Why can’t we just be on the same page? Why aren't they listening to me? I don't understand why I can't be heard!
Does that sound familiar? In my counselling practice, this is a frequent statement I hear. It's not just about being on the same page with an intimate partner, but also with our friends, families, coworkers — even strangers. Communication strategies are an important part of building relationships, so why is it sometimes so hard?
Why we often struggle with communication
Often clients comment on how they feel that the person they are trying to communicate with isn’t listening to them. Bad news: that is generally the cold hard truth! The silver lining is that the person you are struggling to communicate with isn't failing to listen on purpose. They are, just like you, trying desperately to be heard and understood. What the issue boils down to is that both parties are trying to be heard at the same time.
The best suggestion I can give to anyone wanting to be heard is to listen! It may sound counter-intuitive but what do you have to lose? Why not give it a shot? I would not be surprised if you begin to notice the tone of the conversation change. When someone feels listened to they also feel validated in their feelings and beliefs. They feel cared for and important. Who doesn’t want to feel those ways?
Communication concerns often arise within family structures. In my work with adult individuals who are struggling to communicate with their parents or siblings, we often talk about what outcome they are wanting to achieve. We explore if there are any past hurts involved with what they are trying to communicate. Try and work through some of those hurts before engaging in communication with family.
Strategies for successful communication begin with you
Some things I suggest to clients who are wanting to improve communication with someone, whether it be family or otherwise, are to sit down and write a letter to the person you want to communicate with. Read it, then re-write the letter. Repeat this process a third time.
You won't be sending this letter, but it will help provide a guideline for what you are wanting to communicate. Why write it three times? The initial letter often involves relaying some of the hurt you are coping with. Writing down your feelings this first time with the knowledge that you aren’t going to share it in its raw form will help release some of the pain you are struggling with.
The second time around will allow you to gain a little more focus on the key points. When you write it a third time, I suggest you try and write as much from an “I” perspective as possible. This is where you have the opportunity to disarm the other person, but you are no longer just pointing the finger. By taking accountability for what your needs are, you will be better ready to communicate them from a non-accusatory stance.
Time to sit down and talk
Now that you know what you want to communicate and that you are taking responsibility for the way in which you communicate, here’s what I suggest trying out when you have the opportunity to chat with the other person(s).
Start out by choosing a time and place that is conducive to conversation. Never begin a talk that you don’t have time to see through to the end, so give yourself more time than you thought you’d need. Make sure the other person also has time to chat. Begin by saying that there is something you want to talk about and you really hope to communicate it well so that a mutual understanding can be made. Be sure to let the other person know that they have plenty of time to express their point of view as well.
Ask the person if they are willing to try a communication activity in the effort of helping you both feel heard and understood. If they say yes, proceed by asking them to listen carefully to what you are saying. That when you are done talking you are going to ask them to repeat back a summary of what you’ve just said.
Once you have spoken and they have repeated back, they are then also going to ask you if they got that right. This is the opportunity for you to clarify anything that may have been misinterpreted or that you struggled to communicate clearly. Have them repeat that back to you in order for you to know that they now understand the clarification.
Once that is done, you switch roles, and the other person will talk while you listen and don’t interrupt. You repeat back what they’ve said and ask them if you’ve gotten it right, proceeding to have them clarify wherever needed.
The hardest part about this exercise is that is requires patience and restraint from jumping into the conversation to express our own point of view. If you can control those urges and really take in what the other person is saying and have them do the same, it is my belief that your communication will improve greatly.
You don't always need to agree in order to communicate
Through this method, you will have the opportunity to be heard and understood and you will give that opportunity to someone else as well. Now, using this method doesn’t mean you’ll agree with the other person but you don’t always have to agree! You can still show respect, care, empathy and understanding for someone despite your difference of opinions.
As I said before, give it a go, what do you have to lose? If you’ve been going around in circles, pulling your hair out with fumes coming out of your head, it may be time to try something different. This will take practice and will not always be successful, but in my experience if you’re willing to put in the effort you can grow into a beautiful communicator.
If you need help practicing this, going to counselling where you can try this out in session can help. It will give you the opportunity to have someone mediate the conversation at first in case it gets derailed or a bit heated. Once you’ve been guided through the process, you’ll be good to do this on your own.
Good luck, happy communicating!