7 Do's & 7 Don'ts in the Communication of Couples with Extraordinary Relationships

Communication. We all know it’s important, or we would not have our electronic rectangle in our hands so much much of the day. 

Research says we are engaged in some sort of communication 70 to 80% of our daily awake time. And we only spend 55% of that time listening. Worse, research also says we only remember about 17 to 25% of what we hear!

The stereotype is that women are better listeners than men. Like most all stereotypes this one has some truth: the male brain only uses one lobe to listen, while the female brain uses both lobes. (Pay attention men! Research says you’re half way behind from the start!) 

Those who are informed about communication skills are aware that our words only communicate 7% of our message. The remaining 93% is communicated by our voice tone and volume, facial expressions, and body language. This is a significant element of extraordinary relationships. Those in such relationships have an underlying awareness of the fundamentals of communication.

In a very long-term study (that I had the privilege of contributing to), we studied, selected and gave communication assessments to thousands of couples. These couples were chosen from those who rank high on marital satisfaction surveys. What we learned was priceless intel. I share these things with couples and encourage them to emulate the skills of couples who have extraordinary relationships. Here are the top seven things that these couples avoid. I recommend that you take note and avoid them too!

1.They do not interrupt. 

There was a time when this was one of the manners that was harped on in school. As a matter of fact, when I was in sophomore English class, we were being taught about how rude it was to interrupt. We were given an assignment to create a poster that had a graphic that would encourage people to stop interrupting. Mine was a round furry animal with prickly spears sticking out all around it. I guess it may have looked a bit like a porcupine. This little bitty animal had a huge mouth. And I did a conversation bubble that said, “Hello my name is Buttinski. I am rude and I interrupt people. Don’t be like me!” Although I am not perfect at never interrupting, when I’m about to do so, my animal friend Mr. But-in-Ski, usually comes to my mind and deters me. I invite couples to think of it the same way. There is rarely anything so critical that you have to say it instantly. It can wait a moment or two. Avoid interrupting.

2. They rarely use the word “but.”

The word “but” in a sentence actually means, forget everything else I just said. I either didn’t mean it, didn’t believe it, or don’t really feel that way. Even if that’s not the message that you were attempting to send, it is the message that will likely be heard. I have a friend who often falls into this pattern with his adult children (and they all laugh about it and have much to say about it out of his presence).  It goes something like this: “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but ….” Their joke as siblings is that not only is he telling you exactly what to do, but he will be quite upset if you don’t do exactly what he says. Anytime you say “I love you but…” be very careful what follows. This pattern of speaking became important in a recent session with one of my couples. With a marriage totally on the rocks, the husband said to his wife, “I love you, but you are totally psycho.” Wow! I tried to cut it off at the “butt” (pun intended) but his words came tumbling out before I could stop him.  Her knee-jerk response was, ‘So that’s what you really think of me?” And she ran out the door. I was able to go out and calm her and bring her back. I said to them what I will share with you: “I love you but …” is usually just a sneaky way to throw in a cheap shot. I was able to get her to walk through it together, but absent my opportune intervention, serious damage to their marriage would have occurred. You can improve your communication dramatically by avoiding the use of the word “but.”

3. They do not judge nor criticize.

It is interesting to me to listen to how people justify criticism and judgment. They will proclaim things like, I’m just trying to help, or I’m just trying to teach you something. Let me share with you a little life secret. Judgment and criticism do not help, and often cause damage to relationships. If you really want to help someone, you will find a way to deliver your wisdom in a manner that contains no judgment or criticism. People with extraordinary relationships avoid this at all costs. I hope you will create that pattern also! 

4. They do not begin a conversation when they are angry.

Part of the emotional mastery that I teach my Life Coaching students is that if you are in an angry place, take a break and return when your anger is managed. Notice I did not say until you are “not angry.” Just don’t speak until the anger is under control. The healthy and mature thing to do is just step away. You then have at least a chance of speaking from a place of understanding, not from a reactionary place. Wait until you know that you have a solution in mind. This automatically takes your primary focus away from the other person’s wrong or mistake. Now you are ready to begin the conversation.

5. They don’t think their thoughts or interpretations are always right. 

One of the things I say often and repeatedly in my office is, “You may need to decide whether it’s more important to be right, or more important to have a relationship.” When we are willing to sacrifice a relationship in order to be right, the relationship will likely be unsafe for the other person or perhaps both of you. We all enjoy being right. But when that imperative becomes so important that we are willing to sacrifice relationships for it, we must stop and take stock of our priorities. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.

6. They do not control with silence.

We all have moments when we need to step away. We all experience funks at times. But when your silence goes longer than an hour or so, you may not realize it, but you are using your silence to control the situation or the person. Long, extended silences damage relationships.

7. They do not use shame or guilt to get others to do what they want or see things their way.  

Most of us are so versed in using guilt and shame that we are unaware when we are doing it. I see it every day in my office: parents using it to get kids to spend time with them; marital partners using it as a tool to accomplish their agenda. In one case I have worked with a family where I see two of the adolescent children individually. As is the normal course of adolescence, these children began to develop lives of their own. This development can be difficult for parents. The result is too often shame and guilt: “Don’t you love dad and want to spend time with him?” Couples use it: “If that’s how you feel about that… then I’m out of here…” They often have second thoughts, but the damage is often already done.

