All too often, we have couples come into our office, sit down and begin to tell us that they feel unheard, unsupported and lonely in the relationship. Using the three wise monkeys picture above, they often describe feeling unseen, unheard or unable to talk about their feelings with one another. Instinctively, people often go into ‘fix it’ mode when their partner starts discussing significant concerns, putting action into place to try and solve the issues brought up. While the intention may be in the right place, the effect can be far from expected. In response, some people feel as though their feelings or experiences have been invalidated, and may even feel patronized. Open communicating in a relationship isn’t a debate – there is no ‘winner’. Rather, there should be two people discussing an issue, and coming to a mutually beneficial solution.
Here are some simple tips to help you discuss relationship issues in a healthy and positive way.
Our daily lives are cluttered with tasks, and it’s easy to get caught up and run out of time for our relationships. Sometimes, we need to pull ourselves out of ‘work mode’, and engage in meaningful discussions. At the same time, we also need to get our partners to engage as well – this is where things can get tricky. Sometimes a simple request, such as ‘is now a good time to talk about my day?’ or ‘I’ve had a rough day – would you mind chatting about it?’ can help bring your partner to the discussion. Sometimes, it can be easier to bring up a discussion when you notice they seem upset of stressed with something as simple as ‘you seem stressed – do you want to talk about it?’ Engaging with your partner in a non-confrontational way if the first step to facilitating a meaningful discussion where you are both ready and willing to communicate with one another.
In the counselling field we use the term ‘active listening’ a lot. Simply put, this is a state in which you are paying attention to what your partner is saying, and understanding what they are saying without butting in. Active listening is an important part of discussion, not only so you understand what they are saying, but so your partner also feels heard. Indicate to them that you are listening by making eye contact, nodding here and there to say you’re listening, and communicating through your own facial expressions. You can include some open-ended questions of your own if you feel there is more to be said, such a ‘what has that been like for you?’ or ‘when did you first start feeling like this?’. These questions can be very important, not only to help your own understanding of what your partner is feeling, but so they feel heard, understood and respected. Even difficult discussions can become much more manageable through active listening and mutual respect. The final aspect to listening is to avoid being reactive or jumping to solutions. Sometimes, it is better to air our thoughts and feelings and then rest for a little while before trying to fix the problem. This means problems aren’t being tackled while in an emotional state, and can be thought about carefully from a rational viewpoint.
Before responding, take a step back for a moment. Reflect on what you’ve just been told. This is your opportunity to clarify your understanding. This can be done in a few steps. Firstly, summarise the content – the what, when, where and who of the situation. Summarise these core facts, and ask your partner if you have understood correctly. The next component is to summarise the feeling – what emotions they have experienced. Emotions are often the most difficult aspect of the story to convey, but can also be the most critical for understanding the reaction. This can be a place for you to ask some further questions, such as ‘did you feel angry/sad/frustrated?’ Not only does this aid you understanding, but confirms to your partner that you care about their emotional wellbeing as well. The last step is where we start working towards a solution. This is the point where we summarise needs – what does your partner need to solve the problem? You can ask them in a non-confrontational way, such as ‘what do you think might help?’ or ‘is there anything I can do to make you feel better?’. Sometimes, there is no immediate solution. Sometimes just expressing their feelings and feeling heard is all your partner wants.
Following these steps helps to ensure you both feel heard, and have a clear understanding or one another’s feelings. If communicating is a big issues in your relationship, Safe Place Therapy can help. Click on the services and relationship counselling tab for further information. We provide affordable counselling in Mill Park and Footscray. Take the time for your relationship and reach out today.