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Communication 101

We know you know it already: Communication is key to a good relationship. And when communication breaks down, the relationship almost inevitably goes south. But surprisingly, many people don’t know the fundamentals of good communication, and as a result, their relationships pay the price.

The good news is that there are some very simple principles that can make all the difference when it comes to speaking clearly about how you feel—and really hearing what the other person is saying.

Make “I” Statements, Not “You” Statements

When we get upset with or feel hurt by a partner, our natural tendency is to automatically attack: “You drive me crazy! You never ask my opinion when you decide something important!” Making “you” statements like these guarantees that a relational barrier is built between you. Your partner has virtually no alternative but to feel blamed, accused, and criticized. It is extremely unlikely that he or she will say, “Yes, you’re right. I can be very insensitive.” Instead, the natural reaction will be defensive: “What do you mean? If you have an opinion, just say it. I can’t read your mind.”

What typically follows is a reciprocated “you” statement: “You’re the one that’s insensitive! Did you ever consider the pressure I’m under right now?” Volleying “you” statements back and forth is a surefire way to spoil an evening together.

This scene could be completely different if “I” statements are used instead to report how you feel or how you experience the situation: “I feel hurt and neglected when you don’t ask my opinion.” Do you sense the difference? “I” statements dispense information to be understood by your partner rather than accusations to be defended. “I” statements are much more likely to elicit concern and caring from your partner: “I’m sorry. I had no idea you were feeling that way.” “I” statements don’t cause defensiveness, because they don’t seem to be pointing out how bad your partner is.

When you make “you” statements, all your partner hears is blame and criticism. “I” statements, on the other hand, are much more effective, because they allow your message to be correctly heard and understood. So in the future, instead of saying, “You try to make me feel stupid by always correcting me,” say something like, “I feel put down when you correct little things I say.” It’s a subtle difference, but when you begin your sentences with “I” rather than “you,” you’ll save your relationship from a lot of grief, and you’ll have a better shot at understanding each other in a deeper way.

Mirror What you Hear

Many people think of listening as a passive activity. But actually, good listening is about action. One of the best ways to listen actively is to “mirror” what you hear your partner saying, so that he or she knows you’re really listening. For example, if your partner says something like “I can’t believe I didn’t get that promotion! I’ve been there a year longer than that guy,” then you might respond, “That really made you mad, didn’t it? And you feel like it’s totally unfair.” This kind of response lets the other person know you’ve really tuned in to what he or she is saying.

This technique—which is also called “reflective listening”—can be especially helpful when you two are arguing. If, for instance, your partner says, “You were supposed to be here at 7:00, and you didn’t show until after 8:00,” you can diffuse the situation by saying, “That really upset you, didn’t it, because you felt like I was ignoring your feelings?” The point of reflective listening is to let your partner know that you have heard what he or she has said and that you understand the message.

By the way, if you are at a loss and ¬can’t seem to reflect your partner’s message, then say something like “Tell me more about it” or “Help me understand what you mean.” This safety-net technique can work wonders.

Don’t be Judgmental

One action that represents a “clear and present danger” when it comes to communication in a relationship is judging what your partner is saying. Nothing shuts down communication quicker than a judgmental attitude. So if your partner is telling you something that’s important to him or her, or is trying to express certain feelings, do your best to avoid saying something like “No, that’s terrible idea” or “That’s crazy to feel that way!” Instead, try to listen reflectively to what’s being said and to do so with an attitude of acceptance.

Don’t be a “Fixer”

Another no-no is jumping in right away to try to fix your partner’s problem. Lots of people commit this communication sin, but men are especially likely to do it. If a woman is talking about a problem she’s having with one of her friends or at work, instead of hearing her out and letting her talk about the situation, her boyfriend often will jump in immediately with the “obvious answer” to the problem. But often, that’s not what she wanted from him. She may have just needed to express her feelings—not have him make everything better or try to rescue her.

So remember, when you’re listening to your partner, do your best to resist the temptation to look for a way to fix the problem. There’ll be time to deal with the actual issue later, but make sure you’ve simply heard the other person’s feelings first. Then, after you feel as though he or she has had a chance to express those feelings, it can be helpful to use the phrase “I’ve got some ideas that might be helpful when you’re ready.”

Remember your Body Language

Keep in mind that how you communicate is often as important as what’s actually being said. So whether you’re talking or listening, pay attention to what you’re communicating nonverbally. Body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice all impact your message in powerful ways, so pay attention to how you’re communicating in addition to the actual words that come out of your mouth.

Whether a relationship sinks or swims depends on how well partners send and receive messages: how well they say what they mean and understand what they hear. Communication can either buoy intimacy or be the dead weight that sinks a relationship. So work hard on these principles, and you and your partner can keep sailing along, enjoying each other and the way you talk, listen, and understand each other.