“Our communication went to hell in a handbasket a long time ago. But now somehow hell took a dive and it’s somewhere buried underneath that!” the wife of my new couple began…
Her husband jumped in with disgust.
“Oh, my God! It’s not that bad! You always have a need to make things worse than they actually are!”
She was starting to chime back in when I put my hand forward like a stop sign.
“Press pause! I have a feeling if I let this continue, we would be off to the races with no winner in sight. And we’d never get to solving the real problem!”
We all laughed…A laugh was desperately needed.
You, too, may be in a relationship where your communication is below Ground Zero.
Not surprising there are so many who struggle with this since insensitive, rude, vulgar, and disrespectful communication is paraded in front of us daily on social media, talk radio, Netflix series, etc.
But that does not make it all right. By any means! But please ask yourself honestly … is ANY of your behavior being conditioned by what you watch or listen to? Time to get real!
Every day in my office, I talk to people about the concept of “thoughtful communication.”
Thoughtful communication is the hallmark of healthy relationships, whether it be in marriages, with colleagues, or with friends.
It’s not rocket science that the power to change any outcome is in our mouths! As the ancient proverb declares, “A soft answer turns away anger.”
So, you might ask, “What do you mean by thoughtful communication?”
Glad you asked.
I define thoughtful communication as any exchange where the communication (verbally and/or nonverbally) is respectful and has one common goal in mind: to effectively build the relationship, the persons involved, and accomplish something productive/positive.
Just as the term ‘thoughtful communication’ implies … you do this with thoughtfulness. It’s not reactive. It’s not negative. It requires thought and a pause before speaking.
(A note of wisdom from my AA friend in recovery on learning to pause before reacting…
- Does it have to be said?
- Does it need to be said right now?
- Does it need to be said by me?)
Research has shown great benefits to marriages and intimate relationships where thoughtful communication is practiced:
- Deeper intimacy
- Better quality of life
- Significant reduction of conflict
- Lower stress levels
- Less physical pain complaints
- Decreased anxiety
- Decreased depression
- Less physician visits
- Significantly less incidence of breakups or divorce
- And many, many more
I asked my new couple.
“If those were the only reasons to practice ‘thoughtful communication’ … wouldn’t that be enough?”
They both agreed wholeheartedly.
Most relationships do not begin with thoughtless communication. We’re all normally leaning toward thoughtful communication when we get to know someone. To win their heart. It’s after familiarity is routine that new patterns of thoughtless communication begin to take root.
Get honest. We/you/me used to work at winning their affection. We got lazy and let reaction guide our hearts instead of our desire to care to win them over. To capture their hearts instead of wound them.
I asked my new couple.
“How many years ago did the two of you start dating? And what was the communication like?”
She jumped in immediately: “Well, this is not either of our first marriage. We started dating about five years ago, and we’ve been married about three.”
He followed up: “Oh, our communication was great then. I did all the stuff. I brought flowers. Took her to dinner. It seemed like we could talk all night!”
She added with a big smile, “He really listened, and I hung onto every word he said!”
With a grin I asked, “So, I’m guessing you’re here to get back to that place?”
They both nodded. But doubt filled both their eyes.
You too may be doubtful that you can have that kind of ‘thoughtful communication’ again in your intimate relationships, with colleagues, with your family.
But I can assure you, if you’ll follow these 3 steps I’m sharing, your relationships cannot help but be more thoughtful!
You deserve that, as do your spouses, friends, and family.
Let’s jump in and learn about thoughtful communication and get it re-installed in your relationships!
1. First, some of the do’s and don’t’s for thoughtful relationships. And by the way, it’s not all about you!
After I provided them this the lists below, the husband commented, “Well, we do all the don’’ts and don’t do any of the do’s, so I guess we’re really in trouble!”
A few do;s for thoughtful communication:
- Do listen with your heart.
- Do monitor your facial expressions, tone, and words.
- Do show your interest.
