You’re talented, you have great ideas and you’re hard working, but you’re often unrecognized, misunderstood and taken for granted.
Whether it’s in your personal or work relationships, you find yourself frustrated at how often people can misinterpret what you have to say.
If only there was something people could do to read your mind and feel your emotions. Right?
Sorry. While something like this doesn’t exist there is the next best thing, which is to take some simple strategies to improve your communication in relationships.
Table of Contents
- Why communication fails
- Tactics to improve communication in relationships
- 1. Show your hands
- 2. Touch each other
- 3. Use softeners before questioning
- 4. Keep things simple
- 5. Create "Me too" moments
- 6. Only interrupt when absolutely necessary
- 7. Mirror your partner's brain
- 8. Communicate your feelings through stories.
- 9. Give lots of micro positive expressions
- 10. Give your undivided attention
- 11. Understand how your partner feels appreciated
- 12. Meet your partner's level of excitement.
- 13. Kill small talk
- 14. Respond rather than react
- 15. Become a highlighter
- 16. Help show your partner that it's okay to feel feelings
- 17. Embrace shame with empathy
- Cultivate a safe space for better communication
Why communication fails
The amygdala, which is also known as the “lizard brain” is an almond shaped part of your brain that’s is constantly on the lookout for anything that may be harmful to you. It basically is concerned for your survival.
And while it looks out for your physical survival such as in moments where there’s a rattlesnake in your path during a hike, it also looks out for your emotional survival.
This is why when someone says something that offends you, it triggers your amygdala and you become defensive as a result. It becomes this attack and defend battle between the two of you.
And as I’m sure you’ve experienced, when you are defensive during a conversation, nothing usually ends up getting resolved. The damage is done, feelings are hurt, and the relationship starts to become broken.
But here’s the thing:
In order to improve your communication, you must first learn how to help people feel safe to talk with you by implementing ways to calm their amygdalas in order to help them be open to having genuine conversations.
Tactics to improve communication in relationships
Below are 17 ways you can help improve your communication in relationships to cultivate safe spaces, feel more connected and strengthen your bonds.
Note: While I use the word “partner” to refer to the person you are communicating with, these techniques apply to all kinds of relationship whether it’s meeting someone new, an acquaintance or a long-time friend.
1. Show your hands
According to Vanessa Van Edwards, author of the book Captivate, eye tracking studies have shown that the first thing people actually look at when meeting someone new are their hands.
While most would think it’s the eyes, mouth or face, the reason why we first look at the hands is to quickly check if we are physically safe with the person.
“The reason for [checking the hands] is because of something we are not consciously aware of, which is when we can’t see someone’s hands the fear part of our amygdala begins to activate.” -Vanessa Van Edwards
Van Edwards shared some fascinating research that showed when defendants put their hands in their lap or their pockets where jurors can’t see them, jurors rate those defendants as more sneaky, untrustworthy and difficult to get along with.
Having your hands visible is simply as practical as showing the other person that you don’t have a weapon in your hands. So whether you are speaking publicly, meeting someone new, or catching up with a friend, be sure to show them.
What to do?
Refrain from putting your hands in your pockets or behind your back when speaking with someone. It may make them feel like you have something to hide.
Use your hands to acknowledge the other person whether it’s a wave or a handshake to help. This helps the person subconsciously put his/her guard down.
2. Touch each other
There’s a famous story about when Harvard professor, Nathan Fox, PhD stepped into a Romanian orphanage and noticed how silent it was in a room full of infants. He realized this was because the babies cries were not being responded to ever since their arrivals to the point that they gave up crying to express their needs.
The infants were always in their cribs except when they needed to be fed, bathed or changed.
One of the key components missing in the care of these children was touch. There was no daily interaction holding and snuggling these children to bond with them.
Evidence showed significant results of these children being much more developmentally delayed later in life compared to other children who grew up in loving families.
