Effective interpersonal communication is an essential aspect of any functional relationship. This letter will address the barriers to effective interpersonal communication, strategies for active and empathic listening, how perception and nonverbal communication affect relationships, appropriate levels of self-disclosure in relationships, and strategies for managing interpersonal conflicts. With these tools, you will hopefully be able to ensure open and fruitful dialogue in your relationship that will enable you to communicate effectively and honestly. Only by incorporating each of these ideas and strategies into your general worldview and daily interactions will we ensure that the lines of communication remain open in your relationship and that you will continue to trust and support one another. One thread which we will see runs throughout each of these concepts is the importance of listening to and making an effort to understand your partner. This aspect of interpersonal communication forms the foundation of a successful partnership, and without it, any relationship is doomed to fail.
In any discussion of healthy interpersonal communication, it is important to first identify some of the most common barriers to such interaction. One of the most important barriers to interpersonal communication that frequently occurs is actually related to one’s conception of themselves, rather than any view of other people or the ideas surrounding communication. As Kathy Sole states, “some individuals have such a high opinion of their self-worth that they believe that they are better, more deserving, or more special than others...researchers have found that people who keep trying to prove their worth focus excessively on themselves and have less successful relationships” (2011). Clearly, an overly inflated sense of self-worth is an enormous, and often insurmountable, barrier to effective interpersonal communications. To properly communicate with others one must not have an excessive view of their own importance. However, a balance needs to be struck where a high degree of self-esteem is still maintained without delving into egomania.
Low self-esteem can be equally destructive to close relationships. As Sole states, “people who have low self-esteem tend to engage in excessive attempts to seek reassurance of their self-worth from others...because the person with low self-esteem needs constant reassurance, other people begin to feel frustrated and irritated and often socially reject the person” (2011). Clearly, one of the most common barriers to effective interpersonal communication is actually related to one’s view of his or herself, rather than any opinion on the other person or communicative techniques in general. Without a healthy level of self-esteem that allows you to respect yourself without viewing your needs and interests as more important than those of the other people in your life, it is impossible to maintain healthy and effective interpersonal communications. Competent and useful communication with a partner, therefore, must first stem from a strong and comfortable relationship with yourself and your ideas and emotions. This cannot be overstated in its importance and affects the ability to effectively utilize each of the additional tactics that will be discussed.
Listening is an absolutely critical element of effective interpersonal communications. However, there are certain types of listening that are far more important than others. The most important type of communication in a relationship is empathic listening, which Sole sums up when she states that “you make a deliberate attempt to connect with another person and to put yourself in his or her shoes or provide a supportive listening environment...Empathic listening requires that you demonstrate a willingness to be nonjudgmental and to listen openly to the speaker’s thoughts and feelings” (2011). The importance of this type of listening to a healthy relationship is enormous. True empathic listening allows your partner to feel understood and respected, which encourages honest and frequent communication and strengthens the bonds that form the foundation of the relationship. There are a number of tactics that allow you not only to listen empathically but to make the most out of this powerful relationship changing tool.
When utilizing empathic listening it is extremely important to ensure that your partner realizes the depth of your engagement with their issues. As Susan Krauss Whitbourne states, “Being an actively empathic listener means, then, that you not only make sure you're actively paying attention but that you let the speaker you know you are. You ask questions when you're not clear on what the other person is communicating, you try to infer what the person is feeling, and you let the person know that you remember what he or she actually said” (2012). This is an essential element of effectively utilizing empathic listening. Not only does it remind you to incorporate the tactics that lead to active listening, but it also shows your partner that you are engaged and listening on a deep and meaningful level. This provides much of the foundation for effective interpersonal communication.
Perceptions, nonverbal expressions, and emotions, can have a dramatic effect on communication and interpersonal relationships. As Albert Mehrabian states, “When there are inconsistencies between attitudes communicated verbally and posturally, the postural component should dominate in determining the total attitude that is inferred” (1972, p. 108). Since most people already instinctively interpret the actions of others in this manner it is important to ensure that your nonverbal cues like posture and tone match up with the words you are telling your partner, otherwise you will convey a lack of sincerity and trustworthiness. Mastering the nonverbal aspects of communication will help you ensure that what you say to your partner is received with the proper tone and context. Learning more about the nonverbal aspects of communication will also help you listen better to your partner.
