Your nonverbal communication says more than the words coming out of your mouth. Your facial expression, the look in your eye, the tone of your voice, and your body language speak volumes.
When someone else is talking to you, their nonverbal communication is talking as well. As your mind processes what they’re saying, and what they’re not saying, you’re also thinking about how you’re going to respond!
It’s not surprising that we have trouble communicating with each other. When you hit a snag in an important relationship, a professional communication coach can help you untangle it.
Case Study: Jenna and Austin
Jenna and Austin have been married for five years and have two young children. They’ve agreed that Austin will be the breadwinner and Jenna will stay home with the kids.
Today, Jenna’s had a hard day. The kids have been difficult, the check engine light came on, she spilled coffee everywhere, and her mom called and gave her some “constructive” criticism that just ended up discouraging her.
When Austin comes home from work at 6 p.m., Jenna is trying to finish dinner while the kids whine and argue. The first words out of his mouth are, “You forgot to close the garage door last night.”
Can you predict what Jenna’s response might be? If you empathize with her feelings of being overwhelmed, you know she’ll be tempted to snap at her husband.
Austin could have prevented this scenario by assessing the situation for a minute when he came in. Instead, he was focused on something his wife did wrong, and he chose to confront her immediately.
This is a perfect example of the futility of communicating with someone who is distracted, anxious, stressed, or angry. Your chances of getting your point across in a helpful way drop significantly.
What does this mean? Should we never communicate unless everything is perfect? Not at all, but we should use wisdom to know what to say, how to say it, and when is a good time to speak.
A communication coach can offer effective communication tools that will provide practical help so you can speak lovingly and effectively.
The Benefits of a Communication Coach
Meeting with a communication coach is a great way to learn practical tools for communicating more effectively with your spouse or partner.
Here are a few examples of tools you might learn from a communication coach:
Take a minute
Just like in the example with Austin and Jenna, many arguments can be prevented if the person about to initiate conversation does three things:
2. Assess the situation.
3. Make a reasoned decision about whether to speak at that moment.
If you’re feeling upset when you start a conversation, an argument will most likely follow, and effective communication won’t happen. The first thing to assess isn’t the topic you want to address, but how you’re feeling right now. Are you anxious? Is your stomach in knots? Are you angry? Is your heart racing?
What is your goal? Do you want to shame or hurt the other person? How will your words affect them? Are you trying to get your point across regardless of their feelings?
Are you trying to start an argument? Even if you aren’t trying to start an argument, have you had a lot of conflicts with this person lately?
The simple question, “Is this a good time to talk about x?” can prevent many, many arguments! If you ask permission, you’re honoring the other person from the get-go. You’re acknowledging that they have individual freedom, emotions, and their own stressors to manage. You’re giving them an opportunity to defer the discussion until a better time.
Of course, it’s important to make sure you’re putting the conversation off, not avoiding it altogether. If your spouse initiates a conversation about an issue, and you feel like they’re attacking you based on past conversations, let them know your concern.
If they tell you it isn’t an attack, give them the benefit of the doubt, but you have the freedom to end the conversation if they do start to attack you. Tell them you will continue the conversation only if they can agree to mutual respect.
Set ground rules
Arguments devolve quickly when the people involved fight unfairly. And when we are upset, that’s what we’re prone to do—act irrationally and emotionally. Anger and anxiety lower our capacity for logical thinking and relational bonding. We end up acting out of frustration instead of wisdom or love.
That’s why before you go into any discussion that might devolve into an argument, it’s best to have previously agreed-upon ground rules, such as:
- Staying on topic: If the topic of conversation is corrective, meaning one person wants to discuss the other person’s shortcoming in some area, you have to stay on that one topic.
When someone confronts you about something, it’s very tempting to turn it around on them and point out one of their failures. Or, if you’re the person doing the confronting, you might be tempted to bring up other examples to “make your case,” but this just ends up coming across like an attack.
Instead of turning a constructive criticism into a long list of disappointments and failures, address one issue at a time and focus on resolving that.
- Framing: If you think your conversation is going to be sensitive, try to prepare for it. Ask the other person when would be a good time to talk about a sensitive subject. If they don’t want to talk now, ask if they could talk in 20 or 30 minutes.
Some people, especially those with avoidant conflict styles, dread having a difficult conversation, but it’s important to have them anyway. If you’re afraid of how the other person will respond when you start the discussion, you can use framing to share your fears. “I need to talk to you about this, but I’m afraid you’re going to get angry or stonewall me.”
