Effective communication: The substance of healthy relationships

A lot has been written about effective communication!

They teach it in schools from the first day of kindergarten! They teach it in workplace seminars and community colleges. There are University subjects and degrees on the topic.

It is integral to parenting, business, teaching, caring, church life and outreach, friendship, marriage, dating, divorce, conflict resolution – really every aspect of our lives. There are TED talks, podcasts, self-help books, websites, conferences, research PhDs … a seemingly endless quest to master the art of human connection, which I doubt AI will be able to help us with.

It is such a crucial topic for the health of our relationships and consequently for our emotional health.

It’s not just the facts that need communicating.

Communication is not just about making myself understood and getting what I want. It is fundamentally about connection – enabling conversation with another human to slowly evolve trust and safety so that vulnerability and understanding can grow – connection in intellectual, emotional and spiritual ways to allow for the profound sense of being known. Creating healthy emotional intimacy.

When my husband rang me at 5.30pm on Saturday to ask if our friends could come around for dinner at 6.30pm that day, we had an interesting communication moment! I didn’t want to say “No” to our friends or to him, but we had had a busy day and I was mentally preparing for a bowl of fried rice and some Netflix! I also didn’t really appreciate being asked after he had made plans with our friends!

Communication has so many layers. Jim Rohn, an American entrepreneur and award-winning public speaker, says effective communication is 20% what you know and 80% how you feel about what you know. It’s not just the facts that need communicating.

What is our vision for our relationship? How do we want our relationship to be?

The emotional undercurrents are there too: how I feel at the moment; how my husband feels; my expectations for the evening; his expectations; how I feel about his expectations; my interpretation of his behaviour; my expectations of his expectations for our hospitality.

So, I agreed to the suggestion, but reluctantly! Our evening proceeded to unfold with so many across-the-room “looks”, hostile barbs and confusion from our friends, that we had to spend a lot of time on Sunday unpacking the whole thing.

In future, I think I would do better to take 5 minutes at that decision point to get in touch with what I was actually feeling and thinking, rather than acquiesce and resent feeling ambushed!

“We can coach ourselves away from the four dimensions that predict relationship failure and actively pursue their opposites.”

Possibly the single-most helpful idea I have discovered in couples communication is this one:

Core Idea 8 – be solution-focused.

This is the opposite of a problem-focus. Rather than dredge over all our hurts and misunderstandings, we need to keep the big picture in mind. What are we aiming for? What is our vision for our relationship? How do we want our relationship to be?

If we have firmly planted in our minds that our intention is to have a warm, fun, safe relationship, we are more likely to be able to coach ourselves towards creating a respectful, gentle tone in our communication.

We can coach ourselves away from the four dimensions that predict relationship failure – criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness [1] – and actively pursue their opposites – gentle disclosures, appreciation, responsibility and self-care.

This wisdom from the Gottman Institute reflects so many Biblical themes of humility and gentleness (Col 3:12), being quick to listen (James 1:19), and checking for the log in my own eye (Matt 7:3-5).

The four horsemen of effective communication

Effective communication has a gentle tone, a desire for connection, a softness between us. It avoids vigilantly any blaming. Blaming is really an attack that shames the other, and builds barriers between us. Barriers that we then hide behind and throw grenades out from! It is the most predictable feature of the distressed couples that I meet in my practice. It takes courage to disclose my concerns without blaming – courage and humility, my two constant prayer requests for myself and my couples!

Effective communication is very careful with words. It focuses on the problem at hand and possible solutions that we can explore. It avoids insults and put-downs; it avoids dismissing and trivialising my partner’s concerns.

No right-wrong power game. No winners or losers.

Effective communication wants to listen; to understand. It has curiosity.  It invites my partner into a safe place where we are both able to disclose all the thoughts and feelings associated with a topic (and this is another practical rule – identify the one topic we are currently discussing, and jot down other related issues that we need to address later). There is respectful balance here. You and I together.

Firstly, understanding our two different perspectives, so that we can explore possible solutions moving forward that might work for us both. Notice the plural language I am using!  This simple technique – of using we/us/our language- makes us feel like a team and avoids blaming. No right-wrong power game. No winners or losers.  Having a shoulder-to-shoulder stance of “us solving our problems together”! Being solution-focused.

The practical tip that follows from being solution-focused is:

Practical tip 8 – schedule time

Yes, this is about planning date nights and weekends away, but it is also about daily and weekly check-ins. And it is particularly about allocating time when there are important things to discuss. Not hoping that our minds will meld as we sleep in the same bed, because they won’t! And not hoping that my partner will mind-read, because they can’t!

These are business-type skills that benefit our homes profoundly. E.g. “Could we take some time on Thursday night to further our thinking about our ministry commitments next year or our high school options or our approach to discipline?” Both of us can then prepare a bit.  We can gather our thoughts and participate in effective communication that shares ideas and explores possibilities. And if it is a super-complex problem, maybe we can try to chart a bit of a way forward.

This brave move can avoid a lot of destruction.

Is there more research we can do?  What other people we can consult? Can we commit to serious prayer as we wrestle with discerning God’s guidance?

It is also super helpful, if communication is deteriorating, to re-schedule time. If it is getting too late in the evening or tempers are fraying, it is so much more helpful to be able to respectfully say “Do you think we could sign off our conversation at this point and continue it, maybe tomorrow afternoon?” This brave move can avoid a lot of destruction. But it needs the integrity of follow-through, and not just storming out.

Learning how to effectively communicate is a life-long challenge; one of God’s most effective tools for growing us up and a key ingredient in our emotional health.

Sue Bartho is a clinical psychologist who runs Well on the Way Psychology in Sydney. To read more articles in the Well on the Way series.

[1] https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing

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