The art of communicating well

Picture of Derek Boylen

Derek Boylen

Derek is a marriage counsellor who works for the Archdiocese of Perth

Communicating well is the foundation of a strong relationship. There are a lot of pitfalls that go with communication, but there are also a lot of practical things that people can do that actually help. It’s important in every relationship, especially between partners and marriage, but also between parents and children.

Any parent who has a teenager will know how tricky communications can be at times with someone who’s moody and doesn’t want to communicate.  And the number one predictor of divorce today is the habitual avoidance of conflict. We like to imagine that couples who separate are arguing all the time and disagreeing with one another … fighting and slamming doors and raising voices.


But what they do is they stop talking to one another and stop communicating. And they’ve been very silent homes prior to a divorce most of the time. The habitual avoidance and conflict, as ironic as that might sound, is actually the biggest predictor of divorce. The people who are arguing a lot have a better chance of solving their problems.


Toxic arguing isn’t healthy for relationships but fighting for something is better. Even when someone is eighty, they’re still looking for something better. They’re still wanting more out of their relationship.


If a person has had a really bad experience of conflict in relationships and family life, it can create a lot of fear and anxiety about going into new relationship. It’s one of the reasons why couples fall into that pattern of not talking and not communicating. It’s from the experience of what it’s like to be ignored by someone. When they feel ‘not heard’, they feel angry. They feel frustrated. At other times people feel insecure or vulnerable.


Avoiding conflict isn’t necessarily bad. It’s important to say not all conflict is good and not all avoidance of conflict is good either. If that makes sense. You need to pick your battles. Some people are more argumentative than others, so sometimes it’s reasonable to say, “Well, this is really important to you and it’s actually not that important to me.”


Every single communication is actually what the research and John Gottman refers to as an emotional being. Most of the communication that takes place in our homes on any given day is actually not difficult. It’s pretty functional social talk like, “Can you pass the salt, or do you know where I put the car keys? Did you remember ringing mum back? What have you got on today?”


Every time we communicate on any level about any subject, we can do one of three things. We can turn towards the person that’s communicating with us: we can turn away from them and ignore them, or we can turn against them. Every communication is important on every level, every day, not just the deeper, meaningful things and the tricky conversations.


But both people have to take responsibility. When we communicate the person who’s raising the issue has to take some responsibility for how they approach the conversation and how they express themselves. Equally, the person at the receiving end has responsibility for how they receive what’s been said.


What the research tells us is that household chores are one of the top three things that couples argue about most in the first five years of marriage. In those really early stages, work out the balance between my time and your time, getting the chores done, going to work and visiting families … balancing all of those things?


Treat it as an experiment and not try and lock things down in stone too early in the relationship. Let’s see if that works for a month and if it doesn’t work, we’ll do something different. You can always come back and do things another way.


Listening is probably one of the most powerful things anyone can do in a relationship. When we feel that we’re being criticised, the natural human reaction is resistance.


Defensiveness. We want to push back. We have an enate, defensiveness when we feel that we are under attack. The first thing we need to do is to resist our own ‘defensive’ reaction so that we can respond positively to difficult conversations.


The person who listens in any communication has the most power to influence. A person could be the best communicator in the world but if the other person doesn’t want to listen, nothing is going to happen. Developing strong listening skills is really important and it’s hard to do. There are some simple things that any couple can do to develop their listening skills. The first thing is that criticism in a family is really a request for help. Karen (my wife) can say to me, “I can’t believe you left your socks on the floor.”


That seems to me like criticism. But what she’s really doing is asking for help. She’s saying, “You know what? I spent the whole day cleaning up. And five minutes after you come home your clothes are in the middle of the floor and I need your help to solve this.”


So, the key criticism is actually a request to help so it softens the response. We react to the body language and the tone of voice, but we need to realise the other person is frustrated and trying to say something important.


If Karen says, “I can’t believe you left your socks on the floor.” I could respond by saying, “You really put some work into cleaning this room today. Good job.”


The steam immediately comes out of the conversation.


A couple of other practical tips. Don’t interrupt the other person. Interrupting is a sure-fire way of showing that you’re not listening and you’re more interested in pushing your view onto someone else. Being aware of our own body language is also important. Make sure you face the person, put the TV on mute, and give the other person your full attention.


We will feature a different podcast topic in our newsletter each week. This is an edited version of  Figuring out Families Focus Session podcasts with marriage counsellor Derek Boylen. Titled Communications Part 1 and Part 2, they can be found at:


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