September 6, 2022

Relationship Communication Skills

Young Couple on Woman during Winter

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Are you a team even when you are fighting? This is the tenth episode of a series on Getting Ready for Marriage. ​In this podcast episode, Elizabeth Polinsky discusses relationship communication skills.

IN THIS PODCAST

  • Active listening skills for improving your relationship 
  • Finding empathy and expressing it
  • Negotiation skills in relationships 
  • Tips for conflict resolution in relationships 
  • Ways to learn relationship communication skills

Why I am doing this series on Getting Ready for Marriage?

I had a wedding photographer reach out to me asking me to provide some tips for couples getting married. I created an entire checklist for her with the things I think are foundational for getting ready for marriage and starting off your marriage on the right foot. If you want the checklist, you can download it here!

When you don’t use relationship communication skills…

As I was prepping for this episode, I was thinking about how there are these times with my husband where I can really zone out and get lost in my own thoughts. I’m sure plenty of you can relate; this is such a human thing to do! Most people will zone out and get lost in their thoughts at some point. But there are also times where this happens where my husband is directly talking to me and I’ll even respond to him and say “yea”, but then I actually don’t have a clue what he just told me. I don’t remember what he said. In those moments, and this happened kind of recently, I have taken the route of just trying to be very honest that I zoned out. Then I  ask him if he can repeat what he just said. It’s not always fun. I don’t feel super awesome about myself in those moments. That’s not really a fun thing to admit and tell your partner, but I’m really glad that I do because it allows us to come back to that conversation and repair. There are times where my husband does this also. There are times where I have to ask him to refocus his attention or ask him if he did hear what I said.  Again this is pretty normal for people to do at times and those are time points where it’s possible for a fight to start. I think that is a moment in pretty much every couple of relationship where a fight could start because one partner could say, “why aren’t you paying attention to me? Put put your phone down. I can’t believe you weren’t paying attention. Why did you say yes to my question when you didn’t even hear me?!”  See? That is a moment where there could be a fight. So what is it that you do? What communication skills should you use in moments where you could have a fight? That is what we’re going to talk about today.​

So in getting ready for marriage, or if you’re newly married, one of the main things that will be helpful getting started out is to learn communication skills. These are skills that you can learn that you can practice over and over and over again. It may feel awkward, especially at the beginning while you’re learning them, but then as you do it, it becomes more natural. The skills that I think are pretty important for learning at the very beginning would be active listening skills, empathy, negotiating, and conflict resolution. So let’s talk about each of those four for real fast. 

So often I see issues with communication and couples happen because they didn’t get clarity about what was meant in the message to begin with.”

Elizabeth Polinsky
Man Kissing Woman

Active listening skills for your relationship.

  1. Active listening skills involve not multitasking. You know most of the time when zone out on my husband and then  have to go back and tell him I didn’t get anything he just said–I’m usually multitasking during those times.  And the times where my husband seems out of it and I ask him if he caught anything I just said–those are usually times where I’m asking him to multitask. Time where his attention is focused elsewhere and then I’m coming and interrupting him. That’s usually what happens! But the idea is that multitasking means that we’re gonna miss things. None of us are super great at multitasking. And so learning to pause when your partner is talking, redirect your attention ,and not multitask while you guys are interacting is all part of active listening.
  2. Another part of active listening would be to repeat back what you heard your partner say to make sure  you understood it correctly. There are times where I’ll have couples practice this in my office in couples counseling. I do this because we all feel like we’re speaking very clearly but the message is often not getting across to my partner. And my partner is getting a totally different message! So repeating back what you heard gives your partner a chance to correct any misinformation that came up. If you didn’t quite get the message, they can clarify it for you and then you guys make sure you’re on the same page. Then we can go from there and continue on in the conversation. So often I see issues with communication and couples happen because they didn’t get clarity about what was meant in the message to begin with. So repeating back what you heard your partner say and getting clarity is going to be helpful. That’s one skill of active listening.
  3. Another skill that you can learn is mindfulness which is really about keeping my attention in place. It’s about keeping your attention where you want your attention to be in that moment. This also has to do with not multitasking! So if I can learn to pause and redirect my attention so your attention is fully on my partner in that moment, then you will more likely be able to take in what they’re saying and hear the message that they’re trying to say. You are also less likely to misinterpret what they’re saying. So active listening skills, all of that goes into active listening. 

