Tips for Couples on Improved Communication

Tips for Couples on Improved Communication


I received a question about how couples can learn to communicate in ways that are not destructive to their relationship. There is not a simple answer to this question without knowing more about the individuals and the history of the problem. 

We all have a strong need to be listened to. Being heard is one thing; being listened to is another. Being heard is hearing the words, but not fully understanding the message. Most often, when someone talks to us, we begin to identify with what they are saying; we are prepared to give them our example or experience of what they just expressed to us. For example:

“At work today, my supervisor gave me a new assignment to do by tomorrow. I still had not completed the four he wants done also for tomorrow. I am frustrated.”

Response: “I did not like that you asked me to run more errands today before I had even completed the first ones.”

We often have conversations like this. To listen means to understand the person’s experience. It is usually more helpful to ask for more clarity. To respond to the first statement by asking for more information shows you are listening. To ask about their frustration indicates an awareness of their feeling. To ask about possible options reflects an interest in trying to plan differently. To ask if the person believes there is something that can be said to the supervisor, offers support in trying to explore changing the assignment. 

When we ask people questions to garner more information, we reflect that we have listened to what we were told and are choosing to continue to focus on the person rather than tell our own story. 

Relating our own way of identifying with what we are being told is not always inappropriate. It is usually helpful to ask the person if they would like to hear an example of how you handled a situation that was similar. 

Often it is supportive to ask how we can be helpful. “What would you like from me?’’ “How can I be helpful?”

It is a sign of listening if we suggest we tell the person what we heard them say. By doing this, we are communicating our interest in being clear about what they are saying. “I believe you are saying you are being asked to do more than you feel is in the best interest of doing your work well. Is that correct?”

There is great value in listening. It is not easy to avoid offering our own examples or our own opinion. Unfortunately, we are often not encouraged to listen in our lives and truly do not know how to do so. 

It is very rewarding to find people who will or to learn to do so ourselves. 



Dr. Natalie Gelman is an Alameda-based therapist. Please submit questions at or through Gelman’s web site,