Relationship Improvement: Effective Communication Program 

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This paper discusses a 10-week program that was designed to improve my wife’s and my ability to effectively communicate. We hypothesized that our ability to communicate more effectively would improve the overall quality of our relationship. Throughout this program, we focused on increasing our communication, active listening, self-disclosure, non-verbal communication, and effective communication during conflict. The results support our hypothesis and the research used to develop it.

About a month after getting married, I found myself enrolled in this Quality and Intimate Relationships course.

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As a part of this course, we were asked to complete the RELATE assessment and use the results from that assessment to plan a relationship improvement project. Both my wife and I took this assessment, and we found that some of our strengths were in the areas of attachment, relational aggression, kindness and flexibility, and relationship quality. We discovered that one of our areas of weakness was effective communication. We decided to make this the focus of our relationship improvement project. We hypothesized that we could improve our ability to effectively communicate within a 10-week period by participating in various exercises each week that focus on different aspects or skills of effective communication. We also hypothesized that the ability to communicate more effectively would also improve the overall quality of our relationship.

According to Peterson and Green (2009), “Researchers have discovered a strong link between communication patterns and satisfaction with family relationships. In fact, one researcher discovered that the more positively couples rated their communication, the more satisfied they were with their relationship five and a half years later.” It is no surprise that research has also found that poor communication is associated with less satisfaction in relationships and higher rates of divorce and marital discord (Peterson & Green, 2009). Once we identified improving communication as the desired focus of this project, we began to develop specific goals and plans on how we would go about accomplishing this. Our goal was to improve the quality of our relationship within a 10-week period by increasing our ability to effectively communicate.

The results from the RELATE assessment gave us our beginning level of effective communication. To accomplish this goal, we decided that we would identify a specific skill or aspect of effective communication to focus on for a two-week period. At the beginning of each week, we participated in a communication exercise relating to the determined aspect or skill. Throughout the week, we looked for opportunities to apply the practiced skills in everyday situations. At the end of each week, we discussed and evaluated the progress that we made in our ability to apply the specific skill that was practiced at the beginning of the week. We also discussed any benefits that we saw from its application and any barriers that made it difficult to apply. At the end of each two-week period, we evaluated our overall level of communication and chose a new focus for the next two-week period.

This process was repeated for 10 weeks. At the end of the 10-week period, we answered the questions of the effective communication portion of the RELATE assessment and compared those responses to the responses we gave the first time that we took the assessment. In conjunction with the RELATE assessment, we responded to three questions on a 7-point Likert scale, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The first question was, “This program was effective in improving my ability to effectively communicate as an individual.” The second question was, “This program was effective in improving our ability to effectively communicate as a couple.” The third question was, “This program was effective in improving the quality of our relationship.” Based on the results of the RELATE assessment, we decided that our first area of focus was going to be simply communicating more. Research has shown that increased quantities of communication are associated with more positive relationship outcomes such as relationship satisfaction (Emmers-Sommer, 2004). To practice this, the first week we did the ‘How was your day?’ exercise.

This consists of each person asking the other how their day was at the end of the day, and each person is required to have at least a 10-15-minute conversation about their day. The second week, we did the ‘5 Open-Ended Question Challenge’ (Garber, 2008). This activity involves one person asking an open-ended question, to which the other person gives a response. Based upon the given response, the person then asks another open-ended follow-up question. The goal is for the person to ask one initial open-ended question and four additional open-ended follow-up questions based off the responses that they receive. Both of these activities are designed to facilitate a higher quantity of communication by encouraging more detailed responses. The second area of focus during weeks 3-4 was active listening.

This is an important part of communication that allows the person who is speaking to know that they are being heard and understood. It reduces the likelihood of miscommunication and conflict. This can ultimately result in closer and more intimate relationships (Gordon & Frandsen, 1993). Active listening exercises usually consist of the listener giving their undivided attention to the speaker and listening in a non-judgmental way. Often, the listener is asked to paraphrase what has been said or to ask follow up questions (Gordon & Frandsen, 1993; Weger, Castel, & Emmit, 2010). The activity that we chose to do for week 3 was the ‘Listen to Me’ exercise. In this exercise, one partner talks for three minutes about any topic of their choice. While one partner is talking, the other partner gives them their undivided attention and resists the temptation to think of a response or to make judgments about what is being said.

