Communication is the backbone of every strong relationship. It’s the way we get to know each other, understand each other, and share our stories. But none of us are born perfect at communication. Even with the best of intentions, sometimes we can still end up feeling like we’re speaking a different language than our partners and loved ones.
Communication is always something we can improve on, so we asked Dr. Emily Cook, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Bethesda, Maryland, what it takes to be a good communicator.
Why Is Communication So Hard?
One of the things that makes communication so difficult is just how much information we convey and process without even realizing it. Dr. Cook says that communication is a transfer of information, and that information goes way beyond our word choices. “It’s not just the words we’re saying,” Dr. Cook says, “But our tone of voice, our body language, our assumptions, what we already know going into it, what we bring to the table. We often don’t listen from a blank slate and we’re also not speaking from a blank slate.”
This is true for any interaction, but especially so when you’re talking about a conversation between two people in a relationship who have months, years, or even decades of history together. One of the reasons communication can be so hard or why misunderstandings can be so common is that it’s easy to get wires crossed when we’re bringing our own memories and baggage to a conversation.
Consider Your “Job”
Dr. Cook says that good communication means focusing on your role as either the listener or the speaker; either way, you have to do your job well for the communication to be successful, and each role requires different skills. “Am I looking to share something and be understood,” Dr. Cook says, “Or am I seeking to listen and understand?”
If you’re going to be the speaker and have something you want to share, it’s always helpful to be thoughtful about what you want the other person to understand. You want to be clear, use “I” statements that focus on how you feel, and you want to think about your message. Can you imagine what the other person’s reaction is going to be? What’s the purpose of sharing? “Am I asking a question? Am I describing a need? Am I telling a story, looking for advice or validation? In the therapy room when there’s something to be communicated, I work with the speaker to think through some of those things on the front end.” Dr. Cook says that when you consider your listener when you’re deciding how to share your truth, it can make it easier for them to feel cared for while receiving it.
Even if you’re not the one speaking, you still have a crucial job when it comes to communication. “The listener’s job is to be the receiver,” Dr. Cook says. “Can they set aside their own agenda, their own assumptions and really bring an open heart to the conversation?
There are a few visualizations Dr. Cook walks her clients through when practicing good listening. The first is an exercise called “crossing the bridge.” Imagine the speaker inviting the listener to cross a bridge into their world. The speaker becomes the listener’s tour guide, introducing them to their world. “When the speaker crosses the bridge, they bring only themselves,” Dr. Cook says. “They leave behind their judgements, they leave behind all their baggage and they only come as themselves with an open heart.” As a listener, visualizing crossing this bridge into your loved one’s world can help you loosen your grip on your own biases and focus on really hearing the other person.
Another visualization, which Dr. Cook explains in her book, involves picturing the speaker passing a rock to the listener. “The speaker goes into their suitcase or their bag and selects the rock they want to pass. There’s a thoughtful process about which one is important today and then they select it. They spend a second with it, considering what they want to share about it, how it feels, where it came from and what’s important for the other person to know about it. And they start to describe it: ‘This is my rock and I want you to know this about it and it’s this shape and be careful of this sharp edge over here.’ And as they’re describing it, they’ll pass it over to the listener. They’re not throwing it at their head, they’re not dumping it on their lap, they’re gently passing it. And the listener receives it and holds it and reflects it back: ‘I see that this is an important rock and I see the sharp edge, I’ll be careful.'” The listener hands the rock back, grateful that the speaker was willing to share it with them. Using a metaphor or visualization like this can be very helpful when we’re thinking about how to hold each other with love and gentleness rather than with reactiveness, fear or judgement. Even when we have things to share that are unpleasant or charged or difficult, being careful to maintain a sense of respect, love and tenderness is how we have truly successful communication. After all, the goal of communication isn’t to win, it’s to connect, understand, and be understood.
The most obvious part of communication might be the words we choose to share, but there’s a lot more to the story. If you’re solely focusing on word choice, you might not be conveying the message you think you are. Dr Cook says that as humans we are way more attuned to nonverbal emotional feedback, meaning that we’re not just listening for words but for the emotions behind them. “There’s really interesting research about our brains and how they take in information. When there’s a disconnect between the words we’re hearing and the information we’re getting from the nonverbal, facial expressions and tones of voice… if there’s a mismatch between them, our brains preference the nonverbal information first. It’s the older part of our brain. We were communicating as animals without words much earlier than we were using language, so that part of our brain is faster because it’s older and it’s wired deeper.” This disconnect can get us in a lot of trouble: think about a time someone apologized to you without really meaning it, or got defensive even if their words were calm. We’re very adept at gleaning deeper meanings, which is why making sure our tone and words match our energy is so important. Dr. Cook says even if your intention is to stifle your emotions in an attempt to sound calm and neutral, the results could be harmful. “The other person’s going to pick up on that and wonder what else is underneath it.” She says this is why she works so hard in therapy to create a safe environment for vulnerability and authenticity, and why you should try to do the same at home.
Dr. Cook says one of the biggest communication missteps she sees is just rushing through conversations without taking the time to make sure everyone is understood. “When we’re going fast we get reactive and we can miss really important pieces, and we’re probably not doing a great job listening because we’re already thinking about how we’re going to respond. That just ratchets up the intensity.” Eventually, if you don’t slow down, conversations turn into arguments where neither person feels heard or understood. The antidote to this is just to focus on the hearing. Making sure everyone has the chance to be heard, setting aside distractions and slowing everything down can make these exchanges more productive and kinder to everyone involved.
Getting Good At Communication
Like anything else, becoming good at communication requires practice. There are a few exercises Dr. Cook recommends if you’re trying to get better at both sharing and listening. One of these is simply getting in the habit of debriefing after difficult conversations. Asking questions like “How did that go for us?” and “Did you feel heard and understood?” can help you gain new insights and make conflict feel less like a single scarring event and more like everyday maintenance. After all, the purpose is understanding so it’s important to make sure it’s working. With these debriefing conversations, everyone has a chance to share what went well and what didn’t, helping these exchanges to get smoother and easier over time.
Dr. Cook says that if there’s something you feel like you need to share but are having a hard time finding the words, you should try journaling it out or even just talking about it in a voice memo. It’s the same principle as writing a letter when you’re upset and then waiting to re-read it after you’ve taken some time to cool down. In the moment we can get defensive and emotional so working out ahead of time the essence of what we want to share, and why it’s so important to us, can help keep us on track. Dr. Cook says this kind of prep can help us feel more confident in our message. She says some might resist this strategy because they don’t want to sound scripted or rehearsed. “I think the reframe on that is: ‘I really was intentional about what I wanted to say and I had you in mind, my listener.’ And when the listener hears this message, they feel respected.”
When you keep your listener in mind while planning what you want to say, you can assure them that you thought about what it might be like for them to hear this information. This can only help them feel more loved and appreciated, and it also gives you the best chance of being understood. “It helps get the message across. And that’s really what we want. The point is to deliver this information and have it be received and then reflected back to us.”
Dr. Cook’s last piece of advice is to do some research on how to validate. “That’s a skill that you can learn how to do. Learn how to be a safe listener for someone who’s sharing. It’s trust building in yourself and in the relationship, that we can do hard things. That’s Glennon Doyle’s talking point. We can do hard things. We can say hard things with love, we can say our truth, we can be authentic and when we’re in a safe relationship, a genuine and mutual investment, we can do it.”
You can find more information about communication in relationships in Dr. Cook’s book, The Marriage Counseling Workbook: 8 Steps to a Strong and Lasting Relationship.