Science shows that human touch triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin, which is the “love hormone”. It’s what helps you experience the feelings of trust, devotion and bonding. It has also been shown to help you decrease stress levels.
What to do?
Incorporate more appropriate physical interactions in your conversations. A simple handshake will do for people who you are not as close with.
For closer friends, you may want to incorporate more hugs. For your partners, feel free to incorporate more snuggling, massages and caressing.
3. Use softeners before questioning
Asking questions are important to help you understand where your partner is coming from, but if you ask them in the wrong way, it may trigger a defensive response.
It’s important to make sure you don’t sound like you’re interrogating the person, but rather show that you are genuinely interested in learning more about the other person’s story and feelings.
One way to help your partner feel more open to answering your questions without getting defensive is by using softeners for your questions to show that the question is coming from a place of curiosity rather than accusation.
What to do?
Start your questions with phrases like “Out of curiosity…” or “Just to make sure I’m on the same page…” will help prevent the other person from getting defensive.
Rather than starting the question with “Why” start the question with “What”. For example, instead of asking “Why would you do that?” you can ask “What made you do that?”. Or to make it even more gentle, you can ask, “What about the situation you were in made you do that?”
4. Keep things simple
Have you ever had someone try to explain something to you and it was beyond your understanding?
We all think differently and sometimes it’s hard to communicate something to other people, especially if you have different personal and professional backgrounds.
The reason for this is what Chip and Dan Heath calls the “curse of knowledge” where you are so engulfed in your world that you can’t help but use insider language when trying to explain something to someone who is not familiar with what you do.
This is why it’s important to be familiar with who you are talking to. While you may speak to a coworker one way, you may need to explain things differently to a friend when trying to explain the same thing.
What to do?
Avoid using insider language that the average person may not understand.
When explaining something that you are much more fluent in than the other person, practice explaining things in a way that anyone can understand. Here’s an example:
Complicated: “Today I cared for my first patient in the ER and I literally saw the dopaminergic effects of the vasopressor we gave as it brought his heart rate and MAP back up”
Simple: “I cared for my first patient in the emergency room today and saw how the drug we gave him instantly saved his life”
Make sure you don’t explain things in a condescending manner. It may be frustrating sometimes when it takes some time for someone to understand what you’re trying to explain, but view it as you are informing a smart person rather than helping a slow person catch up.
5. Create “Me too” moments
It’s easy to get caught up in talking about yourself without even noticing if the other person is interested or not. This tends to happen especially when you have something exciting to share.
What most people don’t realize is great communicators know how to seek out and create moments that get the other person thinking in their brain “Oh my Gosh, me too!”
This helps promote a sense of bonding and openness that creates a space for better communication.
What to do?
As you listen to the other person during a conversation, take mental notes. What kinds of things does he get excited to talk about? What kind of background and worldview does he have? Then start asking questions about those topics and start a discussion.
Even if you’re the one doing the talking, it’s a great idea to pay attention to the other person’s non-verbal language to see if they are resonating or connecting with what you are sharing.
If they seem interested, give them a moment to reply and share back with you on how they can relate. If they seem disinterested, turn the conversation around and ask questions about them to see if there’s anything they say that will make you say “Me too!”
6. Only interrupt when absolutely necessary
You probably know what it feels like when you are in the middle of sharing something and someone excitedly interrupts you because they have something they want to say. The conversation gets hijacked and is turned over to the other person without you ever getting to finish what you wanted to say.
When you are interrupting someone, it clearly shows two things:
Firstly, you are not listening but you’re rather waiting for the opportunity to blurt out something that you were thinking about.
Secondly, you are more focused on your own thoughts rather than those of the person speaking.
What to do?
Wait for the other person to finish speaking. The only time it may be appropriate to interrupt someone is if you are in a time sensitive situation and things are starting to go off topic.
Practice active listening. Try not to worry about a witty reply to say but instead pay attention to what the other person is trying to express. Then take a moment to take it in and respond.
