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Tips for Healthy Communication

Tips for Healthy Communication

by Spencer Lee, LCSWA

Communication is everything. It’s how we express our thoughts, feelings, and wants to others. It’s how others let us know what they need and how they feel toward us. The bottom line is that without communication, nothing changes. If we’re unhappy, we stay unhappy without communication and the same is true for those around us. 

Below are two examples handling the same situation. Michael feels his relationship has been unfair recently. He cooks 4-5 nights a week and does the grocery shopping beforehand and clean up after too. His wife, Abby, works long hours and likes to have time to relax after work and decompress. One example is unhealthy communication and the other is healthy. See if you can spot the difference. 

 

Scenario 1: Abby comes home and Michael has cooked dinner. After dinner Abby sets her plate in the sink and sits down to watch tv. 

M: “It’d be nice if you helped me with the dishes for once”

A: “Honey, I had a long day at work and really want to relax”

M: *sighs* “You never help me and it makes me feel like I’m just a maid”

A: “What are you even talking about? I help with laundry and the kids all the time!!”

M: *shuts down and walks into the bedroom*

 

Scenario 2: “Hey Abby *smiles* I wanted to talk to you about something. Is now a good time?”

A: “Sure, what’s up?”

M: “I’ve noticed the last few weeks I’ve taken on most of the cooking and cleaning responsibilities. This responsibility has felt burdensome to me and I’ve started to feel a sense of resentment that our share of work at home is uneven. It would be really helpful to me if we could share that task and you cook a few nights a week.”

A: “Thank you for sharing that with me Michael. I had no clue you were feeling that way. I feel overwhelmed too with work and the other tasks I take on at home so I don’t think I can take on cooking too.”

M: “I understand you’re busy. Could we come to a compromise that when I cook you take care of the dishes? Or could we set aside time to meal prep together?”

A: “I think I could handle the dishes a few times when you cook and we can check in later to see how that’s working for us.”

 

The second example is one of healthy, effective communication. In that scenario, Michael followed the acronym DEARMAN.  DEARMAN is a skill commonly taught in DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy).

D– Describe the situation objectively. In this step the goal is to act like a lawyer-only present indisputable facts of what has happened. Avoid any charged language or blaming. Michael stated clearly that he has done a majority of cooking the last few weeks. 

E– Express how you’re feeling. The important part here is to narrow down what exactly you are feeling. Are you mad? Or are you hurt? Do you hate your partner? Or do you feel resentful toward something in the relationship that hasn’t been addressed? Michael expressed he felt responsibilities were uneven and identified resentment. 

A– Assert your needs. Ask for what you want. Suggest a solution to the problem. Michael had two suggestions-meal prep and helping with dishes.

R– Reinforce and reward change. When we see positive changes we want to point these out and praise the other person to encourage this to continue. In the future when Michael sees Abby helping with the dishes, he says “Thank you so much for doing that. I feel like we’re a team when you help me clean up dinner.”

M– Mindful. Be mindful of the topic you are discussing and stick to this. Stay away from statements like “I help with the laundry and the kids all the time” when the conversation is about cooking. 

A– Appear. This part of the acronym applies to body language. Notice in the example above that Michael smiled. This can also look like eye contact or sitting facing the other person. 

N– Negotiate and find a compromise. Abby wasn’t willing to cook but she was willing to help with dishes.

 

Extra tips for healthy communication:

  • Avoid name calling, cursing, or yelling. These automatically escalate conversations and create personal attacks which divert us from the problem.
  • If one or both people start to feel overwhelmed, it is okay to take a break. The important part here is to make it known a break is needed and agree on a time to come back to the conversation.
  • Avoid words like “never” or “always”.
  • Focus on phrasing. We often blame others with our words- the most common example of this is “you make me so mad”. We are the only ones in charge of our emotions-no one can “make” us feel anything and oftentimes the way we feel has a lot more to do with past experiences than the current situation. An easy fix for this is to explain what happened and follow with “I made that mean…..” When we didn’t celebrate Valentine’s day, I made that mean you don’t care about our relationship”. This allows the other person to explain their side and helps lower defensiveness.

 

Since talking is only one half of communication, here are some tips for effective listening. The goal of healthy communication when we are the listener is to make the other person feel heard and understood. When we feel understood, we no longer have a need to be defensive. 

 

Keys to listening:

  • Start with your body language. We want to convey openness. This looks like uncrossed arms and legs, eye contact, and soft facial expressions. 
  • Listen to hear, not to respond. So often as someone else is talking, we spend that time conjuring up our rebuttal, our defense. Making the shift so that our sole objective is to hear and understand the other person makes all the difference. 
  • Take your partner seriously, but not literally. So often when we feel fired up, we say things we don’t mean. We exaggerate the situation due to how powerful our feelings are. So, if your partner says “you are so lazy. You never help me”. Don’t take this literally- you’re not lazy and it is highly unlikely that you have never helped. However, we want to take our partner seriously here-they must be feeling so frustrated to have said this. Tune into the frustration. 
  • Don’t interrupt.

 

When it comes to communication we won’t always get things our way. The goal of every interaction should be to understand. Let’s say Abby lets Michael know about all the stress she’s facing at work. She may not help with cooking moving forward, but Michael no longer feels resentful now that he understands the full picture. Even if nothing tangible changes, feeling understood and understanding others brings us closer together, promoting trust and intimacy. 

This spring, Stillpoint is hosting a couple’s workshop. This workshop consists of 8-60 minute lectures based on Dr. John Gottman’s decades long research for improving relationships through communication and conflict management. The workshop is open to all couples from pre-engaged to newly committed, or those looking to strengthen their connection. 

Call the office at (910)769-6360 or check out the link for more information.

 

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