Communication is an enormous topic to address, and there will be many more articles to come with more elaboration and tips for healthy communication in relationships. But consider this an introduction to the topic that will encourage you all to begin evaluating your own relationships — romantic or not — and identifying areas that need improvement.
Why is communication important? Well, simply put, science has been unable to support theories of telepathy, so for all practical purposes, we just cannot read each other's minds. Having said that, it's also important to point out that communication occurs verbally and non-verbally and it may actually be the non-verbal forms of communication that impact us most. Communication is defined by the dictionary (online Wikipedia resource) as the 'process by which information is conveyed from a sender to a receiver.' It is a 'process by which we attempt to assign and convey meaning in an attempt to create shared understanding.' This process, if it is to be done successfully, requires a skillset that includes an ability to listen, observe, speak, question, analyze, evaluate, and process inter- and intrapersonal information. Taking all of these factors into consideration, it is no wonder that we have such difficulty in communicating effectively. And this is not just limited to our romantic relationships because communication skills are necessary in all facets of life.
There are several things to keep in mind when you are about to launch into a conversation, especially an emotionally-charged one, with your loved one. Be specific about what you are trying to communicate. Avoid vague accusations or generalizations. This will usually only upset and confuse the listener, leading to defensiveness rather than openness. Communication of a specific point requires, of course, that you actually understand what it is that you are upset about yourself. If you need a few extra hours or days to think about it, discuss it with trusted friends or family members, then you should probably do that. It's really hard to communicate something that you aren't sure about yourself. Once you have figured out the issue and you want to communicate it, try to keep your points as simple and straightforward as possible, and try to communicate in as few words as possible that still get your point across. Being verbose and going on and on can lead to confusion and exacerbate things... it can negate the very effort of your trying to communicate something important. Once you have communicated with your partner (or other person), allow for feedback. This means that you should pause after each sentence, take a breath, and ask the recipient of your message if they are following you or if they understand the point you are making.
Additional things that will improve your chances of communicating effectively are being aware of your non-verbal communication, watching out for 'you' versus 'I' statements, and taking responsibility for your part in the problem. Non-verbal communication is often more powerful than what we are verbally saying. Non-verbal forms of communication include body language, tone, pitch, rhythm, and volume of speech, eye contact, and body proximity. Non-verbal communication may help or hinder our likelihood of communicating effectively, and is probably one of the most important factors to consider when learning how to communicate well with others. And of course, there are infinite benefits to learning how to communicate well with those around us, including better relationships at work, school, home, with family and friends, and a greater sense of empowerment and control in our ability to affect others.
Another common mistake, which can almost immediately shut down the message recipient (emotionally), create defensiveness, and prematurely end a discussion, is the use of you versus I in conversations. When we are upset or angry, we tend to begin our opening line with 'you' and say things that start with: You always..., You are always..., You don't... These discussion openers just don't work. The discussion is usually over before it even began when these statements are spoken. By contrast, when we begin a conversation by taking responsibility for our feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, and we start by saying 'I' it can make a huge difference. If you're really conscious and try really hard, you may even be able to communicate a point without ever using the word 'you.' You can say things like, 'Whenever x happens, it makes me feel like y.' And it also helps when instead of accusing the other person of hurting us or doing something negative, we invite them into our dilemma and recruit their help in solving the problem or helping to prevent it from happening again in the future. Finally, acknowledging and appreciating (i.e., thanking them for) their voluntary involvement in your problem or issue is likely to increase their willingness to listen, apologize (if relevant), and change their behavior (if relevant) or take steps to make you happy.
In every conversation, you will likely play the role of speaking and listening. Learning good listening skills can make you a loved and appreciated friend, parent, lover, coworker, and boss. When you use good listening skills the person communicating with you is likely to feel appreciated, validated (i.e., acknowledged), and reassured. Often, simply listening to someone properly can diffuse an emotionally-charged conversation and make all the anger and upset melt away.
Being a good listener involves a number of factors. The first is being attentive and genuine. People can tell when we are not listening, and being inattentive is likely to have very negative effects on the speaker. If someone tries to communicate something with you and you seem uninterested or distracted, it may be the last time they try to communicate with you. They are likely to feel unloved or uncared for by you, which is probably worse than having a more combative discussion (in which the speaker at least knows that you are involved, paying attention, and care about them to some extent). Be aware of non-verbal communication just as you would while you are speaker. If you are looking away, crossing your arms, or making grimaces, the speaker is likely to not feel safe opening up to you. (S)he may feel that you are judging her/him, and nobody likes that feeling!
Truly listening involves your trying to stand in their shoes. If you care about this person, then act like it... if you're not sure, then at least pretending that you care by really trying to understand what the communicator is trying to tell you can be helpful. We often overlook this step of 'active' listening (that is, trying to glean out the meaning in the message) and just hear the words while trying to think up what our own rebuttal or response will be. Sound familiar? Yes, we are likely all guilty of doing this from time to time. It is NOT helpful. Other helpful tips include asking for clarification and reflecting back what you think you are hearing or how you understand the message that is being conveyed. If you don't understand, ask, and even if you think you do understand, summarizing and reflecting back what you are hearing makes the speaker feel validated and confirms that you are actually listening. Finally, practicing validation (i.e., acknowledging how the other person feels, making them feel like you understand that they are feeling this way and it is legitimate) and reassurance (i.e., making the person feel like you are committed to helping make the situation better or that you will do your best to not make the same mistake again) can make for a very happy ending to a heated conversation.