The Most Important Communication Tool for Healthy Relationships

Would you attempt to build a house without a hammer?
Would you try to sew on a button without a needle?
Would you hunt without a gun or a bow?
Would you plant a garden without a trowel?

Would you have a vibrant relationship without basic tools for handling disagreements?

Sadly, people do it all the time, and then wonder why they end up with “irreconcilable differences”.

I have good news—there is a tool that is so foundational to healthy communication, it can be used in all of our relationships—whether you are communicating with someone you’re dating, or your child, spouse, a friend, even a work relationship. I am going to provide it for you in multiple formats. You are reading about it here, and you can print out a guide, watch the Facebook live video, or sign up to watch a webinar where I guide a couple through the process (links will be added when the content is available.) So, no excuses!!

Speaker/listener tool

I call this process the “speaker/listener technique” or some have called it “drive through talking”.  I don’t remember where I first read about it—so I don’t know who to credit. The overall idea is that when there is something you don’t agree on, you INTENTIONALLY use this process—even set aside time to work it through. You need to slow down and be able to really hear the other’s perspective.

Most of our disagreements happen because we are too busy DEFENDING our position, rather than trying to understand the perspective of the other person. We have knee jerk reactions to what we THINK the other person is saying, instead of listening to what is important to them. It’s amazing how quickly 2 people can de-escalate a hot topic when they use this technique. It’s been said that we have 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason.

Learning something new takes practice

I would suggest printing off the guide  so that both people understand the framework. It may feel a little awkward at first, but you’re learning a new skill.  Using this process can provide structure and safety for difficult conversations. The essence of the process can become second nature, used automatically in our many daily communications.

If the topic to be discussed is one that is difficult or has a history (you know, that thing that keeps coming up?), then ask the other if this is a good time to talk. Bringing up a complex issue as the other is falling asleep is not a great idea (I speak from experience, me the night owl, dear hubs not). If it’s NOT a good time, then find a time that works for both of you.

There are 3 components in the process: mirroring, validation, and empathy.

Sharing the talking hat–the process

The speaker

Whoever will speak first has “the talking hat” (as our son referred to it as a teenager!). Use a real object if that’s helpful—just something that you can pass back and forth to the speaker.

The person to speak first states their perspective, using “I” language—“I would like”, “I feel”, “I think”. DO NOT start off with “YOU always” or any “you” statement. You are stating YOUR position, so own it. Keep it brief initially, if you can.  You will be taking turns, so you don’t have to get it all out in the first statement. Ladies—don’t start off with a book length version of your perspective. (Sorry to pick on us ladies, but we tend to be verbose. Men often shut down We use a lot more words than most men—it’s true.) You can overwhelm the other if you don’t start with short, concise statements.

The listener

After briefly introducing your position, the other person summarizes what they are HEARING. This is MIRRORING.  It may feel a little awkward, but you actually use it already. To use the analogy of ordering at a drive through, you give your order to Jack or Mac or whoever is taking it, and before you pull forward, what do they do? They state your order back, and you either affirm, or correct. “No, that was 2 orders of fries and a Diet Coke, not regular Coke.”

So the other person says back what they’ve heard—I know, this may feel awkward and silly, but TRUST ME, this is the most important part. So many times in working with couples, I would ask the other, “So, what do you hear her saying?”

The husband (I don’t mean to pick on men—but it was most often true) would answer, “I heard her just fine.”
Me: “Humor me, can you summarize what she said?”

I kid you not, 9 times out of 10, when they summarize, it isn’t at ALL what the other person just said.

Moving on, the listener says something like, “What I’m hearing you say is,…” Very important that the message be heard correctl

The speaker either affirms, or this is the opportunity to clarify. Share the talking stick until the speaker’s initial message has been heard correctly. Also, this is NOT time for problem solving. Yet.

Taking turns

Now, the listener has their turn. They state their position, or something like “This is how I see it”, and the process continues. The original speaker, now the listener, states what they hear until the message is heard accurately.

If the issue is complex, you might go back and forth many times, taking a piece at a time, unraveling the conflict like a twisted ball of yarn.

Understanding before problem solving

There are a couple of things to keep in mind as you go through this process.

Validation is an important part of the listening process. Validation doesn’t necessarily mean AGREEMENT, it just means it makes sense. You can validate someone’s position without agreeing.  Validating phrases might sound like, “I can see that…”, “It makes sense to me now that you would think that” or “I can understand that…”.

Empathy is the other essential part of the process. Try to imagine the other’s perspective and identify a FEELING or EMOTION when the other is sharing their position. If it’s hard to identify feelings, reference this list.  There is a powerful connection when you relate at an emotional level. Emotions are what make us human, and provide the connection we long for in our important relationships.  “It sounds like you felt sad when I didn’t plan something special for your birthday.”

When both people affirm that they’ve been heard accurately, ONLY THEN do you move on to problem solving. (A different article). Oftentimes, after going through the process, couples find that they actually AGREE on the issue, but they were so busy DEFENDING, that they thought the other person had a different position. Or, having de-escalated the disagreement, couples find they can move to apology or come up with a plan that they both agree on.

So, there you go. Now, go build that house, or make your relationship great.

Please note: In the spirit of developing a respectful community, I reserve the right to delete comments that are rude, snarky or disrespectful. If you wouldn't say it to your mama, don't say it here.