Communication is the backbone of connection. As humans, we intuitively pick up the vibes in others’ speech and even more so, in body language. With some minor tweaks and adjustments, you can learn how to effectively convey your deepest thoughts and feelings, in a manner that can be understood and accepted by your partner.
For this reason, I’m always amazed at the number of relationship professionals — counselors and therapists — who never work with their clients on real-life communication skills. They are so important, that the Gottman Institute — renowned marriage & relationship experts — can determine your marriage success probability based on your communication patterns. Using negative communication techniques, such as criticism, blame, and contempt invariably leads to relationship destruction. Whereas communicating with empathy, positivity, receptiveness and personal responsibility leads to connection.
So too with body language. There is a significant difference in levels of emotional connection when we exhibit positive body language such as turning towards our partner or making eye contact or (very importantly) putting down the phone when spoken to. When we turn away or use our body language to turn down a bid for connection, we essentially are broadcasting a rejection, and pushing away our partners.
These minor infractions add-up over time. They sow distrust, erode emotional safety, and create a breeding ground for resentment and division. Let’s turn practical and learn some basics.
Relationship-Oriented Couple’s Communication
Effective relationship-oriented verbal communication, at its core, is an attempt to express your inner emotional experience. The purpose of which is to inform your partner of what is going on inside, for you. Oftentimes, you may want some behavior change as well, so it is important to express that request too.
A key to successful relationship-oriented communication is your own state of mind before you express yourself. It is known that 95% of your partner’s reaction will be based on the way you approach them. If, internally, you are really blaming your partner for your own feelings (“you made me feel this way”), or you are critical of your partner’s behavior (“what a total moron/loser/jerk”), or are suspicious of your partner’s motivation (“you are being nasty because you hate me”), those messages will come forth in your speech, 100% of the time.
On the other hand, if your inner-reality is that only you are responsible for your thoughts and feelings, and that your thoughts and feelings express only your experience of reality, and that you don’t really know your partner’s motivations, then verbal communication can be very effective. This means that my communication is an attempt to describe my thoughts and feelings based on my own reactions to my own lived experience. Importantly, relationship-oriented communication is not an opportunity to lambast your partner, criticize or blame them, or start a fight about “how you made me feel” or “how could you do that to me?”. Here are 3 steps to communicate effectively.
1. The “I-Statement”
An “I-Statement” is a sentence which attempts to convey your feelings about a particular experience. It is formulated in such a way that it removes as much judgment, subjectivity, and motivational-insinuation as possible, leaving only a brief, factual description of an episode (event, scene), and your corresponding feeling (how that event emotionally affected you). It is designed specifically to emphasize your emotional reaction, and to minimize any implicit criticism or discussion of the details of the event itself. It assumes personal responsibility for one’s own emotional reaction, based on your “lived-experience”, and ascribes no blame onto the other. Finally, it may include a change-request from your partner, built on the trust and goodwill implicit in your relationship.
Recently, I-Statements have been given a bad rap. Many articles and flashy advice-blogs have decried that “I-Statements” don’t work. In my opinion, this is because most people don’t know how to use I-Statements properly, and therefore defeat the entire purpose. In actuality, a well-crafted I-Statement works wonders — they can shift the entire conversation not only for the listener but for the speaker as well. Let’s see an example.
Doug and Marsha were out on a date to his 15-year high-school class reunion. At the punch-bowl, Doug bumps into Bob, who remembers him distinctly. However, Doug’s memory of Bob is a bit clouded, and while he all smiles externally, Doug is freaking out a bit inside. Eventually, Doug slips up, and it becomes clear that he has no recollection of Bob, at all. Marsha laughs out loud at Doug’s social faux pas, and leans into Bob, and confirms that Doug has no real memory at all, and is embarrassing to be with in public. Bob and Marsha laugh and think this is funny. Doug is mortifyingly humiliated.
In the car, Doug is fuming. He will now let Marsha know how he feels. Let’s examine the ways Doug can choose to express himself:
2. Really Bad to Just-OK Communication
- “Marsha, you are so rude!”
- “Marsha, I think you are rude!”
- “Marsha, I think your behavior was rude.”
- “Marsha, I experienced your behavior as rude.”
Notice how Doug’s communication improves from character assassination to criticizing her behavior, to just a description of how he experienced her behavior. In describing your thoughts about, and experience of, another’s behavior, this is the best it’s going to get. But it can get much better, and much more effective.
3. Better to Great Communication
So let’s take this to the next level. If we are interested in sharing our feelings and ultimately arresting the behavior (and not arguing/debating it), we can do better by not describing the offending behavior at all. Instead, we can focus on only two things, namely:
- The lived-experience (Bob & Marsha laughing at how Doug is forgetful)
- The feelings you experienced by the action (humiliation).
For an even more effective statement, preface with a good-will disclaimer and finish with a reasonable behavior request. Let’s break this down:
- Lived-experience + Emotional Reaction:
“Marsha, when you and Bob were laughing at my forgetfulness, I felt humiliated.”
- Good-Will Disclaimer + Lived Experience + Emotional Reaction:
“Marsha, I’m confident you meant no harm. When you and Bob were laughing at my forgetfulness, I felt humiliated.”
- Good-Will Disclaimer + Lived Experience + Emotional Reaction + Change Request:
“Marsha, I’m confident you meant no harm, however I want you to know that when you and Bob were laughing at my forgetfulness, I felt humiliated. I’d appreciate it if you would try never to laugh at me when we are out together. Is this something you can do?”
Notice that Doug made no commentary on Marsha’s character or even her behavior. He is not blaming her, judging her, or ascribing any motivation to Marsha at all. He is merely expressing his emotional reaction to an experience that she participated in — namely that it was humiliating. By focusing on his feelings without attacking her, Marsha is free to empathize with Doug and relate to his feelings of pain.
Further, by prefacing his statement with a good-will disclaimer, he immediately removes any blame or wrongdoing on Marsha’s part. This will open her up to really hearing what he has to say, even if she internally knows that she mishandled the situation.
Finally, by closing with a change request, Doug is asking Marsha that she be more careful in the future regarding how she treats him in public, without blaming, criticizing, or judging her.
No Magic Bullet – But Close
I-Statements are not a magic bullet to get your way in your relationship. Just because you express yourself well doesn’t mean your partner is now obligated to succumb to your every wish and desire. However, I-Statements are a very effective way to share your experiences and feelings so that your partner becomes aware of how their behavior affects you, without accusations, criticism, or judgments. Because of this, they open up your partner to making changes that they know are important to you, without feeling defensive about how they behaved.
Communication is always a reflection of what’s going on inside you. If you own your feelings and experiences, refuse to blame and criticize, and make clear requests of your partner, you are not only communicating effectively. You are modeling excellent behavior and relationship standards, as well as conveying vulnerability and trust. All these form the foundations of an excellent, loving relationship.