Whether extroverted and loving the social world or more introverted and blossoming in solitude and quiet, the need to communicate permeates our lives beginning with our first breath. The baby's cry is clear and simple: "Food please, are you there? Something doesn't feel good, or it does!" As we live, communication's complexity is revealed. Verbal and non-verbal statements, logical linear thinking or intuitive gestures, we are constantly saying something to those around us. The need to be better understood, or to understand another, is often what motivates a person to seek therapy.
Couples come to therapy wanting to improve communication skills, parents and children both don't feel respected and heard by one another; these are two common examples where communication abilities are interfering with relationship. When I worked in Middle School as a counselor I was quite amazed to hear the young teens saying the same things as their parents concerning feeling respected and feeling heard. This is the child I cherish, the partner who was such a perfect fit. How did we get here? And what can we do? Communication breaks create anger and frustration, yet sadness and fear are not far away because these are the people I really care about. Uncovering our care for each other and the accompanying empathy can renew our hope and refresh rigid relationship dynamics.
There are many practices for improving communication skills. I have found the model created by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. (http://www.nonviolentcommunication.com
) called Nonviolent Communication, or Compassionate Communication, simple, user-friendly, and it goes to the heart of the difficulties rather than skimming the surface and applying band-aids. The model consists of four steps, which apply to both expressing and listening. The first step is developing a capacity for "Noticing". Noticing is an ability to give attention to what is occurring, within myself and interpersonally, without evaluating it. Easier said than done! Usually we are quick to evaluate good or bad, right or wrong, which brings in the all too common critical blaming lens. The following steps of "Feelings", "Needs", and "Requests" are also important, but I find this first step of Noticing to be the foundation of the others.
Another way to develop Noticing is through practices like Mindfulness Meditation. Centering in the present moment, paying attention to what we are actually experiencing rather than our ideas or feeling about it, supports this Noticing skill. Bringing curiosity to what we have noticed sets the stage for a very different communication scenario. It doesn't mean we are not still upset, but we have slowed down our reactions and have a much better chance of actually getting through to this person who means a lot to us. Examples of Noticing may be: "I'm noticing we haven't had much time together these past few weeks" or "I've noticed my mood is low and I'm feeling overwhelmed". These statements are very different from the "you have" or "you haven't" type and our partner/family member may actually be able to care because they are not being blamed. Then where do we go from here?
Underneath the noticing are feelings: "I've noticed the sink is still full of dirty dishes. I feel so angry!" Then our task is to discover the needs underneath those feelings: "I need to trust you will do what you promise to do." And now the time for requests, which differs greatly from demands: "I'd like to ask you to spend some time with me so we can work this out". Noticing, Feelings, Needs, Requests is a simple system that can, with practice, be available in the heat of an upset moment.
Developing communication skills is a practice. Practicing with the relationship to ourselves is a good way to begin. The more we are able to notice our changing inner states without judgment and shame, the more able we will be to work with the inevitable differences that arise with others.