The truth about “communication tools” and your relationship
Many client couples come to therapy in the hopes of achieving better communication (and thus more understanding and ease) in their relationship. This is a great motivation, and with the right kind of work much success can be achieved. But there’s a very basic and poorly understood fact about communication in relationships and the communication tools that are often prescribed:
We communicate precisely at the level of our personal development.
In fact, our quality of communication in any given moment is a direct reflection of who we are in that moment. What does this mean for the many communication tools, methods, models, and techniques that are promoted for helping relationships? Consider –
Communication tools only make a lasting impact on our relationship if using them changes us.
Put another way, it isn’t the tool itself that is valuable. It isn’t even how we use it (at least not in the long run). It’s who we must become in order to properly use any particular communication technique or method that makes the difference.
Again, a communication model or method doesn’t magically change our relationship. It only changes our relationship if it changes us inside, if it changes how we see ourselves and each other, if it nudges us along to the next rung of our personal development.
The value of a good communication tool or technique is not so much in the immediate impact it has on our partner (though that can be welcome), the bigger benefit is that to use any of the leading communication methods well and consistently requires us to “level up” in our personal growth.
Every popular communication method or tool that you learn in books, online, or in the therapist’s office – non-violent communication (NVC), reflective listening, active listening, empathetic speaking, love languages, “I”-statements, 24-hour rule, radical honesty, talking stick etc – have certain things in common; they help us –
- Identify boundaries and legitimize our own experience as distinct from our partner’s (and theirs from ours)
- Make clear requests of our partner
- Practice patient listening without reflexive or automatic responding
- Leave room in a conversation for multiple (and sometimes contradictory) perspectives
- Slow down and examine/identify our internal state or emotions
- Consider and validate our partner’s experience, desires, and opinions
- Confront our own avoidance, denial, and dishonesty
- Speak from the deepest, truest parts of ourselves
- Self-regulate and co-regulate with our partner
What do all these qualities point us toward? What is the common thread?
In a word… maturity.
Using communication tools skillfully and consistently shapes us into more capable and mature people
The communication techniques, skills, and tools that we seek have one real purpose: using them forces us to develop more maturity in ourselves and in our relationship. With this maturity comes increased capacity for dealing with the inevitable and necessary challenges that a relationship brings. When a communication tool or technique fails to make a significant lasting impact it’s not just because you’re not doing it right, it’s because you’re not ready to let it change you. We “forget” to use our tools in heated moments not because we are forgetful, but because we haven’t yet changed ourselves to reflect the purpose, philosophy, potential, or world-view embedded within the tool or method.
This isn’t to say that communication tools and techniques aren’t valuable. They are, but for different and deeper reasons than most people initially understand. After the tool or technique has been integrated and internalized, after it has changed and matured us, then in retrospect we can usually see how it has done its work upon us, but when we are initially searching for solutions to acute relationship difficulties this truth remains hidden.
I’m sharing this in the hope of setting you up for better success when you go looking for tricks or tips to solving communication problems in your relationship (which I think is a good and worthy pursuit). As you practice new communication techniques and methods, try to feel how they are changing your outlook, let them be something that changes you from the inside out.
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