Most of the time, when I ask a couple what brings them into couples therapy, their response is they want to work on their communication. This makes sense because what is a relationship besides a system of communication? Whether it’s verbal or non-verbal, present or absent—it’s all communication. Even our mannerisms communicate a message to our partner, whether we intend for them to or not.
When it comes to communication, there’s a tendency to think we simply need to know what to say, and this will solve the communication issue. So we have a bunch of different temples for knowing what to say and how to say it — reflective listening, non-violent communication, and difficult conversations are all great places to start. What I want to bring forth here is that there’s a great deal more to be done to facilitate functional, productive, and collaborative conversation than the particular words being used, and the order they go in. It helps, and we want to bring in all of the elements so that we can have a thriving, pleasurable, peaceful relationship. With that in mind, here are three things that will significantly shift the way you communicate and make any tools you use, much more effective.
A Commitment to Co-regulation
Are you entering into your relationship with a commitment to co-regulation? Co-regulation is where you both are actively helping each other experience a felt sense of security. When we co-regulate, it ensures both people’s nervous systems are not too hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused, but the sweet spot where they both feel and not threatened. In a relationship, we want to be in a co-regulatory environment so that we can enjoy all of the things we’d like to do in a relationship—like planning occasions, joking around, or making love.
Are you coming into the relationship as an individual, or with the idea that it’s (as my mentor Stan Tatkin would say) a “two-person psychological system?” It takes time and commitment to learn how to co-regulate—it’s not just about trying to speak your truth and convincing the other that you’re right. That’ll never work because the experience itself is threatening. It requires watching your partner’s non-verbal mannerisms to see if how you’re speaking is helping them feel calm, friendly, and regulated. I see so many people–not just couples—who talk straight through another’s frustration and anger, as if there’s some purpose in that. We want to be committed to regulating the other person. It’s not about talking at whatever volume you want and saying whatever you want to say.
Focusing on Non Verbals.
Are you aware of whether you are exhibiting friendliness when you communicate with your partner? Some people believe they can talk about serious issues without really looking at their partner. It simply doesn’t work very well. What does work is when you’re talking about something with some emotional charge, to physically position yourself well and to be tracking the non-verbals. Are you approaching the conversation with an intention to appear kind and friendly? It doesn’t mean you have to walk on eggshells, but are you being courteous? Help them understand that you want to take their position and feelings into account. Unfortunately in conversation, we can’t see our own face. So, we may be doing things with our face that actually illicits an experience of threat in the other. This means we should be getting close enough to our partner’s proximity so that we know we’re giving them friendly energy and relaxing their nervous system. The other crucial aspect of communication is our tone of voice. Are you making sure that your voice is making your partner feel safe and secure? This means modulating (to the best of your ability) your tone.
Knowing that we Are All Composed of Multiple Parts
The human psyche has multiple parts. There are parts of ourselves that feel one way about something, and differently about another. When we’re in communication with people, it can be very supportive to recognize that your partner could be speaking from a part of them—without fully believing what they’re saying. For example, if your partner is vocalizing doubt about an aspect of the relationship, it’s helpful to remind yourself that this is just a part of them that has these thoughts and accompanying feelings. Can you be curious with them as they explore the doubts they have about the relationship. Don’t you have doubts at times? Can you stay curious vs. falling into a threatened place (fusing with the part of you that fears abandonment)?
Those are three ways that are often not shared when we go into these communication strategies in relationships, and I really do believe that they’re helpful. I would love to hear your thoughts, feedback, and any other ideas you have of what you think makes communication more effective.
If you’re struggling with these issues, reach out to me and book a free conversation to see if I can help: https://ryanginn.com/schedule/