How to Communicate Better with People You Care About – Part 2

    In the previous blog, I talked about some simple rules for better communication, like avoiding old history and labeling. Today, I Want to add some more complex guidelines that are really useful when trying to navigate a difficult situation with someone you care about.
It goes without saying that someone will be more receptive to hearing what you say if you keep your body language open and welcoming. How you look to others tells them how willing you are to communicate. If your arms are crossed across your chest and you are glaring, they are more likely to retreat instead of engaging with you. If you are frowning and don’t make eye contact, you are sending a negative message before you say a word. Lean forward, keep your face relaxed and keep your eyes on the person you are talking to.
Don’t give ultimatums or attack with your feelings. When you draw a line in the sand, you back the other person against the wall and reduce the possibility of compromise. If you say “If you go out with your friends, don’t expect me to be here when you get back” the message is that the other person is bad or wrong, and you’re going to punish him or her with your actions. By describing your feelings, you can let the other person know what you feel and still leave room for a positive outcome. A better statement would be “I feel sad when you make time to go out with your friends and don’t seem to have time to spend with me during the week.”
Finally, the most useful communication skill is called Compete Communication. Complete Communication means using whole messages about your observations, your thoughts, how you feel, and what you want. While that sounds simple, I have found in my therapy practice working with couples, that it takes a lot of practice for this skill to become natural.
Let’s start with what we mean by Observations. Think of it as a description of the situation you want to talk about. An observation is a statement of fact such as “You came home at 8 PM” or “I fed the kids at 6 o’clock.” It has no judgment and is said in a neutral tone of voice.
Thoughts are your beliefs, opinions, or interpretations of the situation. You can’t say them as if they are fact, so choosing your words here is important. “I think you are spending more time at work than usual and I sense that our family’s work-life balance is out of whack” is a good way to express your concern if your partner is coming home later and later, rather than saying “You spend too much time at work.”
Feelings are often the easiest thing to access when we talk to a loved one. They should not be a message of blame, but rather a statement of how you feel. Things like “I feel sad,” “I feel confused,” or “I feel worried” are neutral and are really just descriptions of your emotional state.
The last part of Complete Communication is often the most important and most likely to get left out if we speak in anger. This part is what you want or need. Another way to look at it is that this last part of Complete Communication is why you are bothering to have the conversation at all. It tells the other person what you want or what is important to you.
Imagine a conversation that goes like this: “You never come home on time anymore and I am sick of it!” Now compare it with “When you come home so late that the children and I don’t get to have dinner with you, I worry that you don’t want to spend time with us and I feel hurt and worried. Can we please talk about your schedule and try to at least have dinner together a couple of times a week?” I think you can imagine the difference in tone and also the different outcomes of the two examples.
Important conversations with those you love should always be in the form of Complete Communication. Leaving out one of the crucial components – situation, thought, feeling, or what you want – can lead to misunderstanding. It has been my experience, that this method of communicating can also be very useful with your boss, your neighbor, or a friend, at any time when there is a lot at stake and being misunderstood could have serious consequences.
Practice these guidelines for better communication. Remember, that it takes time for new skills to be internalized, and don’t beat yourself up if you do not get it right immediately. If you are having trouble communicating with someone you care about and can’t work it out, feel free to give me a call. Dr. Alison Block, 732-933-1333.