Communication issues among family members are common. We can improve our personal relationships by getting back to the basics. Here are ways to resolve conflict in a constructive way.

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An abstract image of a mediator with a parent and child.
Credit: Illustration: Kailey Whitman.

Lack of communication strains, if not endangers, any relationship, and it's far more common than you might imagine. As a family mediator, by the time most of my clients come to me, they are either talking over each other, at each other, or not talking to each other at all. In those cases, they are unhappy, unfulfilled, unmotivated, and either unwilling, or unable, to move forward. That's a lot of "UNs!"

But it doesn't need to be that way. In fact, by improving your communication skills, you can remove all of those "UNs" and develop a relationship that is happy and fulfilling. If you had it and lost it in your relationship, you can find it again.

Here are my tips for improving communication with family members, co-workers, and friends alike. As a husband of 25 years, and a dad of two adult sons and a teenage daughter, I even use these methods myself!

Be Honest with Yourself

It's easy to blame another person for a breakdown in communication. But self-reflection is a critical step in improving relationships with others. Ask yourself the following two questions: What's it like to communicate with me? What's it like when I communicate with (fill in the blank with your spouse, kids, co-workers, parents, etc.)? Spend some time thinking about these questions and come up with an honest answer for both.

No matter how you might feel about the other person, you really can't change what they do and how they act. This step is important because it gets you to focus on the one thing you can control, and that's you!

Follow-up the answers to your questions by thinking about how you used to communicate with them. For example, can you remember what it was like when you first met your partner? What was it like to talk to each other in the beginning? Doing so provides hope by helping you uncover a foundation of positive communication that you may have forgotten was even there.

Track Down What's Changed

I'd be willing to bet that once upon a time you were able to communicate with this person with ease. You could find some common ground through talking and telling stories. Moments together were fun, exciting, and enjoyable; there wasn't always tension.

What's changed from then to now? Why are things different? Have you changed? Have they? Are your current circumstances somehow different from then? If so, how, and why?

In the context of improving communication and knowing how to move forward, you need to know where you are and where you've been. Tracking down what's changed gives you that current and past perspective and helps you to identify a positive path forward.

Learn to Listen

To become a better communicator, a person needs to learn—and love—to listen. A common adage in the field of communication is that "people talk, when I listen." The use of a comma, here, is important. It's a deliberate move—a break in one's own thoughts and actions to consciously listen.

How can you become a better listener? First, move away from anything that is distracting you. If it is your phone, put it away. If it is the TV or computer, turn it off. Second, turn toward the person who is speaking to you. If it is a child, get down to their level by kneeling, sitting, or putting them on your lap. And third, try connecting instead of correcting. You don't have to be right, and you don't need to "fix it." Resist the urge to respond immediately. Maybe the person talking to you just wants you to listen. You never know what you might learn.

Respond Productively

Becoming a better listener doesn't mean you won't disagree or have something to add. I'm not suggesting that to be a good listener you don't say anything in return or that it avoids conflict. On the contrary, listening helps get through conflict.

Whether I am working with clients, colleagues, or my own family members, three skills complement effective listening: summarizing, reframing, and validating.

Summarizing is simply relating back to whomever you are speaking to, what you heard them say, in your own terms. This shows that you are listening and gives them a chance to clarify, which minimizes misunderstandings.

Reframing goes beyond restating what was heard. It concentrates on the problem and not the person. It identifies the "it," whatever it is, that is at the heart of the issue. For example, if your two kids are arguing over who is hogging the bathroom while getting ready for school in the morning, a parent can say something like, "OK, maybe we need to talk about scheduling the bathroom." This focuses on the problem, not the people involved.

Finally, validation is acknowledging what someone has experienced, how someone feels in the moment, and oftentimes why. Again, you don't have to necessarily agree with someone to validate them. It's simply saying, "I understand where you are coming from."

Seek Outside Help When Necessary

Despite your best efforts, not all disagreements can be resolved without outside help. In cases of domestic violence and mental health issues, specifically, trying to resolve conflict alone is not recommended at all. Please, if you find yourself in either of those situations, reach out for help. Professional help can provide a safe environment to work through things.

For those who do not fall into either of those categories, often, the problem is simply a matter of being too close to the issue. And, sometimes, you're just plain stuck. Working with a mediator (you can find one in your area online), or other professional, can help to relieve some of the burden and get you in the right direction.

Jeffrey Owens has been married to his best friend for the past 25 years. He and his wife have three kids, and a puggle named Jelly Bean. He is a child welfare attorney, representing abused and neglected children in court, and has been a practicing mediator, mentor, and trainer for almost 20 years. He can be reached at owensjeffreya@gmail.com.