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One of my favorite things to talk about is healthy communication within relationships. Good communication is legitimately the backbone of any relationship that you have - whether it’s with your kids, friends, or partner.
When polling any group of married couples, if you ask them what is the single most important thing for a healthy relationship, you will most often hear “communication.”
And yet - any time I start counseling with someone regarding a relationship, it inevitably starts with them telling me “we just don’t communicate” or “we need to learn to communicate better.”
We often blame our partners for not being good listeners, however from what I see, we don’t usually take into account that we are poor speakers.
We passively communicate, meaning that we expect our body language (or some kind of magical mind reading power that others apparently have) to convey our feelings instead of our words.
I don’t care.
I don’t know.
This is the language of passivity - and yet, we expect to convey the subtext which actually would say something like:
I’m feeling very disappointed that you didn’t think that I may have needed help with the additional tasks that came up today that were unexpected and stressed me out.
I’m feeling very resentful that when I see something that needs done, I don’t wait for you to ask me to do it, and I believe that when you see something that needs done, you leave it for me to do.
I’m feeling really excited about this promotion that I got today and I’m waiting to see how big of a deal you make of it because I would like you to affirm how hard I have worked for this.
It’s quite an interesting game, isn’t it?
Four Communication Styles
There are four different forms of communication: passive, assertive, passive-aggressive and aggressive.
Passive is when we don’t speak up for ourselves, and let others lead the way.
Aggressive is when we push our will onto others, without offering consideration to their position or needs.
Passive-aggressive is when we let others lead the way, and while we don’t express our own feelings and needs about it, we do make it known that we disagree with some aspect of what is happening.
Assertive communication is when we outwardly state our feelings and needs about the particular situation.
Assertive communication is the healthiest style of communication within a relationship, although it is often the most difficult.
Consistently assertive communication requires you to be vulnerable with others, because you are clearly sharing your feelings and your needs, which are the things that are missing from every other style.
In truth, most people aren’t used to exploring their feelings and needs in this way, which is why this type of communication is rare, unless it is intentionally practiced.
It starts to become possible when we learn how to recognize and name our emotions for what they are.
We can’t talk about something if we don’t know what it is.
Often “I don’t know” can be a signal to our partners that we don’t know, yet.
For those of us that need time to process feelings before having a conversation (me!) - “I don’t know” can easily be turned into “I need time to think about what I’m feeling about this - can we revisit this conversation tomorrow/later this evening/in 3 hours?” Using this strategy can help us to not agree (passively) to something that we don’t really want, and gives our partner the understanding that we aren’t blowing them off… just taking the time that we need.
This also gives us time to process exactly what those underlying feelings are, rather than ignoring them or pretending that they aren’t there. This gives us time to filter through the top-level emotion to figure out what is actually underneath: anger often is masking guilt, or grief, or shame. Sadness can be hiding boredom, overwhelm, or disappointment.
That discomfort that crept into your shoulders as soon as the conversation started? Probably anxiety - where did that come from?
Learning to dig deeper into what we feel and how it manifests in our body and mind can help us more effectively communicate with others.
The Importance of Vulnerability
Many studies have shown just how important vulnerability is in order to feel meaningful connections with others. We are so good at having superficial relationships - of showing people only the parts that we want to see in any situation (which becomes even more true when we take into account social media), that being faced with vulnerability can be terrifying.
But think about your closest friendships - the real ones. What do you share in common with them? What have they shared with you, and you with them, that you can’t say about other relationships that you have?
Opening yourself to being vulnerable with them throughout tough moments in your life is the way that relationships progress.
Authenticity is a key value to me personally, but even with that, I am only vulnerable with a few people within my life. That means that I take the time to process and share with those people my true feelings about things, within the context of our relationship, and that I always share my truth with them - even if it makes them uncomfortable.
Often this looks like accountability - “Hey, remember when we talked about how important xyz thing is to you? From my perspective, I see you prioritizing abc thing and I want you to know that I’m concerned about you and wanted to check in with you about it.”
“When you told me that I offended you when we were talking about xyz, I need you to know that I was really feeling frustrated that you didn’t understand what I meant. But I want to talk through that situation with you so that we can work through it together.”
Photo by Maël Renault on Unsplash
So while these conversations happen with those that I choose to allow into that close emotional space, other people may only hear the truth about how I am dealing with something, or how I feel about something they have shared if they ask specifically for my thoughts about it and I specifically decide that it’s safe to share that with them.
Vulnerability means that you are willing to share, but also willing to accept feedback from those that you choose to do life with.
Vulnerability & Assertiveness
Putting these things together - recognizing and naming your feelings, and then communicating what those are along with what your needs are - are the keys to deepening your relationships with others.
It doesn’t mean that you eliminate the conflicts along the way, but it does reduce the part that miscommunication can play in those conflicts.
Struggling with putting the assertive communication style into practice? Looking for a breakthrough for the communication in your relationship? Reach out! You can schedule with me directly by using my online scheduler (linked right here!) or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brooke Williams, MA, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor serving South Carolina. You can read more about her here.