- Do pay attention to data but pay more attention to feelings and body language.
- Do use TREKy talk.
- TREKy talk is:
- Telling the truth
- Respectfully, with
- Empathy and
Here are a few of the don’t’s for thoughtful communication:
- Don’t be distracted with your cell phone, the television, or the newspaper.
- Don’t interrupt.
- Don’t judge what you hear.
- Don’t be preparing your ammunition (your response).
- Don’t act out anger or speak about anger.
After the husband had told me they did them all wrong, she asked me. “How do we break the patterns that are now habits?”
“Great question!” I responded. “Let’s start with the next 30 minutes. Let’s just agree for the last 30 minutes in this session, we’re going to follow all of the guidelines for ‘thoughtful communication’. And I will have you press pause if we get off track. We will reboot and try again.”
I continued, “The very first thing that you have to do is to notice when you’re not following the guidelines of the do’s and don’t’s.”
The husband responded as he crossed his arms and flopped back in his chair like a pouty little boy and whined: “Well, I guess I just better shut my mouth for the next 30 minutes!”
In jest I said, “Oh, I forgot there’s one more rule! You cannot cross your arms and slump back in your chair and sound whiney!”
Another hearty laugh and we were off to a great start.
The truth is when you’ve developed habits that are not healthy or consistent with thoughtful communication, the very first thing to begin the “U-turn” is to make note of those habits.
At the end of the session, when I learned they shared dinner together most nights, I invited them to practice the do’s and the don’t’s from the time they sat down for dinner, until they had finished cleaning the kitchen together daily.
Set some time daily with your partner, friend, or family to practice abiding by the guidelines for thoughtful communication.
And even if your partner is not willing to do it, you do it. At first, they may act a bit annoyed, but if you continue doing it, it’s contagious!
And I promise that thoughtful communication on your part (along with patience and grace) will inspire that in the communication of others.
The wife said, “I think we can do that. But what about the… ‘it’s not all about you part’?”
Before I could respond, her husband had to put his humorous spin on things: “Does that mean I just have to shut up and listen all the time?”
I responded, “Absolutely not! However, it’s difficult to communicate with anyone who makes it all about them.”
He followed up with, “Well, how do I know if I’m doing that?”
I said with a smirk, knowing that I love these moments when the knight in shining armor has no shield, “Oh, I’m so glad you asked! And… I would be so honored to answer that!”
I could tell he could hear the drum roll.
He braced himself as he said with a ‘just dropped my sword’ stated look, “I bet you’re ready to hang me with this one!”
I allowed him to hang himself by noting if he had the symptoms.
Here are some of the prime symptoms that someone is making communication all about themselves:
- Not making eye contact.
- Making snap back comments (like “uh-huh, whatever!”).
- Sighing and eye rolling.
- Making immature comments like, “You do the same thing!” or “I never said that!”
- Defending yourself.
- Justifying yourself.
- Explaining yourself.
- Changing the topic.
- The need to be right.
It’s very lonely to be in a relationship when someone makes the communication all about themselves.
I know that’s not who you want to be. Follow the do’s, avoid the don’t’s … and let at least 50% (preferably 100%) of the conversation be about the other person.
You will be well on your way to “thoughtful communication !”
2. Relationship mastery and maturity. Emotional mastery and maturity.
“Oh, no! I might be in trouble on this one!” the wife commented.
“Actually, just as many men as women struggle with this one. But we struggle with it in different ways.”
I continued, “For example, in our culture, women are taught to be more indirect, and men are taught to be more direct. But on the same topic, women are taught to be more kind, and men are taught to be more aggressive. Of course, that’s a generality, and all of us need to learn emotional mastery and maturity and relationship mastery and maturity.”
The wife asked with a bit of trepidation and curiosity, “What’s the difference between ‘mastery’ and ‘maturity’ emotionally and in relationships?”
