When things are hard between us in our life relationships, one obvious roadblock is the need for simple, but effective tools for communicating. In my work, it is often what couples identify first as needing to change. Although communicating well it’s just one of the pieces of the puzzle in building functional and healthy relationships, it can be a foundation for significant and long-lasting relationship health.
Learning to communicate more effectively is a bit like paint by numbers; were using a format can be a good place to re-learn and re-organise your communicating. Usually, once couples understand the look and feel of communicating differently, they are more able to utilise a ‘blank canvas’ where there is more fluidity and creativity.
As a starting place, let’s look at a template for an effective communication contract that I often use in my work. If this interests you, I encourage you to shape and blend ideas that you know already work in your relationship to make a ‘best-fit’ model just for you.
Communication Contract :
Check-In: Often when we are communicating something important, we can start talking and not really be aware of, or even consider, where our partners are at in their own busyness or availability. Checking in with the other person to see ‘if it’s a good time to talk’ before you say anything is a really important beginning place. It’s a great way to prep each partner for an attunement towards positive communicating. If the other person says ‘not now’ you can both agree on setting a time later that works.
Soft Start-Up: It’s proven that how we begin our communication is often how we end it and soft start-ups are a way to ensure our communication is more caring; minimises blame and defensiveness. I like to imagine that a soft start-up is about building ‘ground’ for connection and emphasising the commitment to care and protection of the relationship. For Example:
“I wanted to talk about our finances and I know that’s been hard for us to discuss. I know sometimes you can feel criticised by me. I’m going to make an effort to not let that happen”
You can see this example reassures a partner that you are looking out for them, and also making a commitment to organise your own thinking and words. Powerful stuff!
Soft Eyes: Did you know we pass ‘threat’ to each other through facial expressions and tone of voice? Often long before anyone has said anything. Soft eyes are a metaphor for thoughtful body posturing, a reassuring touch, and eye contact (when culturally appropriate). It can be triggering to have difficult conversations when one or both partners are busy doing something else, sitting beside each in the car, or distracted on the phone. Making a commitment at this step of your communication to – for example – sit together and face each other, is invaluable.
Speakers Role: In every form of popularised positive communication the speaker has an important role in ‘owning their stuff’ or ‘using I language’. In other words, the speaker has a responsibility to organising their emotions, thinking, and words that minimise projections and blame onto their partner. It sounds easy and can be very hard to do. Especially when we feel righteous confidence that our partners have ‘done something to cause the problem’. The speakers main role includes:
- Speak for yourself: Talk about your thoughts, feelings, and concerns, not your perceptions of your partner or their motives.
- Use ‘I’ Statements: “I was upset about our spending last month”, is an “I” statement. “I don’t think you care about money” is not.
- Be precise and to the point: Often one partner will use more words than the other in communicating and there is a risk they will go on and on. Pause to help your partner understand you. Use a timer if you need one. You must keep what you say to digestible pieces.
Listeners Role: Like the speaker, the listener has an important role in driving positive and caring communication. Active listening is metaphorically about listening with our ‘hearts and our ears’. The listeners job is to drop their defences, look for the intent of what their partner is saying, and tune into the feelings, perceptions, and attitudes of the speaker. The listeners role includes:
- Don’t interrupt!
- Paraphrase & Validate: When there is a natural (or timed) pause, try a combination of paraphrasing and validating. Paraphrasing is saying back what you heard, either in your own words or exactly as you heard it. Validating is reflecting the emotions and perceptions of the speaker. This will show your partner that you are listening with your heart. A common error is responding from a defensive or mind-reading position. If you are upset by what your partner says, you need to slow down, take your time to breathe, and respond mindfully.
- Stay Focused and Clarify: Don’t worry, your turn will come to speak so stay focused on your partner. Notice if your mind is already thinking of a clever response and therefore not present. It’s important to not offer your opinion or try and fix the problem, sometimes all your partner will need is to feel heard. If you’re not sure about something or need more information, ask clarifying questions.
Turn-Take: This concept is an easy and important step. Make sure you are taking turns to speak and listen. I have found that when couples use a tool, like a talking stick or stone, it can make a difference to honouring who’s has the floor.
Take Time Out: Our fight, flight and freeze systems are fast, and I know how quickly good intentions can turn to muck. Using time-outs is an essential part of caring communication and when offered as a gift in our relating, is an appropriate protective measure. What’s critical is agreeing on a time to reconnect and try again. Somewhere between 20 minutes and 24 hours works well. Importantly, how we use this time-out to reflect on how we have contributed to poor communication and what we could do differently next time, really helps the couple repair any fractures and reconnect with more kindness.
Things to Consider: There are a few important things to consider when applying these ideas to your unique communication contracts.
Firstly, often one person in the relationship is more adept than the other in figuring out what they’re feeling and how to say it. It’s really important to remember that sometimes one partner will need more time and more space to process their thoughts and emotions and can feel pressured or overwhelmed if rushed. Adopting this knowledge into your communication can also minimise the use of time-outs!
Secondly, it can be important to set the right environment for your communicating and I suggest in busy lives to schedule a time that’s agreeable to both, a meeting place that feels comfortable, and if needed a space that neutral or away from distractions.
Lastly, If you need too, lean into using other supports for healthy communicating.
- A talking stick or stone is a useful example.
- Write up, print out and sign off on your communication contract and hang it on the fridge.
- Similarly, look up and print out lists of ‘emotional words’ so you can reference them.
- Bring your body sensations into your communicating as a powerful tool that can really value add to your connection and care.
Sean Tonnet is a highly sort after relationship therapist, international educator and Clinical Director for Thrive Clinic Mullumbimby. You can contact Sean through this website contact page or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com