Communication is tough cookies sometimes. All it takes is going through a communication shit-storm to be reminded of how when it doesn't work, it really doesn't work. And then when it does, you realize how much work it takes.
I felt like it was necessary for myself to review some key communication tools that I knowingly use in my own relationships- at least when I can remember to, and have the where-with-all even when I'm upset. :)
Meta-communication: I love this. J and I first learned about it when reading Kathy Labriola's Love in Abundance. The idea is to communicate to the listener what you are seeking by communicating with them. So if I am upset about something, my conversation with J might go something like this:
Me: I am upset about X. I would really like some emotional support right now.
Me: *Venting ensues*
J: *provides me emotional support, which includes validation of my feelings and empathy*
Or, the conversation might go something like:
Me: I am upset about X. I need some advice on what to do.
Me: *Discussion ensues*
J: *actively and reflectively listens, asks questions, provides feedback and advice*
I think sometimes the hardest thing about communication is knowing what you need from your own communication with someone else. Figuring out what you need can be really difficult. Do I need physical reassurance (a hug, kiss, massage, sex, etc)? Do I need emotional reassurance (hearing that you love me, appreciate me, respect me, enjoy being with me, etc)? Do I need advice or feedback on a situation or relationship? Do I need a behavior change? Do I need a boundary change? Also, it can be really helpful, and equally difficult, to figure out and articulate (to yourself and your partner) why it is that you need what you do. But I think if you can practice meta communication more often than not, it improves the quality and satisfaction from engaging in more intense communication. I remember feeling at one point in our relationship: "I wish J just knew what to give me. I don't want to have to ask for what I need. He should just give me a hug, dammit, or tell me that he loves me. It's so obvious that's what I need!" But, obviously, the only person who truly knows what I need is me, and in order to receive the support I need from someone who cares about me, I need to be able to recognize what it is I need and ask for it.
Reflective listening is something that I realize I am not that great at. It is an art and a skill. I realize I make a lot of assumptions when I am listening to people. Sometimes I am right, and sometimes I am pretty far off from what they actually meant. So, reflective listening entails paraphrasing what you have heard, to make sure that you are hearing the message that the communicator intends to communicate. This can prevent hurt feelings from developing or from assumptions taking on a life of their own.
Paraphrasing: simply repeating what you have heard the speaker say, so that they know that you heard them.
K: I felt really upset today when you said you would call me and you didn't.
J: I hear you saying that you are upset because I didn't call you when I said I would.
Validation: validating feelings doesn't mean that you agree with them or think that they are rational, logical, or make sense to you. What it does mean, is providing empathy and letting the speaker know that their feelings matter because they are real regardless of where they are coming from or whether they make "sense."
K: I am having a hard time because...
J: That sounds really difficult to be going through that and feeling that. I feel bad that you are hurting so much.
Lastly, I think it is extremely important to note that listening and communicating takes even more work when my own interests, desires, needs, etc have to take a back seat in the communication process. Sometimes providing support to someone else means letting my own needs become secondary, but only until I know that the other person is in a space to hear my needs effectively. I have realized that communication, especially around sticky and sensitive topics, can really go down the toilet when both people (or more if there are more people involved) have been touched deeply by the issue at hand. Someone has to be willing to table their own reactions and feelings to provide the other person with support. I think a kind of compassionate "stair-step" approach can be helpful in building and re-building trust and providing each person with the space they need in order to communicate whatever it is that they must share.
(Caveat: this is something that I have been working on intensely in my own counseling sessions. My natural inclinations are to always put others' needs above my own. That's not particularly healthy, for me or ultimately anyone else. But I have become much better at voicing my feelings and needs to myself and others, and I still recognize the communication dance at play when emotions run high on both/all sides of the table.)