How to Communicate Effectively in a Relationship—6 Traps to Avoid

How to Communicate Effectively in a Relationship—6 Traps to Avoid

Learning how to communicate effectively in a relationship isn’t always easy.

But getting started doesn’t have to be hard.

A lot of the communication tips for couples I come across focus on new communication skills that partners can develop and implement in their relationships.

But as a counselor, I think it’s important to start elsewhere. Rather than focusing on all the new skills you need add, I recommend getting started by taking away. Simply eliminate what’s not working.

How to communicate better: Adding by subtracting

Here’s how it works.

Together, you and your partner ask yourselves what current communication patterns are getting in the way of productive communication in your relationship. When our everyday disagreements quickly spiral into full-blown arguments, what are the unhelpful patterns that we resort to?

Once you both identify the unhelpful forms of communication in your relationship, write them down. Literally, make a list and post it on your refrigerator so you’ll know where to find it later.

Next, make an agreement with your partner to avoid the old communication tactics on your list moving forward. And when disagreements emerge, simply pull out the list, review it and continue. It will likely feel a little silly at first. But when you see how big of a difference it makes in your communication, you’ll be reaching for your list more and more—until avoiding those old pitfalls becomes second nature, that is.     

In couples counseling, I often recommend that couples begin their lists with the following six communication traps. Even if these are the only six items that make it onto your list, my guess is you’ll be well on your way to more effective communication in your relationship.  

1. “You” messages

Let’s start out with the communication trap we all fall into at times. “You” messages occur when we make statements beginning with the word “you.”

You are such a… You make me really… You did… You didn’t…

Problem is, when we use “you” messages, whatever follows after that seemingly harmless three-letter word tends to come across as accusatory. And when we feel accused, we tend to go on the defensive and counter with accusations of our own.    

2. Name calling

It’s not uncommon for name calling to emerge during a heated exchange. “Lazy slob,” “lying bitch,” “stupid jerk”—we all know names like these only add fuel to the fire. Agreeing to abstain from name calling in your relationship may be a game-changer unto itself.    

3. Gunnysacking

Just as a gunny sack is used for gathering and storing things, gunnysacking is the act of storing up grievances and then trotting them out during a fight. Not surprisingly, this tactic is seldom well received. When you agree to abstain from gunnysacking, you’re agreeing to focus only on the specific concern or disagreement in question.  

4. Family references

“You’re just like your father!”

“You’re acting like your sister!”

A “you” message and a form of name calling combined into one, family references (even when somewhat accurate) lead to ineffective communication.

5. Historical references

Like gunnysacking, historical references involve bringing up other times in the past a similar issue or concern may have surfaced.

“You did the same thing the last time my parents came to visit!”

“This is exactly how you acted on our last vacation!”

Stick with what’s bothering you now, not what happened in the past.  

6. “Always” and “never”

Probably the second most common communication trap for couples after “you” messages are the words “always” and “never.” These words are almost always a form of exaggeration.

“You never do anything to help out; I always have to do everything myself.”

You don’t need to worry about what to put in place of the words “always” and “never.” Just work on not using them and the rest will take care of itself.

Are you struggling with communication? At Modern Era Counseling, we help couples and individuals build more effective communication skills, so they can find greater fulfillment in relationships and in life. Call today to book your first session!

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