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9 Important Communication Skills for Every Relationship


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Effective communication is critical to successful relationships. Researchers and therapists have found at least nine skills that can help couples learn to talk effectively about important issues (Gottman 1994; Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg 2010; Schramm and Harris 2011). How we interact about issues such as time spent together/apart, money, health, gender differences, children, family, friends, commitment, trust, and intimacy affects our ability to develop and maintain lasting relationships. If learned well, these nine skills can help put our relationships on a positive trajectory for success.
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9 Important Communication Skills for Every
Victor William Harris2
1. This document is FCS2315, one of a series of the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, Florida Cooperative Extension Service,
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Published January 2012. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.u.edu.
2. Victor William Harris, PhD, assistant professor and extension specialist, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, Institute of Food and
Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.
The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to
individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national
origin, political opinions or aliations. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A&M University Cooperative
Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Millie Ferrer-Chancy, Interim Dean
Eective communication is critical to successful relation-
ships. Researchers and therapists have found at least nine
skills that can help couples learn to talk eectively about
important issues (Gottman 1994; Markman, Stanley, and
Blumberg 2010; Schramm and Harris 2011). How we
interact about issues such as time spent together/apart,
money, health, gender dierences, children, family, friends,
commitment, trust, and intimacy aects our ability to
develop and maintain lasting marital friendships. If learned
well, these nine skills can help put our relationships on a
positive trajectory for success. (Note: e word “marriage
is interchangeable with “relationship,” if you are not
Helpful Information
What do couples talk about?
Time Together/Apart. Both the quantity and quality of
time we spend together inuence the well-being of our
marital friendships. Spending time apart participating
in other activities also inuences the well-being of our
Money. How we think and talk about money, our spending
habits, and our ability to budget, invest, and plan for the
future impact couple nancial management processes and
Health. Couples must talk about many health-related
issues, including nutrition, exercise, illness, disease, ac-
cidents, health care, mortality, and death.
Men/Women. Because men tend to be more task-oriented
in their communication styles and women tend to be more
process-oriented, men tend to want to solve issues imme-
diately, while women tend to want to talk about them more
and come to a consensus about what should be done.
Children. How children develop physically, socially,
emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually are oen topics of
Figure 1. Communication
Credits: Photo by Paul Shanks. CC BY-NC 2.0. http://
discussion. Focusing on the best ways to consistently meet
childrens needs is considered being child-centered.
Family/In-Laws/Friends. Couples oen talk about situa-
tions and circumstances surrounding the interactions they
have with their closest relationships.
What do couples communicate when they
are communicating?
Commitment. How we “hang in there” and contribute
to our marital friendship, even when things aren’t going
particularly well, is a sign of how committed we are to our
relationship. Loyalty and delity are aspects of commitment
and trust.
Trust. Trusting relationships are relationships in which
both partners are dependable, available to support each
other, and responsive to each others needs. An ability to
negotiate conict and a positive outlook about the future of
the relationship are also components of trust.
Intimacy. e social, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and
physical connections we make with each other determine
the levels of intimacy we experience in our relationships.
What do couples argue about?
Because the items listed above are some of the major
topics couples talk about, it follows that they are also the
same topics that can spur disagreements. For instance, it
is a familiar joke that people can have diculties in their
relationships with in-laws. Take for example, “What is the
dierence between in-laws and outlaws? Answer: One is
‘Wanted!’” Sayings such as these underscore the importance
of knowing how your relationships with others can aect
your marriage and could potentially become the topic of a
marital conict.
Control and Power. Control and power are highly associ-
ated with the topics couples argue about. Indeed, control
and power issues are the foundation of most conicts.
Typically, one person (or each person) is bent on having
his or her own way. e saying “my way or the highway”
is a common phrase used by someone with an inexible
perspective. If we see an issue one way and expect everyone
else to see it the same way we do, then we are more likely to
try to exert power and control over others and sway them
to our perspective. Attempting to exert control and power
over our partner typically results in win/lose or lose/lose
outcomes for our marital friendships.
Things You Can Use
John Gottman (1994) is one of the nations leading research-
ers and practitioners regarding why marriages are success-
ful or unsuccessful. He and his colleagues have pinpointed
nine skills that, if learned, can help couples communicate
more eectively. As you read through the 9 Skills and their
denitions in Tab le 1 , check to see if You (Y) and/or your
Partner (P) are doing them. Please remember that every
couple has a degree of these Don’ts in their relationship.
Rooting the Don’ts out of our marital friendships, while
adding the Do’s, can result in the development of greater
commitment, trust, and intimacy.
Tracking how we are regularly implementing the 9 Skills
is an important way to measure our commitment, trust,
and intimacy in our relationships. Table 2 provides a way
for you to do just that. At the end of each day (e.g., aer
you put the kids to bed), take a minute and put a “+” or a
“–” next to each skill to track how well you did with each
of them throughout the day. Post your tracking sheet in a
prominent location. If you are parents, consider putting
this sheet up on the refrigerator door next to your childrens
homework (as “Moms and Dad’s homework”) to remind
you how you are doing. When you succeed at implementing
these 9 Skills consistently, you can then better help your
partner and children learn how to implement these skills
successfully. Implementing the 9 Skills will denitely help
you be more satised (happy) in your relationships. Good
Helpful Websites
National Healthy Marriage Resource Center – http://www.
