Opening the Door to Understanding

Good communication is an essential ingredient to any successful relationship for at least two reasons. First, it allows individuals to clearly express their thoughts, feelings, needs, or values. This deeper understanding helps foster greater intimacy or connection for the couple.

Second, good communication skills help couples work through the inevitable problems or conflicts that arise in intimate relationships. Good communication reduces misunderstandings, and can help prevent a disagreement from escalating into a major conflict.

Using the communication skills in this unit will help you and your partner work more effectively through the other topics discussed in this program.

Communication Skills for the Speaker

How we share what we are thinking or feeling may influence how receptive our partner is to what we are saying. Therefore, here are some tips on how to be more effective in communicating your message.

Be an expert on yourself, not your partner – Sometimes it is easy for individuals to become an expert on their partners by telling them what they should be thinking or feeling, analyzing their motives for their behavior, or giving them advice on what they should be doing. Partners are often not receptive to this. Instead, it is best if you remain an expert on yourself by sharing what you are personally feeling or thinking, or what is motivating your actions. These are things that your partner may be curious to know. Using the “I” statements described below will encourage you to be an expert on yourself rather than your partner.

Use “I” Statements – Communication experts recommend that individuals use “I” messages when tackling issues. The formula for making an “I” statements is: “I feel (state the emotion) because you (describe the trigger event or behavior). For example, a husband might tell his wife, “I feel mad because you did not call me to tell me you were going to be late.”

“I” statements are helpful because they encourage us take responsibility for how we feel. However, we are often tempted to blame others for making us feel a particular way. This is reflected in our speech when we say, “You made me mad…” Not surprisingly, our partner can become defensive when we approach them with blame. Therefore, it is important that we take responsibility for how we feel. Our feelings depend upon the meaning we attribute to our partner’s actions. Different people may give a different meaning to the same set of events, leading them to have a different reaction. One person might be mad his or her partner did not call, whereas another might be relieved when his or her partner arrives home safely.

Another reason “I” statements are helpful is that they encourage us to focus on our partner’s behavior, rather than attack their character. A partner will probably respond better to the statement, “I am upset because you left your dirty clothes on the bathroom floor this morning,” rather than “I am upset because you are such a slob.” Attributing negative motives to our partner’s behavior can also create defensiveness, such as stating, “I am mad because you are selfish.”

Share Your Deeper (Vulnerable) Emotions – In addition to using “I” statements, you may want to consider which emotions to share. Our emotional response to an event can be complicated. If we are upset with our partner, we are probably easily in touch with our anger. However, underneath the anger there may be other emotions. To illustrate this, let’s go back to the husband who was upset that his wife did not call when she was going to be late. His expressed emotion was anger that she did not call. If he looked beneath the anger, however, he might discover that his deeper emotion was fear or concern that his wife might be hurt. Or, he may have been hurt that his wife did not take the time to call him, which he perceived as a personal rejection.

Individuals often share their anger rather than the deeper emotions behind the anger. Unfortunately, people often respond to anger in negative ways, either by fighting anger with anger, or by withdrawing. However, the conversation will likely go better if we share the softer or more vulnerable emotions underneath our anger. By sharing these emotions (e.g., hurt, fear), our partner is more likely to want to comfort or reassure us.

Sharing these deeper emotions underneath the anger can be difficult. First, we may have difficulty getting in touch with these deeper emotions because they are masked by our anger. Second, sharing a deeper emotion such as hurt or fear may require us to be more vulnerable. However, those willing to take the risk of sharing their more vulnerable emotions are often surprised by the compassion their partner has for them. Our partners may also match our vulnerability with their own vulnerability, opening the door to a deeper and more intimate dialogue.

Communication Skills for the Listener

Listen to your partner. Although this seems obvious, in reality many individuals have difficulty listening, particularly in the midst of conflict. Rather than listening, individuals can become focused on defending themselves or planning their counter argument. Here are some tips on how to become a better listener.

Be Curious – Curiosity makes us a better listener. It moves us from being preoccupied about our own experience to focusing on what may be going on with our partner. Expressing curiosity as to why your partner thinks and feels a particular way is also a non-judgmental way to explore an issue. Being curious can lead to new information being shared, which leads to a deeper dialogue. Sometimes couples move too quickly into problem-solving before they fully understand each other’s perspective. Curiosity can help prevent this from happening.

Look for signs that the person does not feel understood – Individuals often give signs that they are not being properly understood. Sometimes the individual will state this openly, such as saying, “No, that is not what I am trying to say.” However, the individual may also give more subtle cues that the message is not being accurately received. For example, your partner might repeat all or parts of the message that he or she feels are not being fully understood. This is usually a sign that we need to modify our understanding of the message based on what the partner is repeating or amplifying.

Confirm understanding: Use active listening skills – One way to confirm that you are accurately understanding your partner’s message is to use active listening. When using active listening, you (the listener) will paraphrase or repeat back in your own words what your partner is trying to say. Your partner can then confirm whether or not you have accurately understood what he or she said. Using active listening can help reduce conflict by eliminating misunderstandings. It also helps keeps emotions in check because both individuals come away feeling heard.

Don’t confuse active listening with agreement – When a listener accurately reflects back a message, this does not mean the listener necessarily agrees with what the other person is saying. The goal of active listening is to simply confirm that the message has been accurately received. As the listener, you may have a very different perspective on the issue, but you are simply demonstrating that you understand your partner’s perspective.

Let your partner know you are listening – It is not only important to listen to your partner, but also to signal to them in some way you are listening. Many individuals feel that making eye contact is one way to convey that you are paying attention and listening. Using the active listening described above is another way to do this.

Look for the positive intent – Sometimes communication is challenging, particularly when individuals are upset with one another. If possible, look for the positive intent behind what your partner is saying. Perhaps you partner delivered the message in a negative manner, but the intent may still be positive. For example, a parent may criticize a child (e.g., Why aren’t you doing your homework!), but the intent is positive (e.g., wanting to see the child succeed in school).


  1. The intent of this exercise is to have you and your partner discuss a problem in the relationship while practicing the communication skills discussed in the unit. The problem that you and your partner discuss should be of moderate difficulty. On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being a very minor problem and 10 a very severe problem, you should choose a problem at around 5 for this exercise. As you become more practiced at using the skills, then you can apply them to more difficult problems. For this exercise, don’t try to solve the problem, but simply share with one another your thoughts and feelings around the problem. The goal is to deepen your understanding of one another’s perspective using the skills. You will have the opportunity to problem-solve in the next unit after some additional skills are introduced.
  2. For this exercise, you and your partner should negotiate how to take a time out when one or both of you are becoming flooded with negative emotions and conflict is escalating. What are possible signs that you or your partner may need a time out? What type of verbal or non-verbal signal will you use with each other to communicate that a time out is being requested? What will each person do during the time out to calm down? How long should the time out last? What are the rules for re-initiating a discussion of the issues?