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Communication and Negotiation in Relationships

29 February 2024 11:00

In this extract from Overcoming Relationship Problems, authors Michael Crowe and Kevan Wylie give some guidance on communication and negotiation within relationships.

Communication – verbal and non-verbal

Everyone communicates non-verbally, even if they are strangers in the same room. Think then how much more communication goes on between you and your partner. Non-verbal communication can be in the form of eye contact, smiles or frowns, tone of voice, posture, touch and the distance between you. The non-verbal communication between partners is a good indicator of the health of the relationship.

Research has shown that couples with a good relationship make regular eye contact, while those whose relationship is troubled rarely look at each other.

Many of the everyday contacts between partners are made non-verbally. A touch on the shoulder or a smile can indicate positive feelings, and reassure the partner that they are cared for, although they can also be misinterpreted if there is tension between you. Frowns can of course have the opposite effect. The tone of voice is a further indication of how you are treating each other.

Another aspect of the non-verbal communication is how close the partners are to each other when they speak. The nearer they are, on the whole, the less they need to raise their voices, and the more their communication will be peaceful and positive.

Their verbal communication is equally important, and may involve both positive and negative aspects. There is a tendency to make assumptions about the other partner, which may result in a misinterpretation that the partner is hostile or angry, when they do not actually feel angry. The partners then begin to cast blame on each other. A good general rule about communication is never to assume you know better than the speaker what he or she means! If in doubt, ask for clarification.

Good verbal communication is something which we all fall short of at times, but which is the basis of human interaction – without it we would live in a very confusing world. There are a few simple rules which couples should follow in communicating, which we will now outline.

Rules of Good Verbal Communication
  • Be brief and simple. It is better to say less in a sentence than more, and then you should leave a gap so that your partner can reply to the point that is being made.
  • Leave frequent gaps. This gives your partner a chance to respond. Monologues don’t contribute to good relations. Good communication usually includes the possibility of reply.
  • Be positive. There is a world of difference between the statement ‘You are always undermining me’ (negative and critical) and the alternative statement ‘I would like you to back me up even if you don’t always agree’ (a request for help).
  • Always end with a positive, even if you have said something negative. This avoids what we call the ‘sting in the tail’, where someone has said something positive and then follows it up with something critical. The trick is to change the sting-in-tail comment to one that ends positively. Thus ‘You are making an effort now, but you have been difficult for a long time’ (sting-in-tail) could become ‘I have felt for a long time that you were being difficult but I see you are now making an effort’.
  • Be specific. This means trying not to generalise too much, and keeping the discussion as clear as possible. So there is a great deal of difference between ‘You are always putting me down in front of others’ and ‘I was upset when you criticised my driving when your mother was in the car’. The second version at least makes it possible for the partner to address the issue and try to be less outspoken when a similar situation arises.
  • Suggest ways to act differently in the future rather than complaining about the past. A proposed alternative is always more acceptable than a complaint. The hearer can always accept the suggestion, which can then avoid a stalemate or an argument.
  • If you can’t avoid discussion of the past, ration it so that your partner knows that it won’t last very long. This could be done by planning a discussion time and setting a timer so that you both know when time will be up.
  • Stick to the topic and don’t drift off into other areas. The temptation is often to expand the discussion into other areas of disagreement. If there is no more that can be usefully said on the subject, the couple should stop talking about it and either change the subject or just go into separate rooms until things quieten down.
  • If you are talking about your partner, try not to ‘mind-read’. It is much better to ask your partner what they think about something than to tell them what you think they are thinking. If you are wrong in your guess this will just irritate your partner.
  • Try to start everything you say with ‘I’ rather than ‘you’. This is not always easy. The key thing to remember is that if you start with ‘I’, your partner can’t claim that you are talking nonsense or that you have no right to speak for him/her.

This is quite similar to communication, but it takes the process forward one more step. If you want to change something which has been causing problems, you should try to put it in a way that your partner can make use of.

A simple complaint may be sufficient to solve the problem, but as often as not a complaint leads to a defensive reply or to a counter-complaint. It is much more productive to put the complaint in a positive way, in the form of a request.

For example, if a woman wants her partner to stop leaving his socks on the bedroom floor, it would be better for her to ask him to put them in the laundry bag or in the washing machine (a positive request). If possible, this could be followed by an offer to do something in return, which might be in response to a request by her partner.

Requests should be positive, specific, future-orientated, repeatable and practicable. It may help to give an example of the kinds of requests which work and those which are ineffective. An impracticable request would be to ask the partner to stop drinking, because the request is negative. A better option would be to request a reduction in drinking, or to ask for a different pattern, for example to drink only on particular days of the week.

This type of interaction, termed reciprocity negotiation, is the one which has had the most research done on it over the past thirty years or so, and it has consistently come out as being a highly effective part of couple therapy and quite simple to carry out.