Stronger Marriages –
Gottman, J.M. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New
York: Fireside.
Markman, H.J., S.M. Stanley, and S.L. Blumberg. (2010).
Fighting for Your Marriage. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Schramm, D.G., and V.W. Harris. (2011). Marital quality
and income: An examination of the inuence of govern-
ment assistance. Journal of Family and Economic Issues 32,
Table 1. Understanding the 9 Important Communication Skills (Adapted from Gottman 1994)
Y P The Four Don’ts
Criticism – Attacking someone’s personality or character with accusation and blame (e.g., “You never think of anyone else,” or
“How can you be so selsh?”).
Contempt Intentional insulting, name-calling, mocking, rolling the eyes, or sneering.
Defensiveness – Feeling injured by others in response to criticism and contempt and refusing to take responsibility for
personal actions. Being defensive blocks a couple’s ability to deal with an issue. Even if one partner feels completely justied
in his/her actions, becoming defensive will only add to the couple’s problems.
Stonewalling – Withdrawing from interactions and refusing to communicate at all. When couples refuse to communicate
about their issues, the relationship becomes fragile. (Note: It is completely fair in a relationship to explain to your partner
that you are overloaded emotionally and that you need to call a Time Out” to take a break and calm down before you say
something you don’t mean).
Y P The Five Do’s
Calm Down – If your heart is beating more than 90 beats-per-minute, it becomes more dicult to access the “logical” part of
your brain. Disengaging from an interaction before something hurtful is said should last for at least 25 minutes or longer for
a person to really calm down. Otherwise, it is easy to slip back into an emotionally charged conversation and to say things
that are hurtful and damaging to the marital friendship.
Complain – Being passive and sweeping relationship issues under the rug by internalizing our complaints and emotions
without expressing them will only serve to trip us up later on. Bringing up a complaint about a specic issue or behavior is
actually one of the healthiest activities a couple can engage in (e.g., “When you fail to call me to let me know you are going
to be late, it makes me feel like you aren’t considering my feelings and the fact that I will worry about you”).
Speak Non-Defensively – This kind of language is an art form that usually includes speaking with a soft voice, using complaint
statements that start with “I feel… rather than “You…” statements, and garnering the listener’s trust in our ability to
communicate eectively without eliciting defensiveness. We” statements can also be helpful (e.g., “We need to start going
to the gym. or “We should talk about money issues.”).
Validate – To validate another person we must:
• Listen with our eyes, ears, mind, and heart.
• Listen to the needs and emotions being expressed.
• Use bridge phrases and words such as “And then what happened?”; “How did that make you feel?”; “Really? You’re kid-
ding?”; “What are you going to do now?”; “How can I help?”; “Uh-huh.”; Yes/No/Why?”; etc., to let them know you are listen-
Overlearn Skills – To overlearn means to master the 8 other skills so that they remain available to you even when you are
tired, stressed, or angry.
Table 2. Tracking Sheet for Week: ____ Implementing the 9 Communication Skills
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday Totals
1. Don’t
2. Don’t
3. Don’t Use
4. Don’t
5. Do Calm
6. Do
7. Do
Speak Non-
8. Do Validate
9. Do
Overlearn 9
... As identified above, course participants were first taught the eight needs (Harris, 2012a) that all individuals need to meet regularly to experience well-being: (1) develop a positive picture of themselves; (2) develop close real-love relationships; (3) feel like they belong; (4) receive the respect of others and themselves; (5) feel worthwhile by developing healthy self-esteem; (6) feel competent; (7) experience growth; and (8) feel safe and secure. Then, participants waded through identifying and practicing 9 Skills (Harris, 2012b) of communication: the Four Don'ts (Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling) and the Five Do's (Calm Down, Complain, Speak Non-Defensively, Validate, and Overlearn the Skills) (Gottman, 1994). Additional key principles were covered, such as parenting strategies and financial education principles. ...
... • The Five Do's (Calm Down, Complain, Speak Non-Defensively, Validate, and Overlearn the Skills) (Harris, 2012b). ...
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The inventor, statesman, and scholar Benjamin Franklin provided some wise advice to all those thinking about tying the knot. “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage,” he said, “[and] half shut afterwards.” Marriage is a partnership that has emotional, financial, and legal implications. Before entering into this union, it is important for you and your partner to have your “eyes wide open” as you examine your individual attitudes and behaviors about both social and financial issues. This 4-page fact sheet was written by Lisa M. Leslie and Victor W. Harris, and published by the UF Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, August 2012. FCS2318/FY1334: Are You Ready to Tie the Knot? A Quick Checklist (
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