Dr Amanda White Psychologist shares some helpful tips on how to achieve meaningful communication …
To find connection in your relationship, you must be able to communicate.
The quality of our connection – whether our contact with others, particularly our loved ones, is superficial or reaches the depth of emotional understanding and trust – depends on how much meaning we derive from our communication.
Relationship building is facilitated by meaningful communication. It provides a bridge to overcome the sense of isolation that can develop in disconnected or eroded relationships and invalidating environments. By working to develop both strength in our relationships and a supportive environment, we can potentially offset the degree of hardship experienced during painful life circumstances.
The good news is that communication is a skillset. We can learn and apply strategies to build better relationships, as well as gain greater depth of meaning and emotional connection inside these relationships.
Learning to Listen
Communicating is fundamentally a shared process between two or more people.
As much as you may want to feel heard in conversation, so too will the person or people with whom you are cultivating meaning. It may seem counterintuitive, but instead of starting with talking, start with listening. To listen is essentially an act of validation, mutual respect, and care. Your turn will come.
Being skilled at listening means attending to information beyond what is being said, to look for what is being hinted at, or even left unsaid.
Instead of making assumptions about what you see or hear – clarify. The following listening skills may assist with developing the depth of emotional connection in conversation:
- Take a moment for preparation. Put the mobile phone down and minimise distractions or interruptions. Relax, if you are stressed or anxious then regulate breathing, and attend to the speaker. Be prepared to reorient your attention to the speaker if random thoughts or events shift your focus.
- Be supportive. Ensure the speaker is comfortable by attending to their needs or concerns. Use your words and body language, eg appropriate nodding and eye contact, to show you are listening and to encourage them to continue.
- Be empathic. Empathy means to understand another’s condition from their perspective. It’s okay to disagree with someone, but for a moment let go of preconceived ideas and wait while they explain their point of view. You can better state your position once you understand theirs. Do not interrupt or finish sentences.
- Be patient. Let the speaker set the pace. It can take time for someone to think of what to say and how to say it, so even a long pause does not necessarily mean they have finished speaking. Silence can be a great communicator.
- Go beyond words. Verbal information includes volume and tone. Listen to where the speaker emphasises what is being said. Nonverbal information, the speaker’s body language, also provides information. Look for gestures, facial expression and eye movements for further detail.
- Find the big picture. The speaker is communicating their ideas. Link the information sourced from verbal and nonverbal information to reveal what is important. Summarise and let the speaker clarify if you have understood. It’s okay if they correct you, after all this allows better understanding.
Listening skills can facilitate an emotional connection with others.
Then the question arises, how do we transition from using listening skills for effective communication? How do we deepen our relationships and really connect through meaningful communication?
When aiming for meaningful communication, content can move into territory that brings about uncomfortable feelings.
Tolerating discomfort in conversation for longer periods can be the key to unlocking depth of content and emotion. However, please stay aware of and respect personal boundaries so that neither you nor anyone else is forced to address issues they are not prepared to or do not yet want to.
Choosing to lighten the conversation, rather than sitting with uncomfortable feelings, can be both a habit and a protective behaviour. Uncomfortable feelings can produce a sense of vulnerability and anxiety, so it seems safer to stay positive.
Also, such feelings may have led to conflict in the past, so it may seem more constructive to move straight to problem solving. However, in the long term moving past what is uncomfortable to embrace only positive feelings denies the full spectrum of emotion and can lead to a strong sense of invalidation.
Act on what you understand. Meaningful conversation will lose its power if loved ones cannot trust you to apply what you have talked about. The emotional connection being worked towards is unlikely to be longstanding if it does not lead to some form of tangible outcome. Actions are a form of communication too.
Draw up a short list of three or more useful actions you could take, based on your empathic understanding. These acts can be short and simple or require long term behavioural management. If they are long term behaviours, break down what may well be a goal to simpler, actionable steps. Take responsibility to regularly check whether you did, or tried to do, what you aimed to. If not, then problem solve and consider discussing this further with your loved one.
Meaningful communication is a skill set and it can be developed with both practice and courage. Making real change to a communication style is a long- term project. Such change may require frequent effortful reorientation of attention and conversational habits. However, the goals of meaningful communication, which include gaining emotional connection and depth, can make this challenge truly worthwhile.
If you would like to know more about communication strategies, or engage a supportive and structured learning model to address change management, psychological services can be of great benefit. Call M1 Psychology Loganholme for more information, or to book an appointment with a qualified treating therapist.
Author: Dr Amanda White, PhD, B Psych (Hons), B Beh Sc, DipH, MAPS.
Dr Amanda White is a highly experienced clinician and senior psychologist at M1 Psychology Loganholme. Her treatment programs are based on an eclectic approach, meaning evidence-based best practice is merged with the presentation and problem solving approach of each client.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129
- Nichols, M.P. (1996). The Lost Art of Listening: How learning to listen can improve relationships, The Guilford Press.
- Pearce, B. (2008). Making Social Worlds: A Communication Perspective, Wiley-Blackwell.
- Stone, D. et al (1999). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Penguin.