Improving Relationship Communication

Small Relationship Changes That Get Big Results

John Gottman studied relationships over many years noticing the small things we do in our interactions.  By observing small gestures in their conversation he could tell with better than 80% accuracy whether couples would still be married in 6 years. (

I say that these behaviors “seemed small” because at the beginning of his research they were not deemed significant. However, these small communication dynamics of how people bid for attention and responded to each other, when compounded over years, added up to make or break the relationship.

Here is an example with person A and B so that you can perhaps see your behaviors on either side of the conversation.

When partner A is talking does partner B follow up with a question to gain a deeper understanding?  Or, does B assume to have all of the information from their statement about what is going on and reply without asking questions for clarification. Does the response acknowledge or validate person A’s experience, or do they contradict it? For example, if you are having a difficult time communicating with your partner how do you phrase the issue? Do you say something like? “You don’t listen to me.” Or, do you phrase it closer to: “I don’t feel I am being understood.”

The first, with the phrase, “You don’t…. “ is going to be heard as an accusation or criticism. You might be stating a fact, but when your message is packaged as a statement about their behavior failing you, yourr partner will likely hear it as a criticism. They are then likely move to a defensive posture in the conversation. Their response will be more defensive, a criticism back, or change the subject as it has become emotionally uncomfortable. Your response to their criticism or withdrawing will likely amplify emotions to another level. In any of these scenarios, what you wanted, which is to be understood and get a closer emotional connection, didn’t happen.

You have a better chance at a constructive conversation by phrasing it as, “I am trying to express myself here and I don’t feel that I am being understood.”  Someone might point out that they essentially mean the same thing. If person A is not listening it is equivalent to saying that person B is not being understood. Except that our minds don’t process these as equivalents.

To be a better communicator we need to be aware of how our phrasing is going to be heard, or misinterpreted. To be a better listener we have to be aware of our own responses of attack, defend, withdraw, criticisms, and rebuttals and have enough personal power and mindfulness to put them aside.  That takes some work putting our false beliefs, and emotional reactions under scrutiny and dismantling them. Once you do that, you can then move to the next step of a connecting response.

What would make a healthy response?  How about, “I heard you say that I don’t listen to you. Can you give me an example?” This question opens your awareness to something specific so you can reflect on what interfered with listening and understanding. Another response might be, “I heard you say that I don’t listen to you.  When that happens how do you feel inside?”  This response first affirms that you heard them.  Asking for a level of deeper is an effective way to connect. With these exploratory questions you also have a chance to the core belief of the problem provided it is done respectfully.

A middle ground here is to rephrase what was said and say it back.  This is called active listening and sends the message that you are paying attention and trying to understand.  This isn’t always necessary.  If your husband asks if you want to go to the movies you don’t need to say, “What I hear you saying is that you want to go to the movies and that you would like me to go with you. Is that correct?” When it is straight forward conversation we don’t need to work that hard. It is during conversations about abstract problem issues like our emotions and behaviors that we need to employ a different kind of listening, what I call Listening for Understanding.

One of the backwards things that often happens in our communication is that instead of asking for what we want, we push our partner away from giving it.

What we probably want is a closer, stronger, connection with them.  The more honest thing to say is, “I want to feel closer to you and one of the ways that happens for me is when our conversation slows down and we really take the time to understand each other. Will you work with me so we do more of that?”

One of the things you notice is that this is really long. That’s not how we automatically communicate. We have learned to say things in a short hand style and most of the meaningful context is lost.  With our shorthand we expect the other person to get it, but that is unfair. They can’t know all the context and associations we have in our mind.

The mind processes the two statements differently. When Person A told their partner they weren’t listening the focus of that comment was on the partner and what they were doing wrong. Person B is now in a defensive mode and concerned about protecting their image from more criticism. The subject is no longer about what Person A is feeling and what would help. Person B’s mind is not likely to make the jump between these two things.

You have to make the changes within your self.

The hard part of all of this is that the changes to make are part of our belief system and unconscious responses.  If something is unconscious it means that you don’t notice it.  It is difficult to change things we don’t notice. That part where you stop responding in a defensive manner, withdraw, or criticize back happens so quick that it is done before our intellect knew we did it. It will take practice to catch those moments and change the habit. Part of the challenge is you first have to refrain from the automated defensive/withdraw/criticism response. The steps to this are:

  1. Taking the time to become aware that you do this.
  2. Taking responsibility for our expressions
  3. Identifying the emotions and beliefs behind this response
  4. Changing the emotions and beliefs behind the impulsive response.
  5. Developing the habit to speak in a connecting way

If you are trying to solve issues in your relationship you are likely looking for something big.  Because of this you will likely look at this process, or other suggestions and dismiss them with the justification that these changes are too small or will take too long. These changes don’t seem to be big enough to fit the size of the problem you have. Because of that unconscious criteria you will push away 100 small changes you can make, and should make.  The pattern to notice here is that if you are dismissing and not doing the little things that voice will also dismiss and not do the big things when they show up.

The reason the relationship probably got into problems is because you and your partner began doing lots of little things that weren’t helpful. You probably didn’t notice them at the time. Those little jab comments were funny in the beginning when you had plenty of other positive communications. But a couple years later, when you or your partner are stressed about work, finances, or children, they don’t feel funny anymore. Commenting to correct, instead of listening to understand, interrupting, not asking for what you want but expecting them to provide, all add to the negative emotional impact.  These are all small things, but when you do them 20 or more times a day they build substantial momentum of disconnection, frustration, and resentment.

If you want to make big changes get some skills and successes
at making a lot of small changes.

Start by getting it in your mind that a lot of little changes will add up and be worth the effort.  To really grasp this, go outside to a somewhat open area and make a note of where you are standing. Then begin walking in one direction counting out 100 steps.  When you get to 100 steps, stop. Turn around and look at where you started. Notice how far it is. Then ask yourself, “Could I have gotten that far in one jump?”

You can find specific exercises to address these small changes in beliefs, emotions,  behaviors, and communication in the Self Mastery Course and the Relationship Course.