An open cupped hand turned upward with symbols of communication rising out of it. The title 2 Critical Communication Techniques for Couples is on the left side.

2 Critical Communication Techniques for Couples

What if we said that communication can improve? You’re not so sure? It may very well be that you’re here because you need help and are struggling to understand how to get out of the cycle of negative communication between you and your spouse. In any relationship, it is important to understand how to communicate. What does that look like? Is there such a thing as healthy communication? How does it work? 

So you want to know how to have better communication? We can help! There is a lot involved in the process of getting your message across to others and receiving a message in return. It’s more than just saying words to your loved one. There are factors such as non-verbal communication, interpretations, and emotions that can skew any message. All of these factors must be considered and more. In this post, we will only explore 2 critical verbal communication techniques that can lead to healthier conversations and better understanding between you and your partner.

When working with couples, I have traditionally used several communication techniques in session to help foster meaningful communication and understanding between loved ones. One of the techniques I use that we will discuss here is called “I” statements. We will also explore another technique that involves using capacity percentages. This technique helps in communicating to your partner how much “space” you have left. A better explanation will be provided below. In my experience, these techniques are useful in helping couples understand one another better, leading to healthier communication between partners.

What are “I” statements? 

Have you ever felt criticized or blamed? Ever thought, “ Why are they coming at me?” Maybe it’s because of the way your spouse or partner initiated their concern. Anytime you hear the word “You” at the beginning of a sentence, that should make alarm bells go off. And, it does! That’s why we want to talk about “I” statements. “I” statements are useful during confrontation because they help to shift from blaming to making your feelings and needs known. 

Using what is called “I language” can be more effective than using “you language” (Rogers and colleagues, 2018).  This means that instead of placing the blame on the other person, it is healthier to utilize “I.” This emphasizes your own feelings, rather than your partner’s shortcomings. When you do this, you are demonstrating to your partner that you aren’t criticizing them, but want them to know how what they are doing is impacting you. 

It is helpful to sometimes have examples to help us know what a “you” statement versus an “I” statement might look like. In a worksheet by Therapist Aid (2017), they give this example for the “you” statement: “You can’t keep coming home so late! It’s so inconsiderate.” The worksheet continues by showing what the alternative “I” statement could be: “I feel worried when you come home late. I can’t sleep.” Notice how the “I” statement emphasizes the person’s feelings regarding their partner being late. By using “I,” you are not placing blame on your partner, but rather you are expressing your own feelings so that your partner can better understand you.

Utilizing “I feel” Statements

One way to utilize these “I” statements, and better communicate with your partner is to practice “I feel…” statements. With these statements, the emphasis is on expressing your feelings to the other person by naming the specific feeling, and then communicating what you would prefer your partner to do instead. Again, this helps your partner not feel criticized or blamed, allowing them to more readily receive and accept your concern. 

To begin an “I feel” statement, you first say: “I feel ___” and in the blank, you would use a feeling word. It must be a feeling word for this technique to work properly. Here are some examples of feeling words: “I feel… [sad, mad, frustrated, angry, hurt].” There are many more feelings words. A good thing to do is to print off a Feelings Wheel

Now choose which feeling best describes what you want to convey to the other person. Next, you will follow that feeling word with “because.” This is where you will explain why you are feeling the way that you do. Example: “I feel frustrated because it does not seem like you pay attention to what I am saying when I am talking.” 

The final step for this technique is saying, “I’d prefer…” which is where you will follow up with what you want from the other person. Continuing with the previous example, you could say: “I feel frustrated because of your inattention to me when I am talking. I’d prefer that you give me your full attention when I am speaking to you.” 

Even though this exercise is useful for expressing emotions that may seem more negative in tone, you can also use them to express more positive feelings, such as if you are feeling happy or proud of the other person. For positive expression, you would simply leave out “I’d prefer.” The benefits of this technique are increased healthy communication with one another, including understanding the other person’s feelings as well as a decrease in criticism and defensiveness. 

Capacity Percentages and Check-ins with Partner 

Another helpful communication technique is sharing what we call your “capacity percentages” with your partner. It’s similar to using “scales” to help each other understand how you are feeling and what stress level you are at. In this technique, you would start by figuring out the percentages that work best for you. For instance, let’s say you have a range for how you feel. The range from 100% to 75% could mean that you are feeling at your best, thus, you can complete tasks at a normal rate. As the percentages begin to drop, this means you have less capacity or space to deal with other things. If your capacity is in the 75% to 50% range or lower, this would mean that you do not have as much space to take on other tasks.

When it comes to communication, this may mean that you are mentally drained and cannot handle deep or difficult conversations. By sharing your percentages with your partner, you are communicating the headspace that you are in, allowing them to understand where you are coming from. Here is an example: You have had a very stressful day at work where you had many things to accomplish, and you felt frustrated. At home, you take your frustrations out on your partner because they don’t seem to understand the kind of day that you had. You may come off as cold or dismissive, but this has little to do with your partner.

It would have helped when you arrived home to share your “capacity percentages.” By doing this, your partner would be more understanding of your need for space and possibly even be able to give you the time you need to recover or de-stress before possibly engaging in something that could be too difficult for you if you had not had an opportunity to de-stress. 

Conclusion

Healthy communication is a vital part of a thriving relationship. These 2 communication techniques are a way for you to better engage with and build understanding with your partner. They are also useful in helping you learn to express your own feelings and needs. Practicing these techniques can benefit not only your relationship with your partner but also with others. Take time to rehearse these techniques daily to make them more ingrained in your attempts at communication with your spouse, partner, or others. If you do find yourself struggling with communication consider marriage counseling. A good marriage counselor can help you work through misunderstandings and put these techniques into practice.

References 

Rogers, S. L., Howieson, J., & Neame, C. (2018). I understand you feel that way, but I feel this way: the benefits of I-language and communicating perspective during conflict. PeerJ, 6, e4831. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.4831

Therapist Aid. (2017). “I” statements. https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/i-statements

A picture of Bethany Stanley, LAPC.

Author:

Bethany Stanley is a Licensed Associate Professional Counselor. She provides couples counseling and individual counseling as a therapist at Legacy Marriage Resources, LLC based in Augusta, Georgia. Find out more about her in her Bio.

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