Their only responsibility is to be in the moment and actively listen to what is being said. The fourth week we did the Shared Empathetic Meaning exercise (Gordon & Frandsen, 1993). In this exercise, one partner shares a brief message or portion of a message while the other actively listens. Once the speaker has finished giving the message, the listener then repeats the message as they understood it, without making any judgments or comments on what was said. If something was missed or misunderstood by the listener, the speaker repeats those parts necessary for understanding. Once the message is understood, the speaker can continue on with a new message (Gordon & Frandsen, 1993). The third area of focus during weeks 5-6 was self-disclosure and intimate communication.

According to Laurenceau and Kleinman (2006), “Self-disclosure refers to the verbal communication of personally relevant information, thoughts, and feelings to another and has been implicated as an important factor in the development of intimacy between individuals.” In order to promote more self-disclosure, during week 5 we completed Dr. John Gottman’s Love Map exercise (2016). In this exercise, each partner selects a number between 1-60 which correlates to a specific question on the list of provided questions. The questions ask for information such as: ‘Name two of my closest friends’ or ‘What is my fondest unrealized dream?’ Each participant asks their partner the question. If they get the answer correct, they receive a point. During week 6, we completed part two of Dr. Gottman’s Love Map exercise.

This exercise had a list of open-ended questions that partners take turns answering. Examples of these questions are: ‘What qualities do you value most highly in friends right now?’ or ‘How are you feeling about your jobs these days?’ We also incorporated open-ended questions and follow-up questions into this exercise. Both of these exercises provide great opportunities to self-disclose and can promote a more intimate relationship. This is especially true when self-disclosures involve emotional or evaluative information and not just factual or descriptive information (Laurenceau & Kleinman, 2006). The fourth area of focus during weeks 7-8 was non-verbal communication. Verbal communication is only one of many ways in which we communicate our desired message. Much of what we communicate is through non-verbal means such as facial expressions, body movements, touch, eye-contact, tone of voice, and even physical distance can all communicate messages (Miller, 2012). These messages may be particularly powerful because they are often perceived to be more authentic (Andersen, Geurrrero, & Jones, 2016). Many researchers agree that non-verbal communication skills are necessary for quality and intimate relationships (Laurenceau & Kleinman, 2006).

One researcher went as far as saying, “Nonverbal behaviors play a critical role in creating and sustaining intimate interactions and relationships. More pointedly, we argue that nonverbal communication is the sine qua non of intimacy” (Andersen et al., 2016). Thus, being aware of, and being able to recognize and understand your own non-verbal communication, as well as that of your partner, can be a powerful way to improve the relationship and how you communicate. In order to accomplish this, in week 7 we discussed the various ways of communicating non-verbally, such as touch, proximity, and eye-contact. We also discussed the importance of non-verbal communication. We mutually agreed to pay closer attention to each other’s non-verbal communication patterns, as well as our own. In week 8, we discussed what we had observed throughout the week and how we were affected by each other’s non-verbal communication.

The fifth and final area of focus, during weeks 9-10, was on effectively communicating during conflict. Conflict is inevitable in any relationship and, according to some researchers, it is a valuable tool that can promote intimacy and the quality of a relationship (Miller, 2012). How we manage conflict determines whether or not it is harmful or beneficial to our relationships. Learning to effectively communicate plays an important role in allowing us to resolve conflict in such a way that is conducive to growth and increased intimacy in a relationship (Brower & Darrington, 2012). In week 9, in order to improve our ability to effectively communicate during conflict, we decided to read and discuss Bernstein’s Eight Rules for Fighting Fairly (Bernstein & Magee, 2003). After discussing these eight rules, we mutually agreed to follow them and to assist each other in doing so. During week 10, we read about and discussed Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Gottman, 1994), and we both committed to avoid those four styles of communication.

At the end of week 10, we discussed what we had learned over the 10 weeks. We then responded to the final assessment questions. Results from weeks 1-2 showed that asking the question, “How was your day?” is a question that I commonly asked my wife, even before this project began. She was always eager to share all about her day in every little detail. However, when she would ask me how my day went, I would typically respond by saying, “It was good.” Of course, if something particularly interesting or exciting occurred that day, I would let her know, but my responses often lacked detail and were usually brief. The How Was Your Day? exercise forced me to share more of the minute details of my day, including the things that I considered to be dull or unimportant.

I was surprised to discover that my wife often took interest in many of the seemingly insignificant aspects of my day, and this led to some great conversations. When we first began the 5-Open-Ended Question Challenge, many of the questions we asked were the fun ice-breaker type questions, such as, “If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?” or “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” Even though we have known each other for over 9 years, we were both surprised by how much we learned about each other from asking these silly questions. As we focused on asking more open-ended questions and follow-up questions throughout the week in our everyday conversations, we were both impressed with how many potential communication errors were prevented by using follow-up questions. Not only did these activities improve the quantity of our communication, but they were also successful in improving the quality.

