How to communicate better and build healthier relationships
How to communicate better and build healthier relationships
There is no denying we humans are pack animals seeking connection to fulfil our primary need to feel safe. In an ideal world, our needs would get met with the help of effective communication. However not all of us are accomplished communicators which often results in unhealthy and unhappy partnerships. Successful communication exchange is about receiving information that makes us feel safe.
The brain’s primary goal is to keep us safe. Our cerebrum is like a meerkat colony watching for predators. We are constantly on the lookout for things that might harm us.
Our mind rehearses challenges we have experienced in the past, alerting us to a potential danger. Luckily, most of the time, we no longer face a direct physical threat (sadly, this is not the case in every part of the world) where we would have to protect our family and ourselves from a hostile clan. Yet still we experience danger in more subtle forms, in everyday communication.
We can group the way our brain reacts to danger into the following categories (aka 4F responses):
Each of us reacts differently to danger, and it is needless to say 4F’s are ‘normal’ responses and part of us being human. The problem lies in the way we communicate. In our inability to:
Stay present - It is difficult to stay present when we feel angry, hurt or ashamed. These uncomfortable feelings sometimes have more to do with our past than the present. Residues from the past somehow find their way through the current communication. The key is to stay in NOW.
We can achieve that by focusing on the breathing, bodily sensations (for many people it is uncomfortable to ‘inhabit their bodies’), our surroundings. We can try to feel our feet on the ground, put hands on parts of our body, connect with what we experience through our senses in the present moment. This leads to our inner chatter stopping for a moment. We then can listen to what the counterpart has to say.
Reactivity and heightened emotions spread quickly between two people or in a group. It is especially apparent in fight responses to danger; when we feel endangered (emotionally hurt), our voice picks up more intensity, pace is faster which is decoded by the partner as a threat.
Our body posture changes too - quick intense gestures, eyes charged with emotions, mouth barking hasty words…We find ourselves a situation that is highly contagious. The intense emotions we are experiencing spread quickly on to the other person. Their response may be 'fighting' too, or they can rather fly - angrily slam the door and run - away. They may come back in a couple of hours or days, even. Then there are the freeze and fawn reactions that bring a whole different complexity.
There are several reasons why we stay in a reactive mode:
· It is the only way we know how to communicate (habit)
· We are stuck in the victimhood (blaming others) feeling powerless deep down
· We feel like being attacked. Our instinctual reactions are cemented in the way our brain is wired
To create safety and trust in communication, we should:
Move away from the reactive mode of communicating – as mentioned above, the 4F’s reactions are part of our human design. It keeps us protected however we should to move away from that if we wish to bring a deeper connection into our rapports. Instead of reacting quickly and defending our position (and coming from the place of being attacked) let us pause for a moment to give ourselves time to reflect on what is happening inside.
Once we understand our emotional and bodily reactions, we can perhaps try to share the information with our partner. Being initiative in giving the trust to the partner can lead to partner’s increased sense of safety (this applies to ‘healthy’ relationships. Obviously, there are partnerships when showing your vulnerability will be punished as part of a toxic power dynamics).
As part of our survival, we focus on the other person’s reaction to prevent any attack from them. Sometimes we resort to destructive and ineffective ways of communication when we feel threatened, such as
· Blaming, criticising, complaining, nagging, punishing, threatening, bribing (manipulating)
This only increases emotional distance in the relationship. It is futile to be focusing on the other person because we do not have control over other people’s actions and reactions, desired outcomes are uncertain. Instead, we should:
Focus on ourselves and take response-ability. Focus on myself stems from the assumption that I can only change myself. We cannot change someone else’s experience. But we can learn how to listen to what they are going through in order to understand them better:
Listening is a skill. Have you noticed that when someone else’s speaks, you often think what you will say in response rather than listening to what they are saying?
Often, we are not really listening. When we speak, the other person already thinks about what they will say to us. Let’s change it and model what we want to create by playing the part of the listener first…That is a great example of the above mentioned response-ability.
You speak – I am listening. I am present.
I speak – you are listening. You are present.
In order to become a good listener, we need a good eye contact, an attentive body language (reflecting posture), giving people the space to tell it their way and reflect what they are saying to validate their experience without trying to minimise or change it. Even if we don’t agree with someone else’s opinion, we still can respect and honour it.
Assuming is another example of a bad communication habit. Bringing the experience of the past into the present time is what is going on when we are assuming. We jump to conclusions without asking questions. It is always useful to check with your partner what is going on with them without assuming.
Being reactive is part of being human. The important thing is being responsible for our reactivity, take responsibility when we hurt – offer an apology, share about feeling of upset, and when nothing seems to help, remember that you can take time for a break and come back to talk about it later, once you feel safer.
Photo credit goes to Hugo Jehanne on Unsplash