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6 Rules for Better Communication With Loved Ones

Humans have evolved to be complex animals with equally complex relationships. But the results are unsurprising: when communication fails, so too do relationships. Poor communication  is the lading cause of divorce, and has contributed to the deaths of millions of friendships. When communication suffers, most people blame the other party, since it’s hard to accept that you’re imperfect. It takes two to communicate, and two to err in communication. So if you’re invested in improving your communication skills, it’s time to start with yourself.

Ask Yourself What You Want

Particularly during times of conflict, many of us become fixated on venting rather than communicating. Telling your mother all the ways she has failed you might feel good, but is unlikely to get you the result you want. Before you talk to another person about any issue, small or large, ask yourself what end result you hope for. Knowing your goal—an apology, better understanding of one another, or simple information—can help you construct a communication strategy that aids, rather than undermines, your attempts to achieve it.

Don’t Attribute Motives

Unless you’re inside of someone else’s head, you don’t know what they’re thinking. Don’t pretend you do. Attributing motives to another person– “You did this to hurt me;” “That’s because you’re lazy;” “If you really loved me you’d…”–tears down communication because it prohibits the other person from sharing their own thoughts. Don’t tell another person what he or she thinks. Ask them instead. And rather than telling a loved one why you think they did something, focus on how it made you feel. For instance, “When you forget to pick the kids up at school, it makes me feel like you don’t value my time, and like you don’t think about our family during the day.”

Check Your Tone

When you’re angry, scared, or frustrated, it’s easy to say things in a tone that sounds aggressive and accusatory. When the other person calls you on this, it’s equally easy to respond that your words weren’t hurtful. But if you really want to resolve conflict, you shouldn’t focus on “technically” following the rules. You should focus on communicating in a way that does not harm the other person. Monitor your tone throughout the discussion, and if it gets aggressive, apologize and alter the way you speak.

Focus on Empathizing, Not Winning

People embroiled in heated debates often lose sight of the obvious: they’re fighting because they love each other. Don’t become fixated on winning the dispute at all costs, because a temporary win is a long-term loss, especially if it hurts your loved one or destroys your relationship. When you feel tempted to say or do something mean to win, take a deep breath, then focus on understanding the other person’s perspective.

Don’t Be Defensive

No one is perfect. Not even you! A hallmark of a healthy relationship is the ability to accept and appropriately respond to criticism. If you find yourself deflecting or defending against each and every critique the other person offers, you’re doing things wrong. Criticism from someone who loves you offers you meaningful insight, as well as the chance to become a better friend, partner, or spouse. Listen carefully, and respond with love, not defensiveness.

Offer Love and Affection

Even in the midst of a fight, you should continue being loving. Doing so can remind you why you’re fighting for this relationship in the first place, and help you avoid angry outbursts. Before you say anything critical, say two things you love about the other person. Continue offering love and affection throughout the discussion, and never ignore the suffering of your loved one. If your conversation partner starts crying, it’s time to offer a hug and some reassurance. If you can’t manage to do this, it’s a sure sign you have a problem with anger and conflict management.