Good communication is the backbone of every relationship. Talking. Listening. Hearing. Couples who communicate successfully have to learn how to say what they’re really thinking and be able to listen openly and actively to their partner. It’s not just about hearing their words, but understanding the meaning and intention behind them. Those who understand this and who regularly work to improve their style are all the better for it. Less confusion and more clarity make for a much happier marriage. And that’s why it’s smart to have some communication exercises for couples in your back pocket.
But what communication exercises are worthwhile, specifically for busy parents who have to get a lot across to one another? We spoke to a variety of therapists and asked them for the recommendations. The exercises they explored with us are relatively simple and don’t involve too much time. But while they’re short on commitment, their big on payout as they help you focus on such important skills as active listening, conflict resolution, and expressing gratitude. Vow to practice these exercises a bit more — or really just keep their principles in mind — and, chances are, you’ll have less missed connections and more
8 Great Communication Exercises for Couples
- Listening Without Interruption
It’s a common sight: One partner talks, the other person simply waits for their turn to speak or fully buts in. Pretty much everyone is guilty of interrupting; but we all need to be better as it takes empathy out of the conversation and communication into a game of one-upmanship.
This simple exercise seeks to root out that bad habit. And yeah, it might seem obvious, but going into a discussion with this framework in mind helps set the tone. It works like this: One partner speaks for five-to-seven minutes and the other partner just, well, listens. When the first person is finished, the other then asks questions to help them understand what they just heard (Think: “How did you feel when you told me that?” “How can I help to make it better next time?” and “What makes it so important to you?”) Once those questions have been answered and addressed, it’s the other partner’s turn to speak.
“The purpose of this exercise is not so that one of the partners justifies why they did something or how they did it, but to help understand each other,” says Valentina Dragomir, Psychotherapist and founder of PsihoSensus. “Defensiveness, judgement, criticism are discouraged during the exercise, and instead listening and asking questions with empathy is encouraged.”
- Expressing Gratitude
Two words, two syllables. “Thank” and “you.” But it’s surprising how often these words are left out of conversations between couples, and how many things are taken for granted or deemed not important enough to warrant appreciation. Often, it’s the everyday little things that couples do for each other often get overlooked. Simply think about appreciation and taking the time to say. “Thanks for making me coffee,” or “I appreciate your filling up my car with gas yesterday.”
“This prompts us to pay attention to how and when our partner is already showing up for us, and to verbally express appreciation,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the owner and founder of Take Root Therapy. “For those who respond well to words of affirmation, this exercise can also help meet that need. This exercise can also lead to a positive snowball for the relationship: the more we express gratitude for one another and feel appreciated, the more we may feel driven to show each other care.”
In many discussions, one person speaks, the other listens at first and then slowly tunes them out, responding ultimately with neutral phrases like, “I understand,” or just simply, “Uh-huh.” It happens. And it inevitably leads to a not-so-fun argument. Mirroring, a classic communication technique, helps prevent that.
When mirroring with your partner, listen to his or her thoughts and feelings and then repeat back what was said, following it up with, “Did I get that right?” Your partner can then confirm or deny whether or not you had it correct and continue the conversation until they feel they’ve been sufficiently heard. At that point, the listener can validate their partner’s feelings by saying, “That makes sense,” or “I’m glad you explained that to me.” Even if you don’t fully agree with everything that was said, at least now you have heard your partner and can approach the conflict from a place of better understanding.
“This exercise gives couples the opportunity to practice expressing their feelings and perspective, to practice active listening, for partners to have the experience of feeling truly heard, and to give and receive empathy and validation,” says Dr. Tari Mack, a speaker, author, coach, and clinical psychologist. “These are skills that couples need to master in order to grow and sustain healthy relationships.”
- The Weekly (or Daily) Check-In
Life is busy and full of constant distractions. Sometimes, the best we can do as a couple is a quick, “How was your day?” as you’re both passing through the same room on your way to somewhere else. This might work for a little while, but ultimately, if you don’t schedule time to check in with each other on a meaningful level, you start to be ships in the night.
Avoiding that is a simple communication exercise of setting up formal check-ins. You can schedule these check-ins, or make it part of your regular routine (such as taking a walk together every night and checking in then), and they don’t have to be long. Just take as much time as you both need to catch each other up on what’s really been going on in your respective lives.
“In this space, they might engage in the listener/speaker exercise, share what’s going well with them and in the relationship, and finally express gratitude for whatever it is that they are grateful for,” says Molly Mahoney, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and the owner of True Therapy. “This method fosters greater connection and communication, even with a hectic life where time to talk is often overlooked.”
- The 40-20-40 Process
This is a specific communications exercise designed for compassionate listening and constructive conflict resolution. The name comes from the division of attention in the conversation (40 percent to each party in the conversation’s feelings, and then 20 percent left in the middle to discuss the relationship). Each person takes their allotted time to speak about their own feelings, with the goal being for each person to listen with the intent to understand and not defend themselves. To that end, accusatory statements are to be avoided, and the focus is solely on how each person is feeling.
“The shared goal is to practice hospitality with one another,” says Grant Brenner, psychiatrist and co-author of the upcoming book, Making Your “Crazy” Work for You, “developing over time a secure base of constructive conversations in which conflict is seen not only as survivable, but also an important and valued–if not always comfortable–part of growing together as individuals and as part of a couple.”
- The Stress Reducing Conversation
It’s an easy trap to fall into: Your partner talks about their stress and you immediately start thinking of solutions to their problems. But sometimes the best thing to do is just listen without offering advice. That’s exactly what this communication exercise for couples, which comes from Gottman Institute, helps provide. It simply asks partners to take 20 minutes a day to listen to one another’s stressors without offering advice.
“To show understanding, the listener must be present, ask questions, reflect what they hear their partner sharing and validate their feelings,” says License Marriage and Family Therapist Kimberly Panganiban. “This exercise is meant to be a daily ritual that couples do at the end of the day for about 20 minutes. It helps them learn about one another’s world and strengthens the bond between them,”
- The Sandwich Method
The intent of this communications exercise is to practice sandwiching your request between two positive statements. So, rather than just coming at your partner with a blunt “I need you to do this!”, you soften the blow by focusing on the good things in the relationship, making them more receptive to whatever it is you have to say.
For example, you might approach your partner with a specific request and say, “I really appreciate everything you’ve done around the house and all the help you’ve been providing lately.” Then, from there, you work in the request, “Is there any way you might be able to make sure that you [INSERT REQUEST HERE] as well?”After that, you button it up with more positive words, “I know you’re already doing so much, but this would be so helpful and I appreciate it, and you, more than you know!” Because you’ve couched the request in these terms, your partner will be much more receptive to hearing it and also understand why you’re making it.
“This ensures your criticism is softened by positivity, so your partner is less likely to take offense,” says Ray Sadoun, a London-based mental health and addiction recovery specialist. “As a result, you will be able to communicate clearly and maturely.
- The TV Show/Movie Exercise
Here’s a chance for a couple to communicate and have a little bit of fun together. During a set check-in time, each partner suggests a genre or a specific TV show or movie that answers this question, “If our life together was a show or film right now, what type would it be or which one would it be?” The answers that can come out of that question can be humorous but also insightful. Is it a comedy because of all the laughter, or a drama because of everything that is happening around us? Or are there some funny answers that can make you laugh at yourselves and your situations?
“This is worthwhile because it allows couples to talk about their wins in addition to talking about the problems,” says Shemiah Derrick, Licensed Professional Counselor and author of The Words Between Us: A 30-Day Journal for Couples to Get Closer & Communicate with Love, “but also helps them to look at occurrences from a different perspective.”