When you ask any couple what the key to a successful marriage is, they’ll likely include “great communication” in their list. But when we’ve asked couples what “good communication” is, we’ve gotten a lot of foggy answers. Not everyone knows the basics to communicating well, and that can lead to a lot of frustration and unmet expectations in a marriage.
With so many thick books on communication, it is sometimes difficult to cut through the clutter and sum it all up, so we’ve listed out what we think are great places to start. Here are five keys to unlocking great communication:
Key #1: Send clear and accurate messages.
Precise and unambiguous statements facilitate good communication, while imprecise and ambiguous statements hinder it. Consider the difference between these two statements: “You hurt me tonight at the party,” versus, “I was hurt when you spent almost all of your time at the party watching television instead of talking with our friends.”
Key #2: Avoid incongruent messages.
Do not send simultaneous messages with mutually exclusive meanings. How many messages are contained in the following statements? “There is nothing wrong! And I don’t want to talk about it!” Most often, incongruent messages come from a statement that is not in synch with the person’s facial expression or tone of voice. When a husband says, “I’m happy to wait for you,” but his tone and posture indicate that he is definitely not happy to do so, he is sending an incongruent message that is destined to cause a communication breakdown.
Key #3: Be empathic.
Empathy can be defined as listening with your head as well as your heart to truly understand what your spouse is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. Empathy involves putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and imagining what that would be like from his or her perspective. When you partner tells you about feeling rejected by someone at work, for example, put yourself in his or her position. Use your heart to imagine how you would feel if rejected. Then, use your head to accurately understand if what you would be feeling is the same as what your partner is feeling. Every time you empathize, you are able to better understand what your spouse is saying.
Key #4: Provide feedback.
Communication involves an exchange of information. The response (or feedback) to the message the other person has sent indicates the message was (or was not) received and was (or was not) understood. “Yes, go on, I’m listening.” “No, I don’t understand that. Please repeat it.” Providing these kinds of simple statements, as well as being attentive with your eyes and posture, lets your spouse know he or she is being understood—that you are genuinely interested in hearing the message.
Key #5: Be generous with supportive and positive statements.
Accuracy, empathy, and feedback are all important. But we all like to feel good about ourselves. When we give recognition to our spouses, when we compliment their accomplishments, and when we reassure them of how important they are to us, we not only make them feel better, we build a stronger foundation for communication. When we feel supported and are supportive, many of the other basic communication skills fall more naturally into place.
While there are plenty of additional elements to good communication, these five qualities are some that we view as being most important. In fact, you might want to review this list from time to time and think about your own communication style. Ask yourself how often you use the practices listed here with your spouse.