When people come to see me for help in their relationship, they often say their major struggle is around communication. This makes sense because the truth is, communication is hard for everybody—no one is born with perfect communication skills. Unless a couple actively works on it, it’s probably going to be a shit show, and what’s at stake in the relationship is huge. When communication goes awry and is not corrected, it leads to a lack of safety, which can result in incessant arguing, a loss of intimacy, a feeling of aloneness and all kinds of other things.
To get you started on the path towards better communication, I’m going to outline the five most common mistakes I constantly see people making when they walk into my office.
1. The “Half-Ass Apology.”
It’s a certain kind of skill to be able to apologize and put a period on the end of it.
It’s a common experience to not want to own the fact that we aren’t perfect or that we make mistakes—most people have some version of this. We get caught up in our own identity and want to believe that nothing could ever be our fault. However, if you find yourself saying I’m sorry… but, it’s better not to even apologize at all.
I’m sure you’ve had the experience where your partner is starting to apologize and you can just feel the but coming, and when it lands, doesn’t it just piss you off? You—like the rest of us—crave a simple, clean and wholehearted ownership of the impact the other has had on you.
For example: I’m sorry I was late. I know how that is hard for you. (PERIOD!).
So much different than: I’m sorry I was late, but I didn’t get your text until late in the day.
I get it: You most likely did not intentionally harm or distress your partner, but that doesn’t mean you can’t just simply apologize for that negative or distressful impact. Work on having your apology be clear and succinct and touch into the truth that you do care about your impact. It’s incredibly healing when you can simply look at the other and say, I’m really really sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.
2. The Advanced Notice Error
Sometimes people think they should forewarn their partner when they have something important to talk about that might upset them. Sometimes I think I should just steal a bite of my daughters ice cream (after everything I’ve done for her!) but neither of these things are a good idea.
They might say something in the morning before they leave, like I want to talk to you about something tonight. The partner who receives that then spends the whole day wondering what it is, ramping up their nervous system, so that by the time the evening comes, they’re not in a good state to receive whatever this is and the communication falls apart.
If you have something upsetting or distressful, don’t have a big production beforehand. Sit down, look them in the eye, be friendly and let it rip. That way their nervous system doesn’t have a chance to get unnecessarily ramped up.
3. Texting or emailing about significant issues instead of dealing with them face to face.
Texting or email about significant issues is like buying a lottery ticket—it almost never works, but for some reason people continue to do it.
Putting anything with an emotional charge in written form is a bad idea. If we’re not getting vocal tone, facial feedback or information, our brains immediately default to the negative. People can read sarcasm, anger, and frustration into even the nicest of texts, so if you have something you need to share that is likely to bring up emotion in the other, always say it in person.
4. Using the phrase “I feel like you…” or “I feel that….” then slipping in a judgment or perception that is likely to incur defensiveness.
There’s this really common way of speaking in our vernacular when it comes to communicating, where we start our sentences with “I feel that…”. For example, I feel that you don’t do your fair share around the house.
This is not actually a feeling, it’s a perception, and it’s important we be conscious of distinguishing between the two. When we open up the conversation in this way, it makes the other person defensive. If you do have a perception or judgement, say I have a story going on that you are not doing very much around the house. That way you’re owning it.
5. Continuing to make your point even when the other is visibly over their listening capacity and is simply taking the time while you are talking to reload.
Continuing to talk when the other person is visibly upset is very dysfunctional.
The rule of thumb here is talk to the face of your partner. Meaning, when you are talking to them, you actually want to see them calm down. If you can see they’re getting really tense, and they look like they’re ready to fire back at you, then stop. Don’t continue to talk to the point that they start to escalate.
You should become an expert at the visible cues on their face. Know the signs they are becoming dysregulated, either when they are getting into hyperarousal, ie ramping up; or when they’re getting into hypoarousal, ie. starting to shut down, turn off, or disassociate.
There’s no point in talking to someone unless they are present and can hear you. It’s not going to go anywhere. In fact, it will simply reinforce a pattern of dysfunction, where you feel like the relationship isn’t workable.
The complexity of communication means it might always be at least a little challenging. Generally speaking, if you need to talk about something that’s potentially going to elicit a defensive or negative reaction in the other, avoid all these mistakes, and spend some time thinking about how you might deliver it before you talk about it. Consider how you might stage it, how you can consistently assure them you still love and care about them, get tender, get vulnerable, use everything you know so they can actually hear what you are saying, and in return, you will resolve your problems, and have your needs met.
Feel free to reach out to me with any questions, and if you’re interested in diving deeper into the work, book a free consultation and I’ll see if I can help with what you’re going through.