Building Relationships: The Tenets of Effective Communication

This article is part of a series in which Counseling@Northwestern faculty members weigh in on strategies for developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

“Why don’t you just shut up and listen for a change?”

I have heard this phrase, or one similar to it, in many counseling sessions with couples and families. I must admit that I have wanted to yell it at a few clients, too!

It seems we have an innate hunger for connection with others, and that connection requires effective communication; however, we often struggle to make that happen. In this post, I offer three tenets for effective and more rewarding communication that yield healthier connections.

The first tenant I suggest is that communication often means not saying anything at all. I am referring to listening, of course. Counselors call this “active listening.” I like to think about active listening as listening with my whole self—my ears, my eyes, my mind, my heart, and even my soul. I can’t do this kind of listening while holding the television remote in my hand and watching the game. I especially can’t listen that way if I am crafting my clever response or rebuttal while the other person is talking. Listening is hard work, but it is the foundation of effective communication.

The second tenet I offer is to remember that while other people speak their truth, it is only that, their truth. They have a right to it. But it doesn’t have to be your truth. Postmodern thinkers have reminded us that there is room in the world for multiple truths. When we start thinking that everything is a debate, we have already lost the most important battle—the ability to connect with another. We must learn to suspend judgment and embrace an empathic understanding of the position of others.

My last suggestion has to do with how we communicate our own truths. Religious teachers have encouraged us to “speak the truth in love.” Another way I like to think about that is: I should speak my truths to others in the same way that I would like them to speak theirs to me. Ask yourself if you are being clear, direct, respectful, and open to making adjustments in your methods of communicating. If not, you might need to change something. You have every right to say what you need to say—in fact, you would be remiss if you did not do so. But the way you say things is just as important as what you say.

My hope is that we all can find effective ways to build connections with others and that our approaches to communication will be mutually beneficial and rewarding. If connection is the destination, effective communication is one of the pathways to getting there.