Best Practices for Communication
In observing many relationships in therapy (and in my own life), I have found certain communication and relational practices to be especially effective and helpful to make relationships extraordinarily awesome:
1. Assume the best about the other.
It can be human nature to assume the other person has a malicious intent in what they did or said. And, maybe they did. But, more often than not, the person’s intent was not as bad as we may first have thought. It is far better to assume the best about the person’s actions and overall intentions. The idea is not to repeatedly just excuse or enable negative behavior and communication, (that will be addressed in a later post), but to give the person you love the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she had a bad day, maybe she didn’t sleep well, maybe they had a bad taco, there’s a thousand reasons why someone could be acting in a negative way. The more I have worked with people, the more I believe that there is a reason they are acting the way they are, all behavior is purposeful, and that deep down, most people are trying their best.
2. You are 100% responsible for your own emotions and your own reactions.
This can be very difficult to accept but is also very empowering. When we take ownership of our own emotions and reactions, we cannot easily move into a victim mentality. Victim thinking is always a position of blaming and powerlessness. If you feel angry, scared, sad, or any other emotions, that is your responsibility to own and deal with. Can others we are close to hurt us? Absolutely! Hurtful behavior needs to be addressed and changed. Intimacy always involves risk of being hurt. You can’t have intimacy without vulnerability. You will feel much more powerful and can actually make substantial changes in the relationship by owning what is yours.
3. Use “I feel” language – (not: You made me feel…).
Some people think that using “I feel” language is childish or kind of cheesy. Actually, I have found it very effective and a mature way to communicate. An example: Let’s say your husband forgot to unload the dishwasher one morning. Instead of saying things like: “You are a lazy slob.” or “You are so inconsiderate.” or “You made me so angry when you forgot to do this again, that was the third time this week.” It is human nature to attack. Instead use the formula: “When you (action, inaction, or comments made), I felt very (blank).” You are saying in a sense, “This is how your behavior affected me.” This raises awareness to your spouse or partner. This doesn’t mean that he or she has to change his behavior, but he might decide to make a change if necessary. This emotional reaction may have nothing to do with the person, but may have much more to do with unresolved trauma in your background that simply got triggered by the person. By communicating in the way, your are much less likely to trigger a defensive reaction in the other. If we move to an ‘attack-defend’ communication pattern, it is likely to cause more damage than resolution and healing.
4. Avoid extreme language.
We tend to resort to extreme language and exaggeration to make our point, to defend our position, or to convey strong emotion. Common examples: “You always…”; “You never…”; “Every time…” “You are the worst…”. While it may communicate the strength of what we feel, these types of communications are rarely accurate or helpful. It’s better to soften the point. Again, we are trying to avoid attacking the other person or spiraling into an ‘attack-defend’ pattern. So, instead of saying to your wife, “You nag me all of the time,” it would be better to say, “It seems like you are often unhappy with my behavior in regard to failing to fixing that door that I promised to fix a few weeks ago. When you express your unhappiness in this way, I feel frustrated.” There is no attacking in this.
5. Avoid passive-aggressive communication.
This can come across in very subtle ways. Often, I have seen this done without the person even realizing they are being passive-aggressive. This is often taught or modeled to the person in childhood and is rooted in a person’s not feeling they can express their needs and wants openly. There is often underlying anger and resentment that the person may or may not be aware of. Examples: “I’m really not mad.” “It was a joke.” “It’s fine.” “Whatever.” “I’m not perfect.” The way to tell if it is a healthy communication versus passive-aggressive is to observe non-verbal behaviors. If there is punishing behavior (subtle retaliation, defensiveness, cold shoulder, etc.) along with the comment, it’s probably passive-aggressive. Also, there are the back-handed compliments which can contain subtle or not-so-subtle contempt for something about the other person, “You are doing pretty well for someone from your upbringing.” These can become habitual ways of communicating, but once brought to awareness, can be changed. It’s better to express what you want and need more directly. That doesn’t mean you will always get what you want, but it is the more assertive and healthier option.
6. Come from a place of total acceptance.
Even if you have a lot of hurt, anger, resentment, or contempt for your spouse, family member or friend, it is best to come from a place of 100% acceptance. This doesn’t mean accepting bad behavior or mistreatment or abuse, but to accept the person for who he or she is. Acceptance doesn’t mean staying in an abusive relationship. It means loving the person completely. The person was probably emotionally wounded somewhere along the line and that they may be acting out of that wounding. You can accept the person and stand up for yourself at the same time. Acceptance is very powerful in healing relationships.
7. Always work for total forgiveness.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, it is much more noble than that. Plus, you can’t actually forget without a brain injury or a lobotomy. Forgiveness means a conscience choice to let the wrong go with full and complete knowledge of what was done. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. You always want to forgive, but some people are not emotionally healthy enough to reconcile. You don’t want to reconcile with a person who will mistreat, abuse, or bring you down. If there is some unforgiveness in your heart, in only hurts you. Holding on to grudges and resentments is like keeping a poison in your system. It is best to release it as soon as possible. Forgiveness is a process. To begin, simply make the decision to start forgiving the person. The feelings will come later. Remember that all relationships require ongoing investment, maintenance, and repair.
8. Listen and seek feedback.
These are very difficult. Many arguments and conflicts could be avoided by simply listening to the other and seeking open, honest feedback. This requires a lot of humility and openness. Our human nature doesn’t like to look at our flaws. We probably have some shame about them which explains why we can so easily become defensiveness. To simply look in the other person’s eyes, listen without interrupting or defending, and asking how I can improve is an extremely powerful way of being in a relationship. It disarms the other and allows for genuine communication and healing in the relationship.