I’m extremely interested in what makes communication effective vs. ineffective. As I’m working towards becoming a psychotherapist, I think it’s crucial that I have a deep understanding of communication so that I can 1) reach my clients through my own communication, 2) recognize problem areas in my clients’ communication, and 3) help coach them to better express themselves. For personal and professional reasons, I am particularly interested in communication within intimate relationships. It’s no novel idea that good communication can be a couple’s secret to a lifetime of happiness and harmony, while poor communication can make relationships toxic and tear them apart. So what are the keys to good communication in relationships, and what are the traps of bad communication?
It seems to me that defensiveness is a vital issue in communication between partners. When unmanaged, defensiveness can start a spiral of communication that escalates from a loaded comment to a full blown argument. In fact, while an argument might seem like two people attacking each other, I would suggest that arguments almost always consist of two people defending themselves. Unfortunately we often feel like the best defense is a good offense. However, if you can resist getting defensive when your partner is upset, you are much more likely to be able to resolve the issue and become even closer to your partner.
So why is it so hard to keep down our defenses if we know it would probably make life a lot easier? Well, at the risk of stating the obvious – Keeping down our defenses makes us feel really fucking vulnerable. Vulnerability is a very scary and uncomfortable feeling that we want to avoid, and so we try to deflect away from our flaws and mistakes. Instead of taking a moment to try to understand what our partner needs, we push back, turn the light on their flaws and mistakes, and invalidate their experience. Staying calm and opening ourselves up when we feel like we’re being attacked goes against our very nature, but it is the key to stopping an argument before it begins.
Our natural reaction to a threatening situation is fight or flight, and in the context of a relationship this often manifests as arguing or shutting down. Though this is a protective mechanism, in relationships it only serves to hurt us more. We end up hurting the person we love and damaging the relationship, when our relationship is one of our best means of fulfillment. When your partner is hurt, it never helps the situation to go on the defense, even if you have a reasonable defense. When you get defensive, you are focusing on what you need instead of what your partner needs. Your partner needs to feel heard, understood, and loved… it’s very unlikely that any defense you throw up is going to make the other person feel better or give them what they need. When they don’t feel they are getting what they need, they will likely either come back with a stronger attack (since their first attempt wasn’t successful at making you understand how hurt they were) or they will shut down. In either case they end up not feeling like they can trust you to nurture them. The whole situation could have been circumvented if you had the strength to take a breath before reacting and think about what your partner is really trying to communicate, and what they really need.
This isn’t easy. Our brains a literally wired to mirror the energy of those around us, so when you’re facing a furious spouse, your brain says that you should also be furious. It also goes against our natural fight or flight reaction. It takes a real conscious effort to be able to move towards the very thing that you feel is attacking you. However, if you can achieve this, what would have been a relationship damaging argument can become an opportunity to build trust and intimacy with your partner. This is actually the more self defensive thing to do as well, because the faster you let your defenses down, the faster your partner can return to loving position towards you.
So how do you stop yourself from getting defensive? Well I think it takes a lot of self-awareness, because the first step is recognizing when you are starting to feel defensive. This is a challenge, because in these situations our brain is usually too focused on reacting to the threat to allow for self-reflection. With practice however, you can start to recognize the process of becoming defensive. For me, my heart speeds up, I stop listening to what the person is saying and instead start planning my attack. My muscles tense and my eyes narrow.
Once you recognize the sensation of becoming defensive, it helps to notice external elements that might be contributing to your reaction. For example, is you brain just mirroring the energy of the person you’re with? In which case, can you bring their energy down by managing your own? Is there a lot of other stimulation in the area (lights, loud sounds, etc.) that might be overwhelming your senses and putting you in a heightened state of alertness? Are there other unrelated issues that already had you agitated and left you quick tempered?
Now that you realize you’re getting defensive, how do you return to a loving position toward your partner? You must make yourself empathize with them. Remember that even though you feel like you’re being attacked by your partner in some way, they’re coming to you because they need something from you. The way they’re communicating it might be shitty, but they are actually trying to reach out to you. Try to listen past the complaints, yelling, jabs, etc. and hear what they’re actually trying to convey. Maybe it’s “I’m scared”, “I need help”, or “I miss you”. It’s very hard to get defensive when we’re really making an effort to understand another person’s perspective, especially someone we love.
Here’re some tips:
- Study self-awareness. This is a life tip because building your self awareness will help you in every area of life (there’ll probably be more on self awareness to follow in another post at some point). Try meditation, breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, etc.
- I know it’s cliche and easier said than done – but take a deep breathe and count to five. This forces your heart to slow down and stops you from slipping into the spiral of defensiveness. This can also be an anchor for you to enter into a more self aware state.
- Remember that the more angry or upset a person comes across, the more vulnerable they feel. Try to think about what would be making them feel vulnerable.
- Notice your body language. If your arms/legs are crossed, uncross them. If your making fists, relax your hands.
- If you’re confident you can do so in a loving way, make some physical contact with your partner. A hand on their knee, or their hand, or even a hug can do wonders for calming another person down and returning them to a loving position towards you.
I know these strategies seem simple and probably common sense, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. Keep practicing and keep trying though, and I promise this is a skill that will make a huge difference in your life!