Framing gives the other person an opportunity to prepare themselves for what you’re going to say. Hopefully, they will be able to respond maturely and the conversation will have a better chance of not devolving into an argument.
- Meta-conversations: Or, talking about talking. “When you said x, what I made up about it was y, and I felt z.” For example, “When you said you forgot to do that errand, what I made up about it is that you don’t care about my simplest requests, and I felt disappointed.”
You can even have a meta-conversation in the midst of a discussion. If you’re feeling hurt by how it’s going, use the template above to clarify what happened. If they won’t respond in a helpful way, it may be time to take a break from the discussion.
- Avoid taking too much responsibility: We are each responsible for own emotions. Nobody can “make” us feel the way we do. Saying, “You made me angry” is not a valid accusation. Also, it’s normal to feel hurt, upset, or another negative emotion when someone gives us constructive criticism.
Sometimes we have an even more visceral reaction to any form of criticism. We might feel a deep sense of shame and woundedness arising from childhood hurt, and tempting us to lash out at the other person.
If we each stay on our emotional side of the street, we can resolve conflict and address issues without taking responsibility for each other. We are responsible for each other, but we can’t control the other person’s feelings or behavior.
Of course, we all influence each other, and when you love someone, it’s natural to want to improve their emotional situation or make them feel better. You can do your best to create a relational environment for happiness, but you can’t control the outcome, and you shouldn’t take the blame if they’re still not happy.
Picture this: you buy your child an expensive birthday gift. Think about the anticipation you feel before they open it. But, when they open it, they get upset because it’s not what they wanted.
Imagine your feeling of disappointment. Then, remember that it’s okay if your child feels differently than you do. If you choose to lash out in anger because your child seems ungrateful, even if they are legitimately being rude, it means that in some measure you were “owning” their reaction. You felt you deserved for them to react in a certain way.
It’s normal to be disappointed or hurt by other people’s words and actions. But lashing out in anger because we feel rejected is unhealthy. It means you allow your sense of self to be impacted by how other people respond to you.
As a parent, it’s easy to repeat emotional narratives from our childhoods, whether they’re good or bad. A licensed mental health professional can help you process those narratives so you can respond out of freedom instead of old patterns.
- Body awareness: This might be a surprising ground rule for conflict, but physical sensations are closely tied to emotional situations. Our body has built-in defense mechanisms that help us survive intense or traumatic situations, but we’re not meant to live our everyday lives in a state of heightened alert.
Shutting down from your feelings isn’t healthy, either. It might seem like you’re protecting yourself when you do this, but you’re actually cutting yourself off from intimacy and healthy relationships with people you love.
So, when you find yourself having a difficult discussion with someone, check in with your body every so often. How do you feel? Is your chest tight? Is your stomach in knots? Do you feel shaky? Is your heart beating faster?
These physical signals are anxiety indicators. If your anxiety is rising, pause the conversation, tell the other person that you’re feeling too anxious to keep talking right now, and take a few minutes to calm down.
Deep breathing by counting to three as you inhale and exhale can help settle down your parasympathetic nervous system. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, pursing your lips like you’re blowing out a candle.
Like anger, anxiety can cause a conversation to go instantly downhill. If, instead of feeling anxious, you find yourself mentally checking out of (or dissociating from) your surroundings, center yourself back in reality. Touch a couch cushion, pick something up and notice its texture, or do whatever it takes to root yourself in the current moment.
- Anyone can push pause: If someone is getting more and more upset, or starting to raise their voice, or sobbing, it’s time to take a break. Certainly, if someone is being verbally abusive, you have to stop talking. If someone has checked out and isn’t listening, stop trying to talk to them.
When you decide to take a break, use an “I” statement to identify why you’re stopping. “I feel like you’re not listening,” or “I feel hurt by what you’re saying,” etc. Setting this ground rule ahead of time allows the two of you to agree that you don’t want to argue, and pressing pause can help prevent that.
No matter what relationship you’re in, over time it will develop a history that gives you the potential to hurt each other. If you don’t process the hurts and frustration in your relationship, any difficult conversation will probably trigger them and make things harder to work through.
A licensed therapist or professional communication coach can help you set limits and navigate the use of communication tools in your relationship until you’re ready to consistently use them on your own. Contact one of the practitioners in our counselor directory to schedule an appointment today.
“Conversation”, Courtesy of Alex Holyoake, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Attitude” Courtesy of Lucas Lenzi, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Date Night”, Courtesy of Huy Phan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Communication”, Courtesy of Rawpixel, Unsplash.com, CC0 License