There are many reasons why relationships become damaged and fail. But according to recent surveys, lack of communication is by far the most common reason for break ups. Marriages, life partnerships, friendships, business relationships, and even family relationships are all susceptible to communication problems, but the good news is that there are some very doable and proven steps you can take to repair a breakdown in communication…or even to initiate an open dialogue where one previously didn’t exist.
According to University of Washington professor emeritus John Gottman, who has studied relationships for over 40 years, there are four types of communication problems that can lead to break-up or divorce: contempt, criticism of a partner’s personality, defensiveness, and stonewalling (refusal to communicate). There’s actually an explanation for why these communication barriers are so common, and it can be found in “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High,” an excellent book demonstrating the science behind the theory of effective communication. It turns out that when we are in what’s called a “crucial conversation” – when there are differing opinions, strong emotions, and high stakes – we actually LOSE brain power because our bodies naturally divert blood flow from our brain to parts of our body that complete more essential tasks such as fighting and running. Yes, we are actually dumber when we need to make the most important decisions! And so, rather than discussing things in an open and timely manner, we tend to hold things in and avoid conversation, only to drop a bomb later in a fit of rage. The authors of “Crucial Conversations” call this “silence or violence.”
Learning to approach these situations more calmly and skillfully can mean the difference between a mended or a broken relationship. If you feel like your connection with your spouse or loved one is slipping away, or that you and your partner are at an impasse, and you don’t know what to do, read the following communication principles very closely – they’ll improve, and may even save, your relationship. In fact, studies on these skills have shown to reduce the chance of a break up or unhappiness by more than 50%!
The key to open dialogue is establishing a “pool of shared meaning.”
This pool contains the ideas, thoughts, facts, theories and emotions that are openly shared between two people. The more you fill up the pool – which takes time – the more successful the conversation will be. Establishing clarity, even if you disagree on certain things, is the foundation of a successful conversation.
Ask yourself “What do I really want?”
Is it more important to be right and to stroke your ego than to have a productive conversation? Many times we tend to forget about the true motives of the conversation because we are too focused on “fixing” the other person or winning the argument. We get sidetracked and step into our “silence or violence” routine. But what if you took a step back and look at yourself first? Is the other person truly the source of the issue? Or are there things you could have done differently to avoid getting into this situation? If you feel like the conversation is getting derailed, take a step back, refocus, and ask yourself “what do I really want?”, “what do I really want for others,” and “what do I want out of this relationship?”
Make it safe to talk about anything.
When you’re engaging in a conversation that could either repair or break a relationship, there are things that might be difficult to say. But the fact is, watering them down or avoiding them isn’t going to solve anything. The key is to establish a safe space so that any issue, no matter how painful, can be brought up in a constructive way. You need to let your partner know two things right off the bat: that you care about their best interests and goals (mutual purpose), and that you care about them (mutual respect). When your partner is convinced of these two things, they can relax and feel free to bring up any issue.
These three components can help you learn to completely reframe any tense, high-stakes conversation and establish better footing to move forward with your partner. If you’re looking to master these skills, along with other essential tools that can help you in nearly every situation, we highly recommend picking up a copy of “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High”.