Learn how to improve your emotional communication, and watch your relationships flourish
Lost in translation, mixed messages, crossed wires – how many metaphors for ‘miscommunication’ does one language need? A lot, apparently, as it seems that not ‘being on the same page’ as the people around us is far from a unique experience. Add in tricky emotions, uncomfortable truths, and matters we’d prefer to sidestep, and communicating how you really feel becomes quite a daunting mission.
Even so, getting it right is of the utmost importance. In fact, a study published by BMC Public Health in 2020 found that poor family support and communication can significantly increase the probability of emotional and behavioural problems in adolescents, and one American study by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 67.5% of marriages that came to an end had some kind of communication problem.
With such high stakes, you’d think that we’d make mastering this skill our top priority – but, as is so often the case with these things, that’s a lot easier said than done.
“If the thought of sharing your feelings makes you want to run for the hills, then I can assure you you’re not alone,” counsellor Melanie Kirk says. “I work with many clients and couples where an inability to do this becomes a real block to effective, healthy communication.”
But why is it that we often find emotional exposure and vulnerability such a challenge? Melanie suggests three main reasons:
We fear the reaction we will get. Perhaps we have experienced someone responding negatively to us in the past when we have tried to be open about how we feel. Maybe it led to conflict, ridicule, misunderstanding, or disappointment.
We are not always clear, in our own mind, how we feel and what we need. Sometimes it can be a challenge to translate our thoughts and feelings into something tangible that can be communicated to someone else. It can be difficult to recognise, or name, what we are experiencing.
We may anticipate that our needs won’t be met or that we won’t be understood. Again, this could be based on experience, an internalised sense that we can’t be helped, or a belief that nothing would change.
Melanie’s three good habits for maintaining healthy communication:
1. Set aside time to regularly review and check-in
Ask, how do I feel, what do I need, what's going well, and what am I finding a challenge?
2. Don't allow things to build up
Getting into the habit of regularly discussing your feelings can make it easier to find a solution. Dealing with emotion when it is a 'two' or a 'three' is more manageable than when it builds up to an 'eight or a 'nine'.
3. Notice things that trigger you
Look for patterns and themes to give clues as to what may be generating or maintaining a particular emotion for you. It's likely that your values or boundaries are being crossed in the same way.
Family relationships can be hard to navigate, and often bring out a lot of difficult emotions. But they’re not the only confrontations that we may need to face. Work colleagues, friends, or service providers – there are many scenarios where we need to open up about our emotions. Melanie’s first tip for doing so successfully? Reframe it.
“Vulnerability and connection are intrinsically linked. We often don’t realise that we prevent ourselves from getting what we want because we avoid taking the emotional risk,” she explains. “We need to recognise the ways in which we maintain the unhelpful cycles that play out around us. Once we take responsibility for our part, we realise that the power to make a change is within our hands.
“There is no doubt that a hard conversation may feel daunting, but reframing the connotations around this can help us to feel more relaxed and better prepared. Sharing the reality of what you think and feel can open a door to understanding, connectedness, and closeness. It’s OK if someone doesn’t agree with you, or view your experiences in the same way, it doesn’t make it any less true. The aim should never be to convince someone to view an experience through your lens, or for you to ‘win’ or ‘be right’. There is very often more than one truth.”
Melanie says: Our brains are really good at trying to fill in the blanks when something doesn't make sense to us, but often we distort reality. If you want to encourage someone to talk to you, try the following:
1. Say what you notice
'I noticed you were quiet when you came home from work.'
2. Stay curious
'I was wondering how you feel your shift went?'
3. Ask open questions
'What would be helpful right now, what do you need?'
4. Don't interrupt
Jumping in could stop you from hearing something important
5. Try paraphrasing
Repeating back your understanding of what they are telling you can be a helpful way to ensure you are both on the same page.
Putting it out there
We have so much to gain from sharing our feelings, in fact, a brain imaging study by UCLA found that verbalising our feelings makes our sadness, anger, and pain less intense.
So, you’re ready to take control of the situation, to address the elephant in the room, to come clean, just to have an honest chat? Melanie suggests that there are some things you should consider:
1. The timing and environment. Ensure you have privacy and that you don’t have to rush off anywhere.
2. The listener’s circumstances. Try asking if this is a good time to talk, or if an alternative time would be better. Don’t select times when you or the listener might be tired , stressed, or distracted.
3. Take time to formulate your thoughts before you try to communicate them. Be clear about the intention or goal of the conversation before you begin speaking. Try following a pattern of ‘this is the problem’, ‘this is how I feel about it’, and ‘this is what I need’.
4. Writing things down and using notes can be a helpful way to ensure that you don’t forget anything, especially if you feel nervous.
5. Be conscious of your language. Avoid using words that naturally illicit defence. Start from a position of ‘I need’ or ‘I feel’. It lends itself to a more empathic response.
6. Don’t generalise, avoid using language like ‘you always’ or ‘you never’. Try using ‘when X happened it made me feel Y’.
Heart to heart
When it comes to communication, we’re taught our ABCs at school, but the skills needed for emotional honesty, openness, and intimacy, can take a lifetime of work to get a handle on. But, when all’s said and done, most people just want to be heard and understood – and the skills you take forward with you today have the potential to travel from one person to the next, and into the world beyond. So, what do you say?
Visit the Counselling Directory to find out more.