Now … I know that if you are reading this, you are likely not the one who uses these damaging behaviors. But I bet you know someone who does. Perhaps you could share this article with them.

On the flip side, here are the seven things that successful couples regularly do:

1.They listen thoughtfully and attempt to walk a mile in the other’s shoes.

In my blog on listening from last week, I spoke about the art and heart of listening. Walking a mile in the other’s shoes is an excellent way to frame the basic principles of what that article said. When we really want to know what our partners have to say, how they feel about it, what got them to their conclusions, and what they are wanting from us, we are truly walking in another’s shoes. I recently attended a beautiful wedding. It was a middle-aged couple who had been dating almost two decades. They wrote their own vows to one another, and in her vows, the bride spoke of a conversation that they once had. She was sharing her heart and some frustrations about various things in her life. Apparently in that conversation, he listened carefully, explored what she was thinking and feeling, and what led her to the place she was in. She said that it was only because he had listened so carefully to her that she was able to hear some feedback that he gave her. Not in a sarcastic way, but in a caring way, he had told her that it must suck to be her in that situation. She admitted that he had been exactly right, and because of some of the feedback he gave her after hearing and understanding her, she started making some changes in her life. In her vows, she was thanking him for always being there with her and for her. She said, “Because of you, and the great things we’ve shared and the changes you helped me make, my life does not suck anymore.” She was saying thank you for walking a mile in her shoes.

What about you? When someone is sharing their hearts with you, do you try to grasp it and understand, or are you rehearsing a criticism, correction, or your advice. Try hard to walk a mile in their shoes instead. It matters.

2. They are always open to hear about the negative impact of their behavior on others and to make appropriate changes when they learn about their impact.

Now that’s a mouthful, but it’s also so very precious! When you care about someone, not only do you welcome feedback about the impact that you are having, but you are also willing to ask, listen, and make changes. I had a beautiful moment in my office with a couple this week. She was sharing with him how his harsh approach with their children was difficult for her. He listened carefully, and although he had not considered his approach harsh, his response was, “It really doesn’t matter whether it was harsh or not. What matters is that it’s disturbing to you, and I will change that immediately.” She was quite tearful and thankful, because what she had feared would turn into an argument, was instead a great gift of love.

What about you? Are you mature enough to hear about your impact on others? And make appropriate changes? It is a great way to solidify and ensure the future of your relationships!

3. They reflect, validate, and empathize before jumping to their thoughts and opinions.

I covered this practical concept in my blog last week about the art and heart of listening (click here to read more). Research has long shown that healthy relationships contain these three skills: To reflect back in a short sentence what you have heard; to validate by using a sentence such as, “it makes sense to me that…”; and to empathize by saying something such as, “after listening to you, I think you must feel ….” You should make a guess if you are not sure. It’s OK if you were wrong. But the message you send is that I hear you, I understand you, and I care about how you feel.

). Research has long shown that healthy relationships contain these three skills: To reflect back in a short sentence what you have heard; to validate by using a sentence such as, “it makes sense to me that…”; and to empathize by saying something such as, “after listening to you, I think you must feel ….” You should make a guess if you are not sure. It’s OK if you were wrong. But the message you send is that I hear you, I understand you, and I care about how you feel.

4. They ask for short breaks when they find themselves losing their emotional mastery.

In extraordinary relationships, people do not use their emotions to lash out, or take control. When they feel themselves losing their balance, they simply asked for a quick break. They use the break time to practice some gratitude and regain their emotional balance. And then say resume the conversation. (And as I said above, not after a five-day funk!)

5. They ask questions about the interests, thoughts, and feelings of others and listen appropriately. 

Research indicates that when we are involved in conflicted discussions, we all tend to be too busy formulating our responses and opinions. We rarely ask questions. Asking questions shows true interest, and great concern. If your response is truly important, it will still be available to you after you have asked some questions and shown true concern.

6. They show up for conversations and interactions with the goal of finding solutions.

When I am training my students to be extraordinary coaches, they often ask me, “How can you recognize, in a difficult situation, when people are emotionally prepared to have a healthy conversation?” My response is that you must ask further questions about their state of mind.  Observe their body language; their facial expressions.  Most of the time, close observations coupled with a few questions will sort out their state of mind.  Then suggest that they focus on resolutions of the matter; focus on a win/win. If they appear to still be focused on the wrongs of the other, or on winning, they are not ready! Changing the focus to solutions and reconnection sets the stage for healthy conversation.

7. Their desire to enrich the relationship is greater than their desire to be right.

This is a foundational attitude that determines the longevity, health, and fulfillment of any relationship. I suggest to my couples that beyond their morning gratitude and proclamations, their very next focus should be on how they might enrich their important relationships that day. I have a success card in my calendar that includes enriching important relationships daily. It could be a meaningful prayer, a small act of kindness, or a deposit of love. Enriching your relationships daily keeps your focus on positives rather than rehearsing the imperfections of others.

How we communicate, which is far more than words, should be a key focus as we attempt to turn good relationships into extraordinary relationships. Even if some of your relationships are in trouble, emulating the habits of successful people is a great way to turn trouble into success.

I know you want success in your relationships, so practice what you have learned here. Practice the teachings of the successful. Practice them at home, at work, practice them everywhere. Share this information with those important to you as well. 

Your life will become richer!