I might disagree with a rationale behind something, but I cannot disagree with a feeling because the feeling is the fact.” — Elizabeth Polinsky

Finding empathy and expressing it in relationships. 

Another set of skills that I think is really important to learn at the beginning of a marriage is finding your empathy! We all need to know that our partners care about how we feel and care about what we’re going through and our life experiences. Some people are naturally stronger at this than others. 

  1. One way to develop empathy is to get really curious about your partner’s experience. Ask them questions. Ask them what they feel, what they think, what is making them think or feel the way that they think or feel. How are they making sense of what they’re going through in life?
  2. You can also start building up empathy by becoming more aware of your own thoughts and feelings. The more empathy I can develop for myself then it’s often easier to also develop empathy for other people. Part of developing empathy is also letting go of judgment and judgmentalness. So one of my favorite sayings is that “feelings are a fact“. Oftentimes I’ll hear couples say, “well I disagree?”. And I’ll ask them like what is it that they disagree about because there is no way to disagree with how my partner is feeling. Their emotional experience is a fact. I might disagree with a rationale behind something, but I cannot disagree with a feeling because the feeling is the fact. So developing that curiosity about their emotional experience helps me understand how you feel this way. It can also help me understand what it is that you’re feeling. When I understand that, it can help build up empathy.
  3. You can also think about trying to imagine what it would be like for you. It’s sort of like being in your partner’s shoes. Imagining what it would be like to feel what your partner is feeling can also help build up a sense of empathy. 

When people get stuck in negotiation, it’s because there is a deeper conversation going on.”

Elizabeth Polinsky

Negotiations skills in relationships.

The third set of skills is around negotiating. We’ve covered this a little bit in this podcast already; you can go back to episode 26 which is on decision making and relationships. That is a big component of negotiating.

  1. Generally you want to try to find a middle ground. Some people do this by thinking about how important the thing is to them versus their partner. That is one way to sort of find a middle ground. For example, if it’s really important to you and it’s not important to me, then let’s go with what you want. Then if something else is really important to me, but you don’t really care, then we’ll go with what I want. That’s one way that people negotiate.
  2. Another way is by taking turns on things. So there are lots of ways to navigate that negotiation, but that is a whole set of skills that you could learn. 
  3. When people get stuck in negotiation, it’s because there is a deeper conversation going on. So let’s say something matters a lot to both of us and it’s really hard to find a middle ground. What do you do in those moments? There’s usually a deeper emotional meaning around what I want versus what you want. Maybe  you think that your partner doesn’t care about what you want so then it’s this extra emotional stacking point. I can’t really negotiate for where we go on vacation if I feel like you don’t care. If somebody is feeling like their partner doesn’t care, of course they’re going to hold on to want they want for vacation as proof that the partner cares. Then there is something else that needs to be worked on before you guys can really negotiate where to go on vacation. “Do you care?” is often a common one that comes up in those points where it’s really hard to negotiate. Another one that comes up is, “are we equal?” If one partner feels like they do all the chores and then their partner asks them to do another chore, they might say no because the overall relationship doesn’t feel equal. They’re stuck in negotiation because there’s this deeper conversation going on about “are we equal? Is there fairness and justice in the relationship?” That has to get addressed first before you can really negotiate about the task. So clearing out kind of the deeper emotional struggles helps make negotiating easier. If that’s where you find yourself struggling, then a couples counselor is going to be what will be helpful for working on the deeper emotional struggles.
Couple-Sitting-Together-on-Sofa

Conflict resolution in relationships.