7. Mirror your partner’s brain
The two halves of your brain operate very differently. Your right hemisphere is the emotional side of your brain and your left brain is the logical side.
It’s important to know which part of the brain your partner is speaking from so you can respond appropriately.
For example, imagine you wanted to share about how horrible your day was at work and your partner just replied with suggestions on things you should’ve done differently without acknowledging your feelings.
Or on the flip side, imagine you just need to figure out how to fix a leaky pipe in the house and your partner begins to ask you how you’re feeling about it.
This is why it’s important to use the same side of your brain that your partner is using in order to connect and improve your communication.
What to do?
Listen to your partner and identify which half of the brain s/he is speaking from. Ask yourself, is s/he trying to express a feeling to you or trying to figure out something with you?
If the conversation is about trying to find an answer to a specific problem or question, then respond accordingly with your logical side by brainstorming together.
If the conversation is about a story your partner is trying to tell you that shows how s/he feels, respond with your emotional side with empathy and validate their feelings.
8. Communicate your feelings through stories.
When you tell someone you’re feeling angry, that person will be able to observe the fact that you are in an angry state, but that’s about as far as it will go.
If however, you share a story about how your boss made a rude and inaccurate comment at you in front of all the staff, your partner can picture him or herself in your shoes and understand what it may feel like.
This is why we can get lost in a great movie. Stories have the power to bring you into someone else’s experiences.
Most importantly, it helps people feel what you feel.
What to do?
Practice expressing your experiences and feelings through stories. Try to be detailed.
For example, don’t just say you had a bad day. Share the specific details on what happened:
- Who was there?
- How did you feel when it happened?
- What do you think caused it?
9. Give lots of micro positive expressions
Influential psychologist, Dr. Paul Ekman, helped coined the term “micro expressions.” He defines it as involuntary facial expressions that occur within 1/25th of a second which can accurately reflect a person’s true emotions.
These micro expressions can be either positive or negative and research has shown the compelling impact that they have on other people.
Vanessa Van Edwards shared that studies showed employees who received micro negative expressions from their managers performed much worse than employees who received micro positives expressions despite the manager’s proud claims that he treats all employees equally.
Micro expressions are exactly the reason why sometimes you can sense if a job interview went well or not.
Whether it’s a quick rolling of your eyes, a scowl, or scrunched up eyebrows, these are all micro negative behaviors that may cause your partner to feel unsafe to connect with you.
Micro positive expressions such as authentic smiles, nods, and leaning in will help your partner feel more open to communicate with you.
What to do?
- Lean in to show your partner you are engaged and ready to listen to what s/he has to say.
- Nod during the conversation to show you are listening.
- Relax your body and roll your shoulders back.
- Respond with smiles when appropriate.
10. Give your undivided attention
Imagine you’re at dinner with your partner and s/he’s sharing something important with you, but you find yourself getting constantly distracted.
There are so many things competing for your attention, whether it’s your phone buzzing, the people that are passing by, or all the hustle and bustle going on off in the distance in the restaurant.
When you get distracted, it’s easy for other people to notice and this can trigger your partner’s amygdala to either angrily fight for your attention or disengage from you. Either way, this doesn’t promote a safe space for good communication.
What to do?
Try to eliminate any distractions to the best of your ability:
- Turn your phone face down and put it on silent.
- Maintain eye contact. Doing so releases oxytocin in the brain and cultivate trust and connection.
- During important conversations, if the environment is too loud or has too many people around, consider moving to a more calm and safe space.
11. Understand how your partner feels appreciated
Dr. Gary Chapman explains in his bestselling book, The Five Love Languages, about how everyone has specific ways in which s/he feels most loved and appreciated. He categorizes them into “love languages” and there are five types: gifts, words of affirmation, acts of service, touch, and quality time.
Love languages can all be learned and when you figure out which one is the best one to speak to your partner, your communication between each other will significantly improve.
Do your partner’s eyes light up when you give a thoughtful gift? Then the love language is gifts.
