4 Crucial Tips to Improve Your Communication | Therapist Advice

The number one issue that I hear from clients coming into my office is around the topic of communication. My clients are getting into arguments, bickering every day; they are frustrated. 

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They are asking, “How do we improve our communication so that we can have a peaceful, healthy relationship where we can talk things through and not have things blow up into an argument?

So here are 4 crucial tips to improve your communication today: 

1. Get Calm When You Are Heated.

We know that there are different parts of our brain, and there’s one part of our brain that

activates the fight or flight response. When you are in that part of your brain, you are going to fight or flee. Fighting is where you want to hurt the other.

For example, in the caveman days, you see a bear. So you’re going to want to fight the bear.

Or you might want to run away from the bear. Either way, cavemen who did either of those, survived. And so our brains learn to either fight or flee for survival when there is a threat. 

This works a lot of the time, but sometimes there are glitches. When you argue with your partner, that part of your brain may activate. It says “threat!” as if it’s a bear. So you are going to fight or flee. You are not in a place to empathize, problem solve, or love. 

And in an argument, if you are in that part of your brain, you are not in a place to solve a problem. You are not in a place to empathize. You just see your partner as a threat. And so you’re going to either fight them, try to hurt them, or you are going to shut down, run away, leave, (which can make the other person feel abandoned). 

So I would say when you feel your brain getting into that fight or flight space, you need to take a break. You can tell the other person, “hey, I don’t think this is productive right now. Let’s come back when we’re both calm.” 

And then when you’re calm, that’s when you can reengage because your your rational part of your brain is working and you can say, this person is not my enemy. This person is not a threat.

This is a person that I love, and I can act accordingly. That’s the most important thing. You cannot work out a fight when you are angry.

2. Do not use blaming language. Use “I Statements.” 

When you are talking to the other person and you’re maybe sharing something that you are not happy with, try not to use blaming language. I notice that sometimes when people are

talking about what they are angry about with their spouse or their partner, they’ll say something like, you do this, you do that.

You are selfish. You don’t care about me. You don’t prioritize me. And oftentimes what I’ll say is, okay, can you say those same things?

don’t use the word you. Instead, use the word “I.”  Tell them how you feel. What does it do

inside of you?  What are you feeling? What are you experiencing as a result of what they’re doing?

Here’s an example: 

Someone might say, “You always prioritize work. You don’t care about the family. You’re just selfish.”

And so what I suggest is for the speaker to change their language to use “I statements.”. 

Note: Do not say things like “I feel like you’re selfish. I feel like you are a jerk.” Those are not I statements! 

How do you feel when your partner is taking a call during  dinner? How do you feel when your

spouse is locked in their room, working all night when you’re trying to have family time?

What I usually reframe for them or help them get to is something like this: 

“When you are taking a call during dinner or you’re in your office late at night and I can’t access you, I feel very alone. I feel uncared for, and I feel like I’m not important to you.”

So do you see the difference between blaming language and using “I statements”?

And it’s not that one is right or wrong.  I would say, however,  that one kind of statement is more likely to bring about your goal for both parties to be heard. 

What is your reaction going to get from the other person? If you use blaming statements, you’re going to get defensiveness. If you use I-statements, the hope is you will get empathy. And I always encourage the listener to empathize, to hear, to receive.

So using softer language, using I- statements, you can still tell the truth. You’re not watering it down. You’re saying the same thing, but in a way that the other person is going to hear you, and you’re going to get what you need in return.

3. Change your strategy regarding how you listen and work things out

There  is a mindset about how people view working things out. And oftentimes it’s misguided. People sometimes will say, “I just want to sit down where you say your point of view and I say my point of view, and then we come up with a compromise.”

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Now in an ideal world, this is great, and I think it works really well in the workplace. In fact, a lot of my clients are probably getting this strategy from the workplace.

And it works there. Because you’re working with a common goal. You and your coworkers are both rational, you’re both putting on your work persona. However, I think in the relationship realm, it’s different because you’re working with the emotions. Your job isn’t on the line here. You are putting down your work facade and your real emotions are coming out. 

So things are going to be more raw. You’re going to be triggered, you’re going to say how you really feel, sometimes unfiltered.  There’s just so much more at play here that’s emotional. And so there is so much more potential for arguments. 

So you can’t just have one person talk and then the other person give a rebuttal.And then both of you come up with a compromise.  Because what usually happens is one person will say their point of view and then the other person will say, “well, that’s not really like how it is from my point of view…” 

So say, for example, if I say to my spouse, “I feel like you don’t prioritize the family, you are always at work and you’re always on your phone.”

How would one respond typically?

In a situation where you each “ go back and forth and compromise,” you would say your side, then what happens is he would say, “actually that’s not the case. I do prioritize the family. That’s why I work so hard. It’s for all you guys and I do spend time with you.”

And then the usual response I hear is, “but no you don’t. Your work is for YOU. And when was the last time you spent quality time with us?”   

It’s just this back and forth and we’re not getting anywhere. Then it just escalates and escalates and escalates.  And this is probably a pattern that I often see with the clients who come into my office. 

So what I often say is not to approach it like a back and forth. When we’re dealing with communication and working out issues, you have to focus on one person at a time. That one person gets all the attention, gets listened to and feels heard. And then the other person does the same. 

So one person puts aside their own feelings and listens.  And then the other person puts aside their feelings and their point of view and they listen. It can’t be both people sharing at the same time. It has to be one at a time, because both of you are feeling two different things, with a different narrative of the situation. And both people usually want to be right. 

