Communication seems to be the #1 thing that couples want to improve in their relationships, or the lack of communication is what they see as causing problems in their relationship. Often there are lots of words exchanged, but not the kind of communication that raises consciousness, inspires empathy, and creates connection. For productive communication, I encourage couples to trade in the ping-pong style of communicating that most of us are familiar with for a style of communication that actually MOVEs things forward. You can change the conversation simply by how you respond. The acronym MOVE can help jog your memory about the steps involved.
The first skill to master is how to be an effective Mirror. When we listen to our partners, it is important that we leave behind our opinions, assessment, and perceptions, and travel into the foreign world that is our partner’s experience. I was once told a story about an American woman who traveled to China, expecting that people would speak English, and frustrated that she could not find french fries – don’t be that traveler. When visiting a foreign country a good dose of curiosity will make for a more enjoyable experience (for you and the locals). Effective communication requires that you are getting what your partner is saying. Mirroring is as simple as listen and repeat, but it is so powerful. Sometimes it is important for your brain that you say the words your partner says, and sometimes it is important for your partner’s brain to hear the words that he or she just said. Even if your partner says “the sky is purple and gravity makes trees grow up”, all you need to say is “If I’m getting you, the sky is purple and gravity makes trees grow up. Did I get it?” A curious traveler will want to know how your partner came to those conclusions; be curious.
The next listening skill is keep doing it; listen and mirror, on and on and on until your partner has shared everything he or she can on that topic. For effective communication you want to take long turns (or extended trips into your partner’s world), taking things to a deeper level. In my office I remind couples that we don’t want to communicate like playing the card game “war” where we lay cards immediately after one another (practically at the same time), the game really does go on and on, and no one ever wins. At first people sometimes think that I am slowing down their communication, but in actuality this method is quicker because it is actually productive. Instead of playing “war”, I am reminded of playing “Phase 10” with my kiddo. “Phase 10” is a version of rummy where you have to lay down the entire phase at one time. On my turn, I may lay down the 8 cards needed for 2 runs of 4 and discard a ninth card, then on his turn, my kiddo may lay down his 8 cards for 2 runs of 4, lay a card on one of my runs, and discard his tenth card to win. Think long turns with as much information as possible. Remember to keep mirroring “on and on”. To do this, after your partner confirms that you got it, simply ask “Is there more?” (with curiosity of course!)
The third listening skill is Validation. Even if your partner believes the sky is purple and misunderstands gravity, using “on and on”, you likely were able to figure out how he or she came to those conclusions. If you are curious and willing to understand your partner’s perspective, you will be able to say “that makes sense”. Even if you do not agree, your partner really wants to hear that you understand their perspective. Beyond “that makes sense”, ideally you will be able to give your partner more detail such as ‘it makes sense that you feel scared and angry when I slam a door accidentally given the fact that your father slammed doors when he would leave and not come home for the night.’ The more you can connect to what your partner has shared with you, the more powerful your validation will be.
Finally a good listener will Empathize. Empathy connects us to our partner’s emotional experience, and building connection in a relationship is so important. I use two phrases to help couples communicate empathy, “I imagine when that happened you felt…” and “I imagine right now you are feeling…”. Allow them to clarify (in all steps of this process), and ask if there are any other emotions that you may have missed. One important hint is that emotions are just one word (i.e. angry, sad, disgusted, nervous, excited, etc.). When people say ‘I feel that…’ what they are really sharing is how they are trying to make sense of something. With emotions, keep it simple – it can be profoundly powerful that way.