Or maybe s/he glows and gets energized after having a deep and long conversation. Then the love language is quality time.
Or maybe after getting home from a long day, your partner just needs to cuddle and receive a nice massage. Then the love language is touch.
What to do?
Use the Love Language evaluation for yourself to learn not just for yourself, but to also learn how to identify other people’s love languages.
You and your partner don’t need to speak exactly the same love languages to stay together, you just need to really understand each other’s languages. Find out how here:
12. Meet your partner’s level of excitement.
Imagine your partner comes home excited wanting to tell you some great news. You had a long day and now you’re busy prepping dinner so you reactively reply, “Can you hold on and move over? The pasta is boiling, the baby is crying and the table is not set yet”.
When you finally settle down at the dinner table, you ask your partner what the great news was. With his or her excitement now deflated, s/he replies half-heartedly “Oh it’s not a big deal, but I finally got that promotion I was looking for” to which you reply “That’s great! Can you pass the salt?”
One of the toughest feelings occur when you share some exciting news and the other person doesn’t meet your level of enthusiasm.
Now imagine from the earlier example how different it would feel for your partner when s/he comes home to share the exciting news and you turn off the stove and with a look of anticipation ask “What is it?“. S/he shares the great news and both of you are jumping up and down and then you go off to pop open a bottle of champagne to serve with dinner.
Meeting your partners at their level of excitement the moment it happens communicates that you are willing to be present with them during their times of joy.
What to do?
When you sense your partner’s excitement, stop what you are doing for a quick moment and then join in on the enthusiasm. This will help release the happiness hormone, serotonin, in both your brains and give you a boost in your mood.
13. Kill small talk
Have you ever had a conversation like this?
“How are you?”
“I’m good! How about you?”
“I’m good too!”
Small talk gets you on autopilot because you hear the same kinds of questions and it triggers you to habitually give the same answers.
Asking interesting and engaging questions will turn on people’s brains and get them to actively think rather than react to routine conversations.
What to do?
Try to ask questions that you are actually interested in and would love to hear the answers to:
- Instead of asking “How are you?” say something like “Tell me about your day.”
- Instead of asking “What do you do?” ask something like “Working on anything exciting these days?”
- Instead of asking “Where are you from?” ask something like “Have any vacations coming up?”
14. Respond rather than react
When you feel a certain emotion after your partner shares something challenging with you such as a disagreement, it’s easy to react and give a response without thinking. Many times, this leads to defensiveness and becoming less open to productive conversation.
Simply bringing awareness to yourself in these moments gives you the power to make a choice and use the thinking part of your brain to evaluate how to best respond to the situation. Instead of letting your amygdala take over causing you to react and put your walls up to defend yourself, simply take a moment to be aware of what is happening.
Just verbally expressing what’s going on goes a long way. For example, in this moment you can simply express “I’m feeling inadequate right now because…”
Just making sense of the situation helps you get out of a reactive mode and puts you in a proactive mode where you can make better decisions to improve your communication.
What to do?
At times your partner disagrees with you or says something you disagree with, take a moment to notice if you are feeling defensive or not. Especially if you are feeling hurt.
Then take a moment to ask yourself, how am I feeling right now? Verbalize that feeling to your partner.
Afterwards, think about how you can best respond to the situation to make it a productive conversation rather than a destructive one.
15. Become a highlighter
What psychologist’s call the Pygmalion effect has been shown that people step up to great expectations when done correctly.
For example, if you genuinely communicate to your friend “It’s been such an inspiration to see how dedicated of a teacher you are. I can really see how strong and brave you are to make sure your students thrive because you keep working even when it gets hard.”
Your friend is likely to try and continue working hard to uphold this expectation of being a courageous person.
Communicating in this way not only helps your partner grow, but it also helps them feel more drawn to you and be more open to conversation.
So as you continue to communicate and highlight what you find impressive about your partner, you may notice them stepping up to keep improving in that way.
What to do?