The last skill is conflict resolution. John and Julie Gottman, they’re both doctors and I think they’re psychologists if I’m remembering correctly, they are over at the Gottman Institute. They do a ton of research on couples. One of the things that they found in their research was that the repair is always the most important part. You can’t really avoid conflict; you can resolve conflict by using active listening skills, empathizing with each other, and negotiating. All these skills help to resolve conflict, but you can’t avoid conflict. When you do sweep it under the rug, it tends to keep coming back up. So you can use all the skills that we’ve talked about so far in this episode towards conflict resolution, but it’s that repair that is important. It’s the making sure you and I are okay; that there is a resolution where we’re on the same team and on the same page again. That is the most important part for the sustainability of couple relationships.

Ways to learn relationship communication skills. 

So if you are engaged, about to get married, or you’re newly married–and you want to figure out how to learn a lot of these relationship communication skills–here are ways that you can do that.

  1. Couples Counseling. So obviously I’m a couples counselor. I think couples counseling is the best thing ever. It’s my jam. So you could do couples counseling, and you can learn these skills with a couples counselor. But there are also options for you outside of couples counseling if that either doesn’t work for your schedule or if your partner is not open to going to counseling. There are a variety of reasons why counseling might not be a good fit for you, or a good fit for you at a certain time in your life.
  2. Workshops. So other options would be workshops. There are a lot of different types of couple workshops out there. Some of them are specific for like marriage preparation workshops. The one I really like is called Hold Me Tight Workshop although there are other ones such are Prepare/Enrich and The Gottman Method. If you are interested in attending a couple workshop, check out the upcoming events, workshops, and retreats hosted by The Communicate & Connect Podcast. 
  3. You could also do a relationship intensiveSo this is something I started offering in my counseling practice. I do them for normal couples counseling as well, but for pre-marital and newlywed couples counseling I offer one-day premarital intensives. This is especially helpful when people are working on getting ready for a wedding and a honeymoon. There’s all this planning and all the time it takes to plan. It’s stressful and so the premarital counseling doesn’t have to be stressful. For those who are unfamiliar with intensive, an intensive are where you go work with a couples counselor for a full day or a full two days depending on what you need. You knock out six hours of therapy in a day. It’s very intensive but it’s also fun to do it all at once. I really like them. I like them for regular couples intensive therapy work as well as for pre-marital work.  It’s a lot of the same skills that you can learn with your regular weekly counselor but you knock out all your premarital counseling out in a day.
  4. There are also relationship retreats. (Check out our events page for upcoming retreats.) If you wanted something more like a vacation, then a retreat might be for you.  Workshops are something you might travel to that’s either in your city or in a town nearby. But if you wanted more of a vacation feel, or a destination travel location where you work on learning skills there, then relationship retreats are a great option.
  5. There are books and podcasts. Like this podcast! Whether you listen to an audio book or podcast, that these are another way of going about building up your relationship communication skills. In regards to books, check out my list of recommended resources to get all my favorite books for couples. 

Action Item for Communicate & Connect Episode 30: Relationship Communication Skills

If you were to do one thing ,or take away one thing from today, what I would want you to go home and try is to try to start reflecting back what you hear your partner saying. Use that as a way to start developing your active listening and your empathy skills. So it’s not it’s not a huge task here, it’s just repeat back. “Okay, thank you for sharing. I heard you say this, I heard you say xyz. Did I understand that correctly?” That’s all you gotta do. So if you do this challenge, please post about it or send me a message or tag me on social media. I want to know how it goes.Alright, have a great day. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. If so please take a second to go rate review and subscribe so you get all of our future episodes. You can also sign up for my free 10-week relationship email course. This email course is really designed for people who are maybe having trouble with communication or connection in their relationship and helping them develop some quick wins right away.

Liz’s Useful Links: 

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Thanks for Listening!

     

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    About Author

    Elizabeth Polinsky is a Certified Emotionally Focused Couple Therapist (EFT) providing EFT marriage counseling in the states of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Nevada. She also provides EFT training and supervision to therapists looking to become certified in EFT Couple Therapy. As a military spouse, she has a special passion for working with military and veteran couples, and is also the host of The Communicate & Connect Podcast for Military Relationships.

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