“Healthy communication is the lifeblood of love. A relationship will only be as good as its communication.” Gary Smalley
Our motivations (or goals) drive our messages, which are also highly driven by the levels of soothing or stress we feel in our nervous systems.
When communication is healthy, our nervous systems will be centered and calm, and our motivations and goals will be flowing from among the following desires: to connect; to learn; to cooperate; to influence; to encourage; to inspire; to enjoy; to value; to inform; to support.
With healthy goals, fueled by a calm nervous system, we’re most naturally able to engage in the following 3 communication skills:
Mirroring – This just means to reflect with warmth and kindness exactly what you heard the person say. Even though we always assume we hear, it’s astonishing how often we miss someone’s full message.
Reflect back with a phrase like “If I’m hearing you correctly, you feel _________________________ (fill in the blank, ex. . . angry that I didn’t wait for you after the game.)
When your loved one hears you repeat her/his words, they will feel that you are interested in true understanding. What you want is to truly hear them. You are not just listening to win an argument.
Validation – does not always mean agreement. I can completely disagree with someone’s perspective, but I can always validate their feelings. I can wish very deeply that they felt differently, but when I know someone well, and when I really listen to them, I can always validate where they are coming from. You can too!
The most powerful phrase for validation is “it makes sense you would feel that way.”
It makes sense you’d feel angry if you felt I was leaving without you. And it makes sense you’d feel upset that I didn’t wait for you.
(Not invalidation – That’s crazy! You shouldn’t be angry! Of course I wasn’t leaving without you!)
Notice how the above example is defensive, and cuts off feelings. It’s about me, not you. But it will leave you feeling blamed and shamed. It will result in disconnection. Another brick in the wall.
Empathy – In a good listening conversation I’ll be able to empathize with you. This is the act of supporting your emotions. A good phrase for empathy is, “That must be hard.”
That must have been hard to feel I was leaving without you.
Empathy “feels along” with the other.
I would have felt sad and angry if that had happened to me.
The 3 skills of reflection, validation and empathy build a bridge of healthy connection.
We’re constructing and building upon the neural networking of attachment and trust that we’re hopefully laying down through a history of positive loving interactions in our relationship. Our bodies use the hormone oxytocin to stimulate and create these neural bonds throughout our brain and nervous system. The results will be pleasurable relationships; success – encouragement to try and succeed; grace – a feeling of safety and acceptance whether we succeed or not.
Negative interactions – those originating in stress, and escalating to distress, will stimulate the production of stress hormones – cortisol and adrenaline, which literally strip away the very neural bonds that oxytocin builds.
Unhealthy communication then, is also physically unhealthy. The negativity-induced inflammation from stress hormones affects the brain and nervous system and impacts learning, listening and loving. Stress hormones also affect every other system in the body, and many physical ailments can eventually result.
When our communication comes from stress and distress, we will mirror a lack of approval and worth to our loved one with messages that invalidate their point of view – or even the whole person – and cut off feelings.
Some motivations that fuel unhealthy communication are: to control; to change; to fix; to punish; to shame; to blame; to disengage from; to win an argument.
It’s no surprise that this style of communication results in unhappiness on all fronts – dissatisfaction with relationships. But it’s sad, although interesting to note, that unhealthy communication in a relationship will also often result in failure.
Children and partners at the receiving end of unhealthy communication often develop a fear of trying. And when they do try – they might not meet with success. Failure happens more frequently when shame is a major emotional state. A belief is held in the body that it’s not safe to make mistakes. Therefore, shame-based relationships are characterized by hiding and avoiding responsibility. The frightening thing here is that the levels of disconnection necessary for “self-preservation” can lead to disconnecting from one’s own emotions, ones’ own higher motivations, and eventually – disconnecting from one’s own moral values. This is why shame (or it’s unconscious twin, shamelessness) is a foundational fuel in addictions, compulsive behaviors and other pathologies.
Some people argue that these 3 listening skills are a form of “wimping out” or giving in to unacceptable or undesirable behavior. After all, children need correction, and partners need to be told the truth. But this form of listening is the farthest thing from that.
In fact, when the listening skills are employed, you have the best opportunity for influence possible. You’ve got a bridge! You’re connecting! And once you and your loved one both feel that connection is solid, you can stand on the principles or truths you need to tell them with one magic word: and.
But first, if you’ve been using negative or unhealthy communication with your loved ones, it’s very important to acknowledge it. The most powerful “magic” words you need first happen when you can own your mistakes, and let them know you are sorry. Share with them that you’re learning to listen better. It’s never too late to become an expert listener!
Here’s how to put it all together:
Reflection & Validation: That must have been hard to feel I was leaving without you.
Empathy: I would have felt sad and angry if that had happened to me.
Apology when needed: I’m sorry. I wish I hadn’t done that, and I’ll try to communicate better in the future.
And, it’s really important to me that you’re ready to leave on time in the future.
Listening skills give everyone a voice, and when our voice is heard with respect, love grows in the heart of the listener, as well as the heart of the one being heard.
If you’d like to read more about the power of healthy communication for couples, get my book,
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With Warmth & Respect,
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