Using Positive Communication to Build Relationships

Perhaps what makes communication so difficult (and potentially rewarding) is how it affects our relationships. We communicate with everyone we meet, both verbally and non-verbally. Communication is the process of sending and receiving verbal and non-verbal messages.

So how can we use communication to build relationships with others?

5 to 1 ratio 

Well-known family researcher John Gottman[1] observed a number of married couples over a period of several years. He found that what contributed to the success of certain couples was not necessarily their communication style, but rather the ratio of positive communication to negative communication. Generally, couples who had five positive interactions for every negative interaction had better marital outcomes.

Takeaway message: BE POSITIVE.

Positive Communication:

So…what counts as positive communication?

Really, positive communication has to do with our motives. We are effective communicators when we seek to understand the messages that others are sending, and when we strive to send clear messages ourselves by anticipating their needs and point of view.
Positive communication includes[2]

Seeking meaning. To seek meaning is to seek to understand what another person is saying, to understand what they feel, think, and want.

Seeking clarification. In order to understand what someone means, sometimes we have to do more than just listen. We must ask for them to clarify. This may mean telling them what we have understood and allowing them to correct us, asking them thoughtful questions, or requesting examples in order to understand what they mean.

Seeking congruence. Congruence occurs when our words and our intent are in harmony. Saying, “I love you,” when you don’t really mean it is likely to cause more harm than good to a relationship.[3]

There are many other ways in which we can positively communicate. The key in listening is to seek to understand what others think and feel. The key in speaking is honesty and sincerity; we don’t have to say everything we think and feel, but what we do say should accurately reflect what we think and feel.

Negative Communication:

… and what should we avoid?

Have you ever seen people “discussing” a political or social issue who don’t appear to be listening to anything that their opponents say? Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like much of a discussion!

And if you’re anything like I am, you may have been in some of those kinds of arguments yourself.  You know the kind—where you are trying to convince some poor, ignorant individual that YOU are RIGHT. Because you are, of course.

But is being right really the issue?

Unhealthy communication includes a couple of basic elements:

Controlling communication, or using communication to try to change someone, and

Competitive communication, which is using communication to win an argument or appear dominant.[4]

So if you are trying to communicate, then deciding who’s right isn’t relevant. It’s about understanding where the other person is coming from and building a relationship with them, regardless of whether or not you agree on a particular subject. (Remember: even if your goal is to persuade them, you are unlikely to do it if you don’t understand and respect where they are coming from.) So… BE POSITIVE!

[1] Randall D. Day, Introduction to Family Processes, 5th Ed., Routledge: 2010, pp.190-91
[2] Brian Willoughby, class lecture, SFL 160, Fall 2013
[3] Day, Introduction to Family Processes, pp. 183-85
[4] Day, Introduction to Family Processes, p. 180

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