01.09.2012 Relationships

Good Communication

Being a better listener is a great start to better relationships, says Dr Charmaine Saunders

Communication is a two-way street and the listener is just as active a participant as the speaker. We often forget this and come to believe that as long we are talking, we are getting our point across, and the listener automatically understands us. Nothing could be further from the truth. Poor communication is the single most common factor in relationship breakdown, and learning to communicate effectively, not just talk, is a vital skill in getting along with others - people we live with, work with, are related to, are friends with, or meet on the street.

Further complicating the process is that, in the moment it takes for an utterance to leave a speaker's mouth and enter the listener's hearing, it is already translated into the listener's code, and that is why so much misunderstanding occurs between people. For example, you might ask a simple question which can be heard as an attack, you could pay a genuine compliment and be accused of being flattering, make an innocent comment and have it totally changed to something sinister in the mind of the listener. All this happens in seconds and is mostly unintentional. The best illustration of this process is the child's game of Chinese Whispers, where a chain of people repeat the same phrase or word over and over but the last person often finishes up with a message that is completely different to the original word or phrase. This is often a fault of listening rather than speaking.

So, how do we help the people we love to listen better, and by doing that, improve our chances of being heard and understood?

Some general tips for better communication:

  • be a better listener yourself and always speak clearly and concisely
  • make sure you have someone's attention before you start
  • establish eye contact
  • ask for confirmation that you've been heard
  • approach every exchange in the same way; not one way for requests, one for criticism and one for general news
  • minimise the chatter when you have nothing special to say, as people tend to tune out if you talk incessantly
  • don't be too subtle as hidden, or double, meanings can easily get lost
  • always communicate with love, even if you're angry, as verbal attacks simply put people on their guard or cause them to reciprocate with similar unhelpful emotion

There are some basic requirements for effective communication that will help you achieve the desirable and important aim of being heard.

The most important requirements for effective communication are:

Self esteem: Without a strong sense of self worth, it will be difficult to find your own voice, let alone ensure people listen to it. Know that you have a right to speak up, that what you have to say is valid, and then speak without fear.

Empowerment: If you wait until someone asks for your opinion or allows you time to be listened to, it might never happen, so hold your own power and ask for these things and feel confident to offer your views.

Boundaries: Have clear and firm limits that you are sure of and have outlined to others. Saying no is difficult but vital at times; not taking on issues and problems that belong to someone else; letting your family know you have individual needs that also merit priority.

Assertiveness: The rules of this most crucial life skill are simple: speak softly but firmly; say it once; walk away after speaking or change the subject - don't stop to argue. Yelling is an ineffective way of trying to get your point across, and it's not good to be passive either (nor is it useful to give in all the time). Assertiveness is the balance between the polarities of aggression and passivity. Let's look at a specific example where you are trying to get your partner to go out on a date with you. Nagging and shouting won't work because they feel justified to disobey when requests are presented negatively and sound like harsh criticism. An assertive approach might be something like, 'To enable our relationship to grow, time together is important and I'd like to go out with you on Friday', without further additions or embellishments. If they sense it is important to you, because of your assertive manner, they might be more likely to oblige. Conversely, with someone close to you who's trying to get you to do something you really don't wish to do, a gentle but firm no with a brief explanation is the way to go.

Complaint, request and news
In relationships there are three types of communication that are commonly used, to varying degrees of success: complaint, request and news.

Complaint: This form of communication needs to be avoided as the listener can easily turn off from their partner, as they experience the complaint as criticism or contempt, all of which do nothing to build an interpersonal relationship.
Request: If you want to go to a certain place for a holiday or make a household purchase, state your case and offer your reasons and helpful information. Some people like to keep conversations simple and if they're given the facts clearly, they're more likely to consider your request seriously. Remember you are an equal partner in your marriage and therefore have a 50% vote in all decisions.
News: Do not to go on endlessly about a topic you know will bore your partner, for example, your boss's wife wore a new outfit to the office or a new recipe you've found. A good rule is not to tell news but to share news - ask about your partner's interests and their day, as well as talking about what you want to. Discussing daily events and news is an important way to learn about your partner's life, struggles and feelings.

As a general rule, don't repeat yourself, negotiate arrangements to the minutest detail or allow people to ignore you. After a request ask, 'Do you know what I want?' After a criticism ask, 'Do you understand my point of view?' Sometimes, it's also necessary to double check with, 'What did you get from what I said?' In this way, they realise you won't let things slide. Your time and energy are precious and you don't want to waste them on useless speech - make every word count.

Conflict resolution
Instead of waiting for anger to erupt, possibly leading to a fight, try to discuss disagreements and differences without emotion. You and your partner should each bring your separate issues to the table, listen carefully to each other and then be prepared to brainstorm solutions. Compromise, of course, is essential. Once a strategy has been agreed, it needs a trial period, after which it can be reassessed. This may sound tedious but it prevents a build-up of resentment over time.

Prolonged discussions in anger are to be avoided at all costs. When emotions accelerate, one or both people should call time out. I'm often asked this question, 'Should I walk out if I can see the fight is building into a nasty exchange?' My answer is yes but not as a copping out. Storming out is not the answer. Calling a time out is, with the promise to re-address the contentious issues the next day when emotions have died down. A spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness is also essential as holding on to ill feelings, grudges and bad moods prolongs the quarrel and creates further resentment.

Here again are the main ingredients needed for positive relationship communication:

good listening and expressing


self worth

generosity of spirit/forgiveness

stress management

mutual respect

resolving old baggage

sense of humour

acceptance and tolerance


conflict resolution

Be positive in your approach, expect to be heard, and you will be.

Ultimately, good communication is a matter of respect, honesty, caring, and mutual effort - the cornerstones of a good relationship.

Dr Charmaine Saunders

Dr Charmaine Saunders was a much loved relationships counsellor and speaker who wrote for NOVA for many years. She died in July 2013.