I responded, “Well, mastery has to do with learning how to be your very best emotionally and in relationships. Mastering whatever it takes. It requires learning and practicing new things. Once you ‘master’ it … you must be ‘mature’ enough to actually DO IT in real time!”
With a forlorn expression, she confessed, “I might need to go get a graduate degree in psychology and relationships!”
Here is what emotional mastery/maturity looks like with thoughtful communication:
- Accesses and feels emotions
- Resists stuffing or ignoring emotions
- Examines emotions (where they came from)
- Manages emotions in a mature way
- Deals with emotions appropriately
- Makes healthy decisions about how to, or whether to, express emotions
- Expresses emotions in a healthy way (speak about them, rather than act them out)
- Notes the impact of their emotions on others
- Maintains values of who they want to be, regardless of emotions
Here is what relationship mastery/maturity looks like with thoughtful communication:
- Practices emotional mastery
- Studies and practices excellent communication
- Listens with humility
- Provides a safe environment
- Is solution oriented (as opposed to who is right/wrong)
- Practices integrity, honesty, and strength of character in all communication
- Expresses gratitude often
- Demonstrates love in words, and in deeds
- Shows respect in all communications
- Knows the needs of their spouse/partner and meets them often
The husband asked with a timid smile, “So I’m supposed to master all those things? Do we have til hell freezes over?”
I immediately replied, “Yes, we do … and it’s getting cooler by the moment, so you’d better get in a hurry!”
He saluted me, but then turned tenderly to his wife.
“I know I’m weak on all of those. But I will make you this promise. I will read this list and pray over it daily, and I know I will get better. Much better!”
With tears, she responded, “I know most of this stuff, but I simply haven’t had to maturity to practice it when things get rough. I promise I will do better!”
What about you? No matter how much mastery you have, you can always do better. What can you/ will you do better in your emotional mastery and relationship mastery! I promise that life will get sweeter!
3. Reflect, validate, empathize.
All of the great masters in the relationship/marriage arena emphasize this process. It was first researched by Drs. John and Julie Gottman.
Then Drs. Helen and Harville Hendrix began a program called “Safe Conversations” using these principles.
Dr. Pat Love has trained therapists around the globe on these concepts and written dozens of books.
Because they’ve all influenced my life and my career, I am a strong believer in this process.
I began working through it with my couple. But before we began, he said, “I already know I have earned an ‘F’ on this one. My wife has told me multiple timesI wouldn’t know empathy if it bit me on the *ss!”
Although I had to chuckle, I responded, “It’s not nearly as hard as you think.”
We worked through these steps, and they both did an excellent job. It’s not easy. It doesn’t feel normal. But it transforms relationships.
So, as I told my client, “Get over yourself, and let’s get the transformation started!”
The first thing that you must do is to be focused 100% on what the person sharing is saying.
(A note…remember the best-selling book…7 Habits of Highly Successful People by Dr. Stephen Covey…one habit is…’Listening to understand rather than listening to be understood’. If you’re listening to be understood you’re not listening but you’re formulating your answer while the other person is talking…we CANNOT do both at the same time and be successful!)
Instead, as someone in my office said recently.
“For once in your selfish life, listen to me!”
You are seeking to understand. When someone says, “I just do not understand…” Ninety percent of the time, that means: “I’m not really listening, and am not devoted to understanding as much as I am devoted to being right or innocent.”
I help people who don’t understand to sincerely asked for clarification later, but not during the sharing.
If you listen carefully, you will be able to reflect. All these communication steps (reflecting, validating, and empathizing) have stem sentences that you must use.
Why? Because these stem sentences train your brain to listen, to hear, and to understand.
After the sharing partner has spoken a few minutes or a few paragraphs, and pause, you begin with:
“I THINK I’M HEARING YOU SAY…”
Then summarize succinctly what you believe you’ve heard with no interpretations, no opinions, just your straightforward reflection.
Then follow it up with the next stem sentence which is:
“DID I GET THAT RIGHT?”