- When you introduce a friend to someone, don’t just introduce their names, but also mention one thing you love about or find interesting about him or her.
- Start a gratitude journal about your partner and log every time you are thankful for something about him or her.
- Highlight any growth and improvements you are noticing about your partner. This will increase their chances of succeeding and persisting when things get tough.
16. Help show your partner that it’s okay to feel feelings
In cultures where showing your emotions can be considered a sign of weakness, a misconception arises that uncomfortable feelings are something bad. It sets off a chain of unhealthy interactions between people when attempting to communicate clearly.
For example, if you grew up believing crying is a sign of weakness, you are likely to also be uncomfortable when someone else cries in front of you.
This is what causes many people to react by trying to “fix” the emotions of the partner by offering suggestions on what to do rather than simply listening and empathizing.
Feelings are not meant to be fixed or avoided. They are meant to be felt no matter how uncomfortable.
What to do?
Show your partner it’s okay to feel his/her feelings simply by validating them. For example, if s/he talks to you about something upsetting that happened at work, you can reply “That really sucks. I would’ve been pissed off too if i was in the same situation”.
This kind of response shows that the feelings your partner are experiencing are valid feelings that are okay to experience.
If you become uncomfortable, it will make your partner feel uncomfortable as well and it may make him/her feel like there is something wrong with experiencing such feelings.
17. Embrace shame with empathy
Empathy is single-handedly the most important way to improve your communication in relationships. And the times you most need to have empathy is when your partner is having a moment of shame.
Shame and vulnerability expert, Dr. Brene Brown lists a few scenarios that will cause miscommunication between each other. Chances are you’ve experienced what all of this feels like:
- The friend who hears your story and actually feels shame for you. S/he gasps and confirms how horrified you should be and then there’s awkward silence. Now you’re stuck feeling like you’re the one who needs to help your friend feel better.
- The friend who responds with sympathy where it’s a response of “I feel so sorry for you” rather than empathy. i.e. Friend responds “Oh you poor thing.”
- The friend who relied on you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity but your partner can’t help because s/he’s disappointed in your imperfections that you let him/her down.
- The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that s/he scolds you. i.e. “How did you let this happen?”
- The friend who’s all about making it better and out of his/her own discomforts refuses to acknowledge that your feelings are okay.
- The friend who confuses connection with the opportunity to one-up you. i.e. “That’s nothing! Well listen what happened to me!”
What to do?
Practice responding with empathy when your partner is communicating shame with you. Nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s shares about the four attributes of empathy:
- To be able to see the world as others see it. This requires putting your own perspective aside to see the situation through the eyes of your partner’s.
- To be nonjudgmental. Judgement invalidates your partner’s situation and is actually a protection mechanism to avoid experiencing the discomfort and pain of the situation.
- To understand another person’s feelings. To do this, you must be aware of your own feelings in order to understand your partner’s.
- To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings. Rather than trying to make your partner feel better or “fix” things with replies like “At least it’s not worse than…” or “You should…” try connecting with and validating their feelings by saying things like “That sucks…” or “I hate when that happens because it really hurts…” Brene Brown gives a great suggestion on how to empathize especially if you have never been in the same situation as your partner’s. She suggests “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”
Cultivate a safe space for better communication
At the end of the day, the thing needed most to improve communication is by helping establish a safe space between the person you are in a conversation with.
If you don’t feel safe with the person you are talking to, you will automatically become defensive in your conversation. Rather than really hearing out what the other person has to say, you may be pre-occupied and planning out what you want to say in response so that you can either position yourself as competent or make yourself look better.
All the techniques listed here are simply ways to help disarm people’s brains from going into defense mode and feel safe to have honest and genuine conversation with you. In turn, this will result in a healthy exchange of authentically listening and responding.
Go ahead, give them all a try!
|NPR: Human Connections Start With A Friendly Touch
|Dr. Paul Ekman: Micro Expressions
|The Liberators International: World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment (Official Release 2015)