By: Lisa Firestone Ph.D. | July 24, 2022
"Many people have only heard the term “collaborative communication” used in the context of company culture and teamwork. It’s basically defined as a method of exchanging information that helps people work toward a common goal. Yet, it’s not just businesses that reap the rewards of this type of relating.
Studies have shown that couples who practiced collaborative communication experienced more overall relationship satisfaction. When you get into the steps of collaborative communication, it’s clear how it can be a powerful tool for improving interpersonal relationships. Here, I break down what it entails and why it makes such a difference to the quality of a relationship.
What is collaborative communication?
Collaborative communication does not just refer to the words that come out of our mouths. Rather, it encompasses all the intricate ways we communicate through tone, expression, body signals, etc. Most of us aren’t even aware of all the messages we send on both verbal and non-verbal levels. Many conflicts between couples arise from misreads, misunderstandings, and lapses in our communication.
In order for two people with two completely different minds and two complex personal histories to live harmoniously, there needs to be a certain amount of balance and understanding. Collaborative communication offers a pathway to achieve just that by helping people become more aware of all the ways they communicate and guiding them to make an effort to align themselves with the other person in order to achieve a shared understanding.
How can we cultivate collaborative communication in our closest relationships?
Communicating collaboratively means taking actions that draw our partner out and trying to understand an interaction from their perspective. Our goal is to align our state with theirs, so we get a fuller picture of their experience separate from our own. When we do this, we often have to fight our own impulses to come from a more reactive, defensive, or combative place in ourselves.
Successful collaborative communication further focuses on how we can express our own perspective in a manner where we are more likely to be heard by our partner. Enhancing our ability to communicate with more vulnerability, openness, and empathy creates more trust in the relationship. Couples can form much stronger connections where each person feels known and understood by the other.
The specific techniques we can work on to achieve this type of communication with a partner include:
1. Becoming a better, more attuned, and less defensive listener
In order to be on the same team, we have to work on our listening skills. Tuning in to our partner and aligning our state with theirs is crucial. We can do this by really hearing them out without interrupting or arguing with their perspective. This doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything they say, but our goal in this moment is to understand where they’re coming from as best we can, put ourselves in their shoes, and empathize with their unique experience. This is part of creating a shared understanding.
2. Separating our past from the present
In order to press pause on our immediate reactions, especially those that are exaggeratedly emotional or defensive, we have to do some reflecting on why we get triggered by certain interactions. Some of us get set off by a partner’s exasperated expression or instructive tone. Others feel provoked by hearing a series of complaints or getting any sort of feedback.
Understanding that both what we hear and how we react during conflict is influenced by the lens of our past helps us recognize that what we’re reacting to in real time isn’t always fully to blame for the big feelings that emerge within us. The more we get to know and recognize our triggers, the more we can resist falling victim to them. Rather than blindly following our flared-up reactions, we can be mindful and choose how we want to respond to our partner.
3. Expressing ourselves in ways that allow our partner to know and feel for us
Our tendency to feel like we need to protect ourselves often leaves us using more defensive or combative language. Instead, we should focus on expressing how we think and feel in a way that doesn’t lay blame on the other person but rather invites them to know and feel for us. For example, instead of saying, “You never listen to me. You only care about what you want,” you could say, “I feel hurt when I don’t feel listened to. I really appreciate when you take time to hear me out and take my feelings into consideration.”
4. Repairing after ruptures in communication
Let’s face it, we all make mistakes and are bound to have moments when we’re not at our best (to say the least) with the people we care most about. The best thing we can do to get back on the same team is to repair. Acknowledge what took place, accept responsibility for your part in it, and try to find a more balanced way to communicate your thoughts, feelings, wants, or needs. Listening to our partner’s experience of the rupture is also essential. Making space for them to express their perspective helps them feel heard and allows for healing."