Intimacy and connection are based on developing awareness, connection, and communication skills. You can develop these skills of emotional intimacy, and a helpful way to do so is through an exercise I call "identifying and connecting."
It is easy to get stuck in a pattern of unconsciously communicating in a way that leads to distance and conflict in your relationships. But by developing emotional intelligence and communication skills, you can significantly improve the intimacy in your life.
An element of emotional intelligence is identifying your feelings and needs. An aspect of connecting with your partner comes through sharing your emotional needs and asking for a specific kind of verbal connection.
Here's an example of implementing identifying and connecting communication skills:
Let's say you are stressed about work and a comment that your boss said to you. You are confused by what she meant, feeling anxious and repeatedly running her words through your mind.
So you take a moment to step back and identify that you need to verbally process that stress to gain awareness and determine what you might want to do about the stress at work. A typical pattern in your relationship might be your partner responding by giving advice, saying 'me too' and giving an example of a time this happened to them, or maybe saying something that feels like it is minimizing your experience.
Instead of just jumping into sharing with your spouse, pause, and take a moment to reflect. Try to be intentional and use skills from the "identify and connect" list below.
You identify that you would like two specific responses from your partner, and you ask: "I'd like to talk about a work situation. Can you support me with active listening and summarizing what I say?" Or you could ask in a more general way by saying:
"I'd like to talk about a work situation, can you use identifying and connecting skills?"
If your partner agrees, then you share your thoughts and feelings.
Your partner could respond: "It sounds like your boss said such-and-such to you, and you are concerned about what she thinks about you. Is that right?"
The benefits of this kind of communication and connection are:
- As the listener, you know your role and can focus on a specific skill or two. This can help you be more present.
- As the listener, you know what your partner needs, and you can give your partner what they need rather than assuming what they need.
- It decreases the amount of mind-reading or other kinds of listening blocks that are so easy to fall into.
- Sometimes for the speaker, just identifying what you need is a big help to get you to a clearer state of mind.
- It helps the speaker to have a safe space to share what they want to share without unhelpful reactions.
- It helps the speaker to be intentional about what they want to say.
- It helps the speaker stay on topic.
- If you have a history of hurtful conflict in your relationship, it can help you rebuild trust and intimacy over time by practicing connecting conversational skills of identifying and connecting.
You can also ask your spouse if you can offer them one of the connecting communication skills. "I'm wondering if it would be helpful if you share your stress about work today and if I give you empathy? What do you think?"
21 Connecting Communication Skills List
It is helpful to intentionally practice each of these skills to develop them to the point of unconscious competence and naturally implement them throughout your life. You know the rare person who makes you feel like the most important person on earth? They use these skills.
- Acceptance. Tell me you accept me just as I am. Ironically, accepting me as I am instead of trying to change me gives me courage to grow.
- Active listening. Let me share whatever story I want to share or vent and express my feelings, and don't try to fix me.
- Summarize. Briefly summarize what I said to help me know you are present and that you care. Hearing the summary of what I said can help clarify my thinking.
- Empathy. Reflect back my feelings so I know you care and feel what I'm feeling.
- Validation. Express that my feelings are important. You may not agree with or even understand me, but you value and respect my experience.
- Encouragement. Express hope to me and tell me it will be okay. Don't underestimate the power of specific and genuine encouragement.
- Identification. Express that I am not alone and that you have had a similar experience. Keep this as short as possible so it doesn't become about you.
- Comforting presence. Just be with me and comfort me when I'm hurting, grieving, or feeling something intensely.
- Affirmation. Compliment me specifically, something about my character, identity, or heart.
- Normalize. Tell me I'm not alone in what I feel, experience, or think. Tell me this isn't crazy, that what I'm experiencing makes sense.
- Celebrate. Celebrate with me! Express joy, pride, and excitement about my success, progress, or milestones.
- Explore meaning. Help me explore what might be happening or why. Do this by asking questions, not sharing your perspective. Ask me questions like: "What does that mean to you?" "What might be going on underneath the surface?" "What do you make of this?" "What is another possible meaning?"
- Elaboration. Ask to explore more about what your partner is discussing. Ask questions like: "Can you tell me more?", "What else?", "What else does this make you think of?"
- Share perspective. Succinctly share your best thoughts on what might be going on, what you think is happening beneath the surface, or wonder if another possible perspective might be true.
- Feedback. Let me know how you experience me. "When I am talking to my childhood friend, how do I come across to you?"
- Advice. Tell me what you think I should do while also respecting my best thinking and what I decide.
- Negotiate. Suggest a topic we disagree on or have conflict about and try to ask for what you each want, find common ground, seek to help us both 'win,' and look for how we can compromise and help each other.
- Invite me to take a risk. Challenge me to take a bigger step or to stretch outside my comfort zone. "What kind of risk could you take?", "What's the courageous choice?"
- Challenge. Gently and with respect, challenge my irrational thinking. "On the one hand, you're saying you think _____. On the other hand, your values are ______. Does that seem to go together?", "I'm wondering if I can question the logic of what you just said." You can also confront me and respectfully share when I've crossed a line. "When you said ______, it was hurtful and I felt disrespected."
- Silence or prayer. Sit with me in silence so we can intentionally reflect together. Or pray with me about something specific.
- Forgiveness. Help me know you forgive me and are not holding my choices against me.
Be intentional in practicing these skills; you will grow in your ability to feel close to your partner, minimize conflict, and increase trust and intimacy.
"You matter. That's what's true and you need to know that."
What a client of mine said, about himself, to himself.
"Without a listener, the healing process is aborted. Human beings, like plants that bend toward the sunlight, bend toward others in an innate healing tropism. There are times when being truly listened to is more critical than being fed. Listening well to another’s pain is a primary form of nurturance, capable of healing even the most devastating of human afflictions, including the wounds and scars of violence, even the horrors of war and large-scale social trauma. Children speak their pain automatically when there is a listener, but learn to hide it when there is no ear to hear."
Miriam Greenspan, Healing Through the Dark Emotions
What skills can you practice this week?
Think back on a powerful conversation you've had. What skills were being used in that conversation to make it so impactful? In what specific situations can you implement those skills more?
If this feels fake or overly structured, remember that intentionally investing in practicing communication skills will improve them. It is normal to feel a bit awkward or vulnerable with any new relational skill. If you genuinely show up and try, it will help! The only way to know is to show up with genuine effort.
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