So for example: 

I would say, “I feel like you’re always on the phone. You’re never present during the dinner table. You’re always at work. You don’t care about the family.” 

If the spouse can come from an emotional point of view, he would get outside of his own mind

and put himself in her shoes. He could say, “I could see how what I’m doing is making you feel that way. It’s busy season at work and I know it’s important to you that I am present and show that I care.”  Even though he’d really like to say something like, “of course I care about the family.”  But to argue with her about whether he cares about the family or not is not going to be productive. 

So he needs to get outside of what he’s thinking, and he needs to put himself in her shoes. Once his wife feels understood and grounded, then he can tell her his side. 

So once she feels grounded,  he can say, “I know it feels like I am not present. However, I am very busy at work and I wish that you could see how hard I’m trying to balance everything. I’m feeling unappreciated.” 

Then she can put her own feelings aside and say “I can see how you would feel that way.” 

This can be a beautiful way for both people to feel heard without it turning into a big argument. 

4. Arguments where your partner did not mean to hurt you (but they did anyway!)

Say your partner does something that hurts you that really wasn’t meant to hurt you. It was something maybe they didn’t know, or maybe something very small. Or maybe they meant to help you. But it really hurt you.

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A lot of times when this happens, someone will do something small and the partner will be hurt and bring it up. And then he’ll get offended. Like, “why did you get so mad about that? That was such a small thing not warranting you getting angry.” And then it just ends up a big argument.

So my advice for those kinds of situations is to understand;  to discern: was it something they really knew they shouldn’t do but they did it anyway, or if it was something they had no idea. Were they clueless? Maybe. But it was not something they meant to do to hurt you. 

If they did something they knew was wrong, this is simple: they need to apologize. However, it’s not always this simple. Many times, one person has no idea that what they were doing was hurting the other person. 

If they had no idea they were doing it, and you bring it up with him, he may feel blindsided, and he may feel it’s unfair for you to get angry for something he didn’t know would hurt you. And he will not be able to give you the response you desire which is to listen and validate. 

I think that’s where from your view that’s hurt, you have to do some extra communicating. 

You have to communicate: 

  1. Give the benefit of the doubt. For example: “hey, I know that you didn’t mean to do this. I know that you were probably just busy or zoned out or you didn’t know I needed you to listen vs. give me solutions.” 

That’s the first part. The second part is to state your intention: 

  1. “I’m not saying this because I need you to beg for forgiveness. I just want you to understand me.” 

Then state what you need. 

  1. “I just need you to validate my feelings and then tell me we will try something different next time.” 

This is all so that you get what you need. And they know that 1.  you’re not blaming them. And 2. what you need from them. 

So I’ll give you an example: 

I hear about a lot of in-law issues in my practice. Say, your mother-in-law keeps putting food on your plate. This is very common in Asian cultures. Now, mother-in-law’s intentions are good, right? That’s their way of “caring” for you. But maybe for you it just feels belittling; maybe you feel like a kid. Maybe it feels like it’s crossing your boundaries.

And your husband isn’t doing anything about it. He is caught up in eating and talking and doesn’t say anything.

So you go to him later on and you say, “why didn’t you say anything? You’re so passive, you always side with your mom.”

What kind of response is that going to get? It’s going to escalate. It’s going to end up with an argument.

Now what can you say instead? 

  1. Give them the benefit of the doubt. “It’s not something huge; it’s hurtful but I know you probably just didn’t notice.”
  1. Set the intention. “I just want you to know, I’m not trying to blame you. I’m not really that angry. I just want to get it off my chest. “
  1. Tell them what you want from him, because he probably doesn’t know what you want him to do about it. You can say, “I don’t  really need you to talk to your mom. I don’t want you to talk bad about your mom. I just want you to hear me out and just support me.”

And then they can say, “no problem. I can do that.” 

But if you go to them with, like, “your mom has no boundaries, she’s so self-centered,” he’s going to be flooded, like, “oh my goodness, like, what do I do? And she’s calling my mom self-centered, I can’t let her talk about my mom like that!” 

Then he starts defending her, you feel unheard, and so on. 

So if you can just 1. give them the benefit of the doubt, 2. Set  your intention for saying it and 3. what you need from them, it’s going to really help them to put on the right frame of mind, to hear you out, to listen to you, to give you whatever you need.

So again, this is for things that are more small and nuanced, where your partner wouldn’t necessarily know what to do with your information. You communicate that to them because they don’t know what it is you want from them. Maybe you might not even know what you want from them, so you need to maybe take a step back and say, “what is it that I need from them? Why is it that I’m sharing?” and then communicate that to your partner. 

Conclusion: 

Communication is pretty simple when we are working with rational minds. In the workplace or out in public with strangers, we are able to put aside our feelings to not appear irrational. However, in the relationship sphere, where there is more safety, people feel more comfortable sharing how they really feel. This is not a bad thing! However, the freedom, safety and comfort in the relationship needs to be coupled with self-control and vulnerability so that people can say how they really feel in a way that is constructive and directed towards reconciliation. Using these tools will help you and your partner navigate these tricky situations for a deeper, stronger relationship. 

About the author: Lia Huynh is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist serving San Jose, Mipitas and online. She is passionate about couples communication and building trust. She specializes in couples therapy, couples counseling, marriage therapy,  marriage counseling and pre-marital counseling in the San Jose/Milpitas area and beyond. If you are wanting to work on your communication in your relationship with Lia, find out more about her here.