95% of couples come to therapy because of communication problems. When I ask couples in the first session what they need help with, without fail, they tell me they need to communicate better. Often, couples have a hard time explaining to me why their conversations go awry or what they need help with to improve their communication. If I tell you, “You need to communicate better,” does that mean anything to you?
It is very difficult to improve communication when we don’t know why it’s broken. And since knowledge is power, I want to break this down for you into bite-sized pieces. These are the most important elements of good communication, and in my experience, when these are a struggle for partners, their communication is going to suck.
So I created a quiz, or more accurately, an assessment to help you find your weak spots. If you can identify where your personal communication deficits are, you can make some intentional efforts at change. Being specific and intentional can help you create huge improvements in your communication with small but focused efforts. Set aside about 20 minutes to walk through this quiz. Print it out, use a highlighter, and take this great step toward improving your relationship this week!
Am I Relationally Skillful? A Communication Self-Assessment
Below are a series of questions. Go through these questions one by one. Take your time. Reflect on each one. Be honest with yourself. Do not beat yourself up if you feel subpar in some, most, or all of these skills. And most importantly, pick one. Pick one skill below that you want to work on. I don’t care if you are 21 or 81, you can learn new skills. The great thing about relationships is that improving them often is just a matter of learning new skills. We are all capable of that. Which means, we are all capable of relational change and relational success. Hooray!
When your partner shares with you, do you respond in empathy? Do you express empathetic statements like, “Gosh that sounds hard,” or “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.” Would other people close to you describe you as an empathetic person? If I ask your partner if you are empathetic to their pain and hardships, would they say yes?
Is it easy for you to express vulnerability? When you are feeling sad, inadequate, rejected, scared, anxious, unsure of yourself, etc, can you easily communicate those feelings with your partner? Another way to think about this: If I asked your partner if they feel privy to your struggles and worries, would they say yes?
Are you a good listener? Before you answer that, keep reading. A good listener doesn’t interrupt and try to convince the other person of their opinion, and a good listener doesn’t wait for a break in a conversation so they can express the way they see it. A good listener listens closely with curiosity and delights in learning more about their partner as their partner shares with them. When a partner opens up to a good listener, the partner feels heard and understood. If I asked your partner if they feel heard and understood by you, would they say yes?
Are you an engaged partner? A disengaged partner can have fabulous communication skills, but if they are said from a disengaged place, great communication can mean very little. So, when your partner comes home, do you communicate through your words or a gesture some sort of acknowledgement or delight that they are home? When your partner comes in the room, do they get some sort of recognition from you? When your partner has a hard day, do you communicate your curiosity and care about how they are doing? When your partner has a success, are you first in line to high-five, hug, or congratulate them with excitement? When your partner has a hard meeting coming up, do you call or text them afterward to ask how it went? If I asked your partner if you are engaged in their life, would they say yes?
Are you emotionally safe? When your partner shares something with you, do you respond with empathy, care, love, acceptance, and a curious listening ear? Or do you respond with “The way I see it . . .” “What I think you should do is . . .” or “So-and-so went through that and this is what they did . . .” or do you make it about you? Do you give a dismissive response like “It’s not that big of a deal,” “You are being too dramatic,” or “You are too sensitive”? Do you give a judgmental response such as, “That’s weird,” or “I can’t believe you feel that way or see it that way”? If I asked your partner if they feel accepted by you when they open up to you, would they say yes?
Are you good at expressing hurt? This is a landmark feature of healthy intimate communication. Can you let your partner know you feel hurt by them without criticizing them or insulting them? Can you let your partner know you feel hurt instead of stuffing it down and stewing in resentment to avoid conflict?
Apology and Repair
Are you a good apologizer? Are you skilled in putting aside your ego and saying “I am genuinely sorry.” Can you apologize without saying, “But I only did it because you did that” or “You do it too.” Do you apologize hoping it will soothe the hurt you caused your partner and they feel better? Or do you apologize to make the conversation end and hope your partner will drop it already? If I asked your partner if you apologize and help repair the hurts between you, would they say yes?
Are you approachable? Can your partner give you feedback when they are concerned about you, your behavior, or when they feel hurt by you? Can your ego tolerate hearing that your efforts didn’t hit the mark? Can you tolerate your partner feeling disappointed in you? If I asked your partner if they feel comfortable sharing concerns with you, would they say yes?
Are you a good comforter? When your partner is scared, sad, or anxious do you respond with effective comfort? Hugs, affirmation, expressions of love, asking what you can do for them or what they need from you? Do you give your partner empathy and care when they are going through a hard thing? If I asked your partner if they feel comforted by you, would they say yes?
Are you self-aware? Can you tell when your own experiences, past hardships, or past relationship hurts affect how you behave with your partner? Are you able to see what you bring to the relationship that may be harmful or damaging, or are you only able to see what your partner does wrong? If I asked your partner if you are skilled in seeing your part and not placing all the blame on them for your relational issues, would they say yes?
Are you able to regulate your emotions? If you feel super angry or mad, can you express your anger without blowing up at your partner? Or alternatively, when you feel emotions, do you shut them down quickly and stay neutral or stoic? If I asked your partner if your emotions come out in effective, safe ways, would they say yes?
Do you have effective, healthy ways outside of your relationship that you receive comfort? Do you make sure you don’t put all of your emotional needs solely on your partner to support? Do you have friends you confide in and self-care efforts you consistently rely on to bring you good feelings outside of your relationship? Does your partner feel the weight of being your sole support? If I ask your partner if you have healthy support outside of them, would they say yes?
Do you do life openly with your partner? You may be an excellent communicator, but if you don’t live a transparent life with your partner, great communication skills won’t cut it. Is your phone, computer, iPad accessible for either of you to use? Do you have each other’s passwords? Do you both have access to finances? Is your spending transparent? Are you transparent about who you spend time with and talk to? If I ask your partner if they feel privy to your life, would they say yes?
Whew! You made it. Now, go back and circle one.
Which communication skill do you want to be intentional about this week?
How do you want to improve that skill? Practice, read a book on it, listen to a podcast on the subject, read a blog post about it, talk to someone who does this well, or get advice from a mentor/counselor.