If you got it right, they’ll nod or affirm. If you did not, they’ll clarify. Reflect the clarification and ask again:
“DID I GET THAT RIGHT?”
You may find in the beginning you have to do this a number of times until you get it right. That’s OK… It’s training you to be a better listener.
When they affirm that you got it right then you must ask:
“IS THERE MORE?”
Repeat that process until they say there is no more.
I encourage couples to do their best to limit their sharing to 10 to 15 minutes in the beginning. Because it becomes frustrating when one is trying to learn the process of reflecting if it goes on much longer.
This is not just repeating things word for word. It is letting your partner know you are listening and seeking to understand. That, in and of itself, is healing!
Once your partner affirms that there is no more, then you must validate.
Why is validation important?
On Oprah’s final episode of her powerful TV show, she highlighted the “why” for validation:
“I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common. They all wanted validation.”
Validation. What is it? It’s getting feedback from others that “what I do and what I say matters to you. You hear me. You see me. You think of me. You thank me. You acknowledge my accomplishments. You appreciate my efforts.”
After reflecting, here is the stem sentence you must use for validating.
“IT MAKES SENSE TO ME THAT…”
If you listened well, your partner probably helped connect some dots for you about what they’re thinking and feeling … And why they are thinking what they think and feeling what they feel.
Here’s why people get hung up on this step. They think if they validate, they are agreeing. Validating and agreeing are two different things.
With validation, you are not making any agreements to anything. And remember your opinions should be tucked away. Your thoughts should be tucked away. Your excuse making should be tucked away. You are listening to him/her. Not your thoughts.
Validating your partner is one of the top 10 things that I believe can bring quick and powerful healing to any relationship. And it costs you nothing, other than a little pride!
After validating your partner, rest assured that you have made some huge deposits of love and care into their account.
Now it’s time to empathize. My best definition of empathizing is walking a mile in their shoes. Not just to hear what you’re saying, but to feel the very beat and activity of their heart.
Interestingly enough, most of us use our brains for communication. And that’s certainly important. But to be a true healing partner and have rich relationships, you must learn to listen with your heart.
In the forming of the fetus, the heart is the first organ to begin to develop. It begins beating days after conception. It’s not until about the seventh week that the brain begins to develop.
I relay that story to couples to remind them: “heart first … brain second.”
When you listen with your heart, you will be more likely to be able to empathize.
The stem sentence for empathizing is:
“AFTER LISTENING, YOU MUST FEEL…”
Then do your very best to guess 2 to 3 feelings that they must be experiencing. Don’t elaborate! Just sincerely try to communicate feelings you think they could be experiencing.
“DID I GET THAT RIGHT?”
If there’s more that they want to add or gently correct, listen carefully, and start the process over. Reflect the feelings they shared with you and ask:
“DID I GET THAT RIGHT?”
If they begin to speak, listen carefully. If they nod positively, ask:
“IS THERE MORE?”
Continue to reflect their feelings until they say there is no more.
I then instruct the person who has been listening to embrace the other.
The intimacy and connection after this kind of sharing is profound.
Then take a break and trade places. The listener now becomes the sharing partner.
This will not kill you. But failure to do so could kill the intimacy and connection in your relationship.
Start practicing this for at least 5 minutes daily. Then when things get tough, it will be easy to flow into it.
This is thoughtful communication.
It heals relationships.
It lights up intimacy.
It makes you a better person.
The amazing person you were created to be.
Thoughtful communication requires learning, practice, and application.
But you can do it!
And it is so worth it!
As Tony Robbins says:
Thoughtful communication produces an abundant life.
Rich in sweet relationships.
Great in fulfillment.
Lush in influencing others to become their very best.
Be the first one in your marriage, your friendship circle, your neighborhood, your place of worship, your work to lead in thoughtful communication.
Your legacy will make an enormous difference!
As one of my favorite ancient teachings says: “Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”