With my vow of being real, authentic, and vulnerable, I want to first want to take a second and put a disclaimer on this post. It's deep and it's forced me to think about difficult situations that I've tried to work through in a myriad of ways. But I've been reminded recently and want to take this opportunity to discuss why in hopes that'll it inspire us to all reevaluate how well we are prepared to prevent or fix what is plaguing our relationships today.
It seems like more and more of my friends are struggling with their relationships and to be honest, I've struggled immensely with the loss of a few long term friendships myself. It's truly devastating. Whenever a relationship ends or there is a shift from the types of relationships you've experienced with a person, you cry and you're angry and you dwell on the good stuff and you cry and seriously have to literally grieve the loss. Which sounds so weird. The person might not be dead, they might still live in the next town, the person might have decided the friendship was toxic, or the person might want a divorce, but the relationship that was so meaningful is gone and that's a loss that no one can prepare you for. We don't talk about the loss of a relationship as an adult. They say that friends will come and friends will go, but they never teach you how to cope with the losses. No one ever tells you that even as we all grow in life, we can grow together or we grow apart. But I digress, the questions is how do we prevent our relationships from growing apart?? How do we manage to get through a change in the type of relationship that we cared about so deeply?
Quick personal story, Kevin and I were MADLY in love for the first ten years of our relationship and as the years on the job, (police officer life!) wore on him, it wore on our marriage, wore on the sparks, and wore on his ability to communicate. He shut down on so many levels. We didn’t have the physical time due to his constant (often times forced) overtime, his details, or long nights of paperwork. So I made sure any quantity of time we had was quality. And who wants to discuss the bills when you’re trying to make the most of your family time together? SO over the years our communication dwindled and then it happened. In December of 2017 Kevin spent 3 days on the couch. He spiraled emotionally and mentally to the point of hospitalization in January 2018. Our marriage immediately became last on the priority list. My greatest fears had come true.
How do you rebuild from that? Seeing the man you promised in sickness and in health sobbing curled up in a chair unable to promise not to hurt himself. How do you help pick up the pieces of a broken human and still hold onto some pieces of a marriage that had been so full of passion and excitement? The answer is, you can’t. You have to mourn the loss of what was and acknowledge the potential of what can be.
I am sitting in my dining room typing away, listening to the subtle breaths of my husband of 15 and ½ years as he’s reading a book on policing in the living room. How did we do it? How did we push through? How am I able to still look at him with love?
Alright alright already, so how do we do it?? How do we work on our communication skills? We were never taught how to communicate effectively. Schools never explicitly teach how to truly listen. Not just the words coming out of someone’s mouth, but also to their nonverbal cues, listen without judgement or without thinking about how to respond. I’ve found that to be the most difficult to learn. I am guilty of listening only to think of something that I can contribute to the conversation. Coaching has taught me to stop that practice and often times I’ve had to apologize because we’ve been trained to expect a reaction or a response immediately, and I take an extra second once the person has finished talking to then process what I’d like to say. It’s slightly eerie, but it’s so meaningful for them when I say, “I’m sorry, I was just listening to you and…” Usually by that time I’ve been able to consider a response.
So here it is, after a bit of research, some ways that you can improve your ability to communicate in relationships to hopefully prevent breakdowns.
1. I don’t intend to list them in any particular order, but I couldn’t be more emphatic when I say that LISTENING is the key to all great communication. We don’t listen to each other. We hear words and sometimes observe actions, but we don’t ground ourselves in the moment to listen to our core! We need to focus our attention solely on the moment we are spending with the other person. That means not thinking about the time, the appointment you have after, or the texts that you’re waiting for. That means forgetting about the environment, the kids, and the laundry. But facing each other, making eye contact, watching their lips move and feeling the movement from their body. Tuning into the other person with our whole being, making them feel like the two of you are the only people on the planet; that’s what saves relationships!
2. Pay attention to the nonverbal cues. For example when someone has their arms folded, they aren’t making eye contact, or even if they are saying something positive maybe their body language is telling a different story. Watch to see where they are looking, where are their hands, and which direction are their feet facing? Tuning in to these cues will help you understand how the other person is feeling and can help you connect to that person more deeply.
3. During conversations it’s imperative not to play the “one-up” game. It’s so easy to think of a story to retell that connects in some slight way, but yours is slightly better or worse or detailed, or happy or morbid. We all know people who do this! I’ve caught myself so many times about to tell a story and you want to say, “Oh, if you think that’s bad….” STOP immediately and instead try to use the story to help in a different way. I’m never going to know how it truly feels to be in someone else's shoes and I’d never make assumptions as to how to cope with what others have gone through. It’s simply about listening and sharing to feel connected to another human being.
4. Ask deep thought provoking questions. Don’t ask simple questions that may only illicit one word answers. Say things like, “Oh, that must have felt _____” and let the person discuss how the situation made them feel. Asking questions that you genuinely care to know the answers to and honestly, might not know how the person will respond to are the keys to creating meaningful conversations.
5. In order to leave a conversation feeling like you were totally understood and appreciated you must use diplomacy. There has to be give and take. And we’ve alllllll been there when at the end of a conversation we walk away thinking, “Wow, I don’t think I said ten words.” Give and take doesn’t only mean air time! It also means you don’t always have to be right!! (SHOCKING!! I know!) Seriously, do the details really matter. I am so guilty of jumping into a story Kevin is telling to correct him about the date or time or place. But in the end it makes him feel belittled and that’s a feeling we never want to be responsible for making someone else feel. It’s okay to make concessions and feel bigger and prouder of ourselves because that means the other person felt heard!
I know I said that these are not taught explicitly, I have a confession to make...I do teach them explicitly to my students. I use this Ted Talk by an amazing communicator, Celeste Headlee. Her talk is phenomenal and not only do I have my students watch it twice, I have them complete activities around each suggestion she gives!
SO now that I know I’m pushing my reading time, (I try to limit each blog to a 5-7 minute read) I want to leave you with this thought. Only YOU can change the way YOU are communicating. If you feel that there have been breakdowns in communication within your relationships, (who doesn't!), you need to consider these elements and maybe even talk about them with your partner, spouse, or friend. In order for us to prevent the loss of relationships, the changes within the relationships we have held so dearly, WE MUST COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY!
Please share with me any experiences or successes you've had when applying these basics to your conversations. Coaching is about unlocking the tools within ourselves to improve the world around us. Have a great week everyone and contact me if you're ready to start living your best life!