally is a huge step towards peace and understanding.
I have a theory about feedback and it goes like this:
People who are very good at giving feedback are also more likely to get hurt by badly phrased feedback (aka criticism).
People who don't easily get hurt by criticism, however, are also typically not very good at giving feedback.
I think this makes sense because if you are easily hurt - you want to make sure that others don't get hurt. And if you are very good at taking feedback professionally, you think that other people are also not going to take your criticism personally.
People are different :)
I hate to admit it but I am terrible at receiving feedback.
"I hate to admit it but I am terrible at receiving feedback."
When people criticize me, I shut down. I am working on it - but it's hard. Partially I think this is because I had a teacher who drilled so-called "me-messages" in me and my fellow 5th graders. I distinctly remember her telling us that she learned about "me-messages" way too late in life, but when she did, it completely changed her conversations. She promised us that she hardly every fights with people anymore. (She still, of course, disagrees and gets into arguments with people. She just meant that she eliminated the yelling and crying I was used to).
Me-Messages work like this: when you are saying anything in a difficult situation - whether it is the start of a fight, giving feedback or during storytime: try to only use first-person pronouns: me and I.
"Try to only use first-person pronouns: me and I"
Of course, that does not always work out, but what it does is that you frame the narrative around your feelings and perceptions.
Here's a typical thing everyone has heard and something I could very well have said to my boyfriend in our conversation after my presentation.
A: "You always criticize me. You never support me."
You could argue that there are two "me's" in that sentence, but you also see that the sentences are centered around "you". What's the most likely response you are going to get here? "That's not true!" (disagreement) or "What have I been doing for the past two months?" (defensiveness).
Here's what I have been trained to say instead.
B: "I didn't feel like you supported me. I felt hurt by your criticism"
My partner wouldn't be able to say "that's not true" because I was merely expressing my own feelings. He can't tell me what I felt. I can only explain it to him.
5. Stick with one situation - No generalizations
If you look closely at my two examples you will also see that apart from the change in perspective, I also eliminated two important words: "always" and "never".
Always and never (and their siblings) are two key ingredients to escalating any conversation into a conflict.
"Always and never are key ingredients to
escalating any conversation into a conflict"
Why? Because you are making this about many more situations. Honestly, if this is something that has come up before: you should have addressed it then (or save it for a later, calmer moment) but bringing it up right now is not going to help you. Stick with the specific situation you were in - because it's still fresh in both of your minds. You can be specific and clarify misunderstandings. "Storytime" doesn't work as well for things that happened two months ago. I mean, I cannot even tell you what I had for breakfast yesterday.
Which leads me to my next recommendation:
6. Address issues immediately
Now here we have something I am also not very good at. Why? Look back first step in the description I had about how I thought fights would typically play out. "There is a situation you are not happy about. You don't want to make it an issue so you don't say anything..."
You don't say anything.
I think many of us choose to not say anything a lot of times. Sometimes because it's really not a big deal. Sometimes because we don't know how to bring it up or we don't want to fight.
But pushing problems away does not solve them.
"But pushing problems away does not solve them."
I was once in a fight with my mother when she told me that she thought I had been acting very arrogantly ever since we moved to Berlin.
We had moved to Berlin six years prior to that statement.
You can imagine how upset I was - not even for saying that - but because for six years she never thought about mentioning this to me?
I honestly cannot blame my mother - if you ask my boyfriend, I have done this countless of times. "Why didn't you tell me about this sooner?", he righteously asks me.
So, I have tried to be become better at this. When there is a thing that bothers me just a little bit, I try to find a calm moment and say: "Hey, that thing you did - it wasn't a big deal, but I don't want it to become one - so I am going to just quickly bring it up". Use "storytime" and give the exact context to your feelings and use "me-messages" to avoid sounding accusatory.
I cannot say all of these conversations have been easy. But I can tell you that it's such a relief not to have years of unresolved issues to carry around with you.
"It's such a relief not to have years of unresolved issues
to carry around with you."
I usually don't call arguments with my boyfriend "fights". They are hard conversations but we never yell, we try not to accuse. We cry, we get upset and we struggle. But we respect and care. The few "hard conversations" with my boyfriends I described today all happened almost three years ago and since then my boyfriend and I have had many, many of them. (And with a little work we will have many more). But what we have found is that every fight allows us to get to know each other better and improve our relationship.
"Every fight allows us to get to know each other better
and improve our relationship.
Some of these exercises may sound simple and silly (yes, one of it is adapted from my 5th grade textbook) but I would bet you anything that if you apply some of them to your own conversations, you will not only communicate better but grow closer to the people around you.