It is easy for couples to lose track of healthy communication. On a fundamental level, human beings need to feel understood. This is the foundation upon which almost all relationships – be they personal or professional – must be built. Achieving healthy communication can be as easy as throwing and catching a ball. These three steps involve taking turns initiating careful communication and actively listening, methods shown in studies to maximize feeling understood.
Our emotions are like rubber balls bouncing around inside us. They cause us continual inner turmoil that continues to escalate as the balls continue to bounce back and forth. Similarly, it is difficult to feel settled when we do not feel understood. When we articulate how we are feeling, it is like throwing a ball to our listener. If we feel that our listener has understood us, it is as though he has “caught” the ball and it is no longer bouncing back and forth. It is in our best interests to help our listener catch the ball (understand how we are feeling), which will provide us with a sense of relief.
In a ball game, you need a good catcher. But if the pitcher’s aim is way off, it doesn’t matter how good the catcher is. Similarly, in a relationship, being an effective speaker is just as essential as being a good listener; we can’t expect our partners to understand us if we are not expressing ourselves effectively. We can help our listeners to “catch the ball” through effective communication – throwing it directly to them, rather than way out in left field.
Over the years, in working with dozens of couples, I have had consistently positive results breaking communication skills down into three simple steps: 1) expressing “feeling statements,” 2) conveying empathy, and 3) taking turns toward resolution. This three-step method has been foolproof in streamlining communication for the better and restoring emotional connection in couples. As in a game of catch, this simple model involves taking turns speaking and actively listening.
Step 1: Expressing Feeling Statements
One person begins in the role of the speaker (pitcher), while the other person takes the part of activelistener (catcher). The speaker’s primary goal is to throw the ball directly to the catcher – to express himself using “feeling language.” The listener’s goal is to listen without interrupting, putting herself in the speaker’s shoes in order to best “catch the ball,” or understand the feelings that are being conveyed. Fulfilling these roles can be more difficult than it sounds – especially for those of us who do not feel comfortable discussing our emotions.
It is sometimes helpful to break Step One down further into two steps: 1) identifying your feelings and 2) expressing them. If you cannot identify what you are feeling, begin by labeling it as simply “discomfort.” Once you recognize that you are uncomfortable, ask yourself what is prompting the discomfort. A situation or a recounted conversation may help clarify the feelings you are having. Ask yourself, “how am I uncomfortable?” and then “what is causing me to feel this way?”
Your “feeling statement” should begin with the words “I feel” followed by a feeling (sad, worried, happy, frustrated, encouraged, etc) and an optional request. The formula is “When X [event] happens, it makes me feel Y [one or more feelings].” You may also add “I would like it if Z [optional request].” For example: “I feel worried about getting everything done today and I feel scared that I can’t get it all done without your help. I would feel more comfortable if I knew in what ways I could lean on you today.” This formula is better than asking your partner, “You’re cooking dinner tonight, right?” or telling him “Don’t forget you’re on for dinner tonight” because it invites your listener to empathize with you and respond with understanding.
Be careful to follow the feeling prompt with an actual feeling and not with the words “like,” “that,” or “as though.” These words turn the statement of a feeling into a thought, and invite a listener to interject his own thoughts rather than to empathize with how you’re feeling.
The strategy is simple – and it is foolproof – but it is far from easy. When you take the energy and the time to put anything you need to say in terms of your feelings, you are giving your listener the opportunity to respond with understanding and empathy.
Step 2: Conveying Empathy
While you are expressing yourself, your partner must actively listen without interrupting, focusing on your experience as much as possible. Once you have put your experience into feeling terms, your partner then has the chance to let you know they understand. This is usually broken down into two parts: 1) they report what they heard you say, and 2) convey how they understand your feelings. The goal for the listener is to put themselves in the speaker’s shoes, imagine what their experience feels like, and put into words that understanding. That is empathy.
Empathy is a natural, inborn response to the expression of emotion that anthropologists believe was fundamental for the propagation of the species. Attending to the primitive needs of our dependent offspring, who, without verbal language skills for much of their formative years, convey their needs through emotional and nonverbal expression, requires the ability to infer another’s experience and needs. If we couldn’t do this, we would neither understand what our babies needed nor be able to provide it for them.
Beyond the obvious implications for infant care taking, empathy is a powerful tool in forging connections across the lifespan. Empathy allows us to let another know that we understand them, and can relate to their experience. When empathy is conveyed effectively, a speaker knows they have been heard and understood, and can relax.
Expressing empathy allows the speaker to feel heard, and understood. The listener has “caught the message” and the speaker can now pause, switching roles to listener.
Step 3: Switching Roles Toward Compromise
Once the listener has expressed empathy effectively (the speaker feels understood), roles switch, and the listener becomes the speaker expressing what they want to say in feeling terms. The your partner has acknowledged what you have communicated and conveyed empathy, and it is now your turn to listen while your partner takes their turn at conveying their experience.
Turn-taking continues until you both of you feel heard and have worked through the situation to some conclusion. As you move back and forth between speaking and listening, it is natural to nudge the conversation toward compromise and resolution, especially as you both start to understand both sides of a situation more clearly.
While these steps are simple, they aren’t always easy. Listen and express empathy before saying how you feel requires focus, just as saying how you feel rather than how you think about a situation does. Stick with it, and be patient. Like with tossing and catching a ball, these simple communication skills become easier with practice.
Focusing on feelings, and making sure you are understanding each other clearly, allows you to work together toward mutual understanding. This is how to forge compromise, while also preserving connection. Painful feelings don’t have to be divisive; if mutually understood, they can strengthens your bond and sow the seeds of needed growth.