Not only does awareness of nonverbal communication help you express yourself better, but it also helps you read your partner better and ensure that you are utilizing effective listening skills. As Sole states, it is imperative to “work to shut judgments about the speaker’s appearance, tone of voice, or other such factors out of your mind when you are speaking with someone, and focus on the words and the meaning rather than on the person delivering the message” (2011). This is a way in which perceptions and emotions can cloud the ability to effectively listen to and engage with your partner. While Sole’s advice may seem to contradict Mehrabian’s statement, it is important to attempt to take both ideas into account and communicate nonverbally as effectively as possible while also not judging others based on nonverbal aspects of their communicative strategies. This is the best possible way in which to ensure that the myriad nonverbal aspects of your relationship are properly kept in check.
The evaluation of appropriate levels of self-disclosure is an incredibly important aspect of many relationships. As Greene, Derlega, and Matthews state, “self-disclosure plays an important part in constructing what kind of relationships individuals have with each other...self-disclosure, depending on reactions of relationship partners, also plays an important role in validating self-worth and personal identity” (2006, p. 409). The relationship between self-disclosure and self-esteem is extremely important given the previously discussed catastrophic effects of low self-image on the ability to maintain healthy relationships. Therefore, we see that self-disclosure is absolutely essential to the maintenance of the emotional health necessary to preserve a nourishing and effective relationship. However, while self-disclosure is an absolutely essential element of a healthy relationship, it is still necessary to preserve some boundaries.
While self-disclosure is vital to effective interpersonal relationships, it is important to keep it at an appropriate level. As Sole states, “disclosure that is inappropriate to the context is referred to as over-disclosure. To determine what is appropriate, you must consider the context in which the communication occurs, the amount (how much information you disclose), the depth (to what level of detail), duration (how long you talk), the target (the nature of your relationship with the other person), and the situation (the time and place of the disclosure)” (2011). When in a loving and close relationship you can and should lean towards greater disclosure, but it is still important to consider these factors and not overwhelm your partner with an abundance of personal revelations in an improper setting. By taking these factors into account you can ensure that the personal disclosures you reveal come through in an effective and useful manner rather than making your partner feel uncomfortable or overpowered. By remembering both the importance of self-disclosure and the limits that allow it to occur effectively you can take great steps to ensure effective communication in your relationship.
There are a number of important ways in which it is possible to manage, mediate, and avoid interpersonal conflicts in a relationship. As Preston Ni states, “Successful couples have the ability to solve problems and let it go. They focus on taking care of the issue rather than attacking the person. Even when angry, they find ways to be upset and stay close at the same time. Once the matter is resolved, they forgive and forget. Most importantly, successful couples have the ability to learn and grow through their interpersonal difficulties” (2012). Ensuring that, even in times of conflict, your love and support for the other person is evident is one of the most effective ways to manage interpersonal conflict. The ability to move on and resist the urge to hold grudges or bring up past issues is also essential to the successful management of interpersonal issues in your relationship. Of course, while some degree of conflict is inevitable, the most effective strategy for managing interpersonal conflict in a relationship is to work with each other and utilize healthy communication to ensure that conflict arises as infrequently as possible.
To prevent conflict within your relationship it is essential for both parties to feel that they are nurtured, understood, and respected by the other. As Sole states, “If the relationship is ongoing, conflict usually results because one person may feel that he or she is doing all the ‘giving’ and getting little in return” (2011). This is why it is extremely important for both sides to listen to one another, disclose to one another, and generally go out of their way to ensure that the other person in the relationship feels loved and acknowledged. A great deal of interpersonal conflict can be avoided by ensuring that both parties feel adequately rewarded for their efforts and that no one person in the relationship feels their contributions are being wasted on an unsupportive or ungrateful partner. This is not always easy, but by keeping it at the forefront of your mind each of you can ensure that the other consistently feels taken care of and supported.
There are a wide variety of important and interesting strategies that need to be utilized to properly foster and maintain effective interpersonal communication within a relationship. Healthy self-image, active and empathic listening, utilization and interpretation of nonverbal expressions, appropriate self-disclosure, and conflict resolution and prevention are all essential aspects of a functional relationship. All of these have in common a desire to understand, support, and nurture your partner that will form the foundation of any effective communicative strategy. Keeping these elements of communication at the forefront of your mind will ensure that your relationship stays healthy and loving for years to come.
Greene, K., Derlega, V. J., & Mathews, A. (2006). Self-disclosure in personal relationships. In A. Vangelisti & D. Perlman (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of personal relationships (p. 409-427). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal communication. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.
Ni, P. (2012, December 5). How successful couples resolve conflicts. Psychology Today. Retrieved March 15, 2014, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/communication-success/201212/how-successful-couples-resolve-conflicts
Sole, K. (2011). Making connections: Understanding interpersonal communication. San Diego: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.
Whitbourne, S. K. (2012, March 13). 11 Ways that active listening can help your relationships. Psychology Today. Retrieved March 15, 2014, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201203/11-ways-active-listening-can-help-your-relationships