What is the ART of Communication

How Does the ART of Communication Work?
By Sandi Williams, MS, MA, LMFT

I have often asked my couples in therapy, the men in particular, what they would give me if I could cut in half the time they spend arguing with their partner. As you can imagine, they are desperate enough to promise me their firstborn – though not a fair commodity since that would be a double win for them, seeing as their firstborn is usually a teenager, ha. So I tell them that fight-times are cut in half if each person will listen while the other one is speaking. 

Our Key Core Beliefs, or the beliefs we hold deeply about ourselves, are often triggered when we feel criticized. If someone points out something we are not doing “right”, then we figure that they are saying we are doing it “wrong”, or even “I am wrong”. So let’s clean this up in the vocabulary we use to define our Key Core Beliefs. Let’s avoid using “right” or “wrong” or “I am right” or “I am wrong”. Let’s pay attention instead to perspective. What’s important is our ability to communicate so that we can understand the other person’s perspective. The Key Core Belief to aspire to then is: “I can communicate”.

To truly communicate, you have to learn the ART of listening – listening well enough that the other person feels
heard, understood, and accepted.

Start by taking a deep breath. John Gottman, a marriage researcher from Seattle, has found that when your heart rate is over 100 beats per minute (bpm), no effective communication can happen because your built-in alarm system has been triggered. This alarm system has a name: Diffuse Physiological Arousal or DPA for short. When your body hits DPA mode, your heart speeds up, so it pumps your blood faster, raising your heart rate. You might also experience other physical reactions when you’re upset – your skin gets blotchy or tears form in your eyes, you shut down and stop talking, you say the same thing over and over again, your throat may feel tight, or you feel suddenly feel sick to your stomach.

These reactions lead to the infamous fight, flight, or freeze responses. The two most basic ones are fight - in relationship terms we call “pursue” and flight - we call this “withdraw”. No communicating happens if you feel your heart beating too fast because of your body’s DPA response, so take a minute to breathe and calm down. Now onto the rules of the ART of Communication:

Goal #1: Actively listen. The reason that most people repeat themselves over and over is because they don’t feel heard. When you’re listening, you can’t be speaking! Further, if you’re thinking of what you are going to say next while your partner is talking, you aren’t actively listening. If your partner doesn’t feel heard, your partner is not going to hear your response anyway, so your response is irrelevant until your partner feels heard.

Goal #2: Relate through empathy. Be sure that you have understood what your partner has told you. Repeat back what your partner just said to see if you understand correctly - “Am I understanding this right, you would like me to ….” or, “If I’m hearing you correctly, you’d like me to …”. By repeating back what your partner said, you are not trying to mock their perception or point of view, but instead trying to gain empathy in what it’s like to be them. This is a very important point. So I often say to my couples, “If I were you, I can imagine I might feel _______.” Your goal here is to be able to fill in the blank accurately. What is it like to be the other person? This is not about what’s right or wrong, it’s about having empathy for the other person.

Goal #3: Trust in the other person’s good intentions. To do this, you have to understand where the other person is coming from. It’s important that your partner feels accepted, or what therapy refers to as “validated”. This doesn’t mean that we agree with their viewpoint; it just means that you accept it as valid.

So the ART of communication is:

  • A=actively listen
  • R=relate through empathy
  • T=trust in the other person’s good intentions.
Once you both feel hear, understood, and accepted, then you’ll be able to discuss your differences together and begin to figure out how to resolve them.

“Key Core Beliefs: Unlocking the HEART of Happiness & Health” is available from Amazon.com.