During the Listen to Me exercise, it was very difficult at first to focus only on what was being said. I found myself focusing more on the fact that I was trying so hard to focus. After some practice, and by not trying quite so hard, it started to become a little easier. It was helpful doing the Listen to Me exercise before we attempted the Shared Empathetic Meaning exercise. At first, it was more difficult just to listen, knowing that I would have to repeat the message that I heard. It started to become a little easier as the activity went on, and then I started focusing on the empathy component of active listening, and the exercise became much easier. I realized that when I focused on empathizing, the listening component became easier and much more natural. In my opinion, active empathizing is much more effective than active listening. We have continued to use these skills and exercises in the following weeks and have found them to be very valuable. This is especially true in situations when there is some confusion as to what the other person is talking about. We have begun to use the phrase “just listen to me” to signal that the person isn’t looking for a response, but instead they just want to feel heard. This has led to less negative conflict and more understanding.

The exercises focused on self-disclosure were my favorite exercises in this program. Self-disclosure is the area where I probably struggled the most prior to this program. The question that I ranked lowest on the effective communication portion of the RELATE assessment was the question “I discuss my personal problems with my partner.” Both my wife and I agreed that this is something that I rarely do. It was about this same time in the program that I read Gottman’s chapter on emotional heritage (Gottman & DeClaire, 2001). This chapter made me much more self-aware of how I respond to emotions, how I disclose my emotions, and what factors have contributed to that. This information, combined with the Love Maps exercise completed in weeks 5-6, has really helped me improve my ability to self-disclose. I still have a lot of room for improvement, but I am now moving in the right direction. My wife has told me that I do a much better job of letting her know what I am thinking and feeling. When we completed the effective communication section of the RELATE assessment after completing the program, both my wife and I responded “often” to the statement “I discuss my personal problems with my partner.”

Being more open with our thoughts and feelings has increased our level of intimacy and the overall quality of our relationship. We both gained interesting insights during weeks 7-8 about our patterns of non-verbal communication and the effects that they have on us. I noticed that when I am in a good mood, I communicate this by moving a lot more, having more fluctuations in my voice, and spending more time in closer proximity to others. The opposite is true when I am communicating that I am unhappy or stressed. I noticed that my wife has many of the same tendencies; she has a very expressive face that helps me understand how she is feeling. My wife is much more sensitive to non-verbal communication than I am. In addition to noticing many of the same patterns, she also said that she can tell what kind of mood I am in based on the way I hug her or cuddle with her, which often leads to both of us being in a similar mood, whether that is good or bad.

We both noticed that when we are frustrated, we become more quiet and distant. Neither of us likes how it feels when the other communicates in this way. We decided to avoid these behaviors as much as possible. We also spent some time discussing our favorite non-verbal ways to communicate affection. My wife told me that she loves it when I put my arm around her or hold her hand while we are walking in public. I told her that I love it when she scratches my back or cuddles close to me. Knowing this has encouraged both of us to increase these behaviors. We have seen some small results from the exercises during weeks 9-10 that focus on communicating effectively during conflict. The discussion on Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1994) seemed to be more impactful after observing our tendencies to stonewall when we become frustrated during the non-verbal communication exercises.

The two horsemen that stood out to us the most were defensiveness and stonewalling. Bernstein’s Eight Rules for Fighting Fairly gave us several suggestions that we thought would be helpful to avoid these destructive ways of communicating, such as “arguing for resolution, not to win,” “learning to give helpful criticism,” and “forgiveness.” We have had only a few minor conflicts after completing these exercises. These techniques, as well as all the techniques that have been discussed in this program, have helped us to resolve conflicts more quickly and grow closer in the process. The overall results, from both the effective communication section of the RELATE assessments and the 3-question surveys, suggest that we were able to improve our ability to effectively communicate within a 10-week period by participating in various exercises each week that focused on different aspects or techniques of effective communication.

These results also suggest that our ability to communicate more effectively led to an overall increase in the quality of our relationship. The results from the RELATE assessment in Figure 1 indicate areas of improvement based upon the before and after test. The areas of improvement are marked in red, no improvement is black, and areas where we decreased are marked in blue. Although my score in the area of discussing my problems with my partner only increased from “rarely” to “sometimes,” my wife stated that although I only do this sometimes, it is still a great improvement. The results of this project support our hypothesis and the research used to develop it. Many of the exercises and skills of effective communication require elements of mindfulness, such as being in the moment and being more aware of what is going on. I see this to be especially true in the areas of active listening, non-verbal communication, and effectively communicating during conflict. For this reason, I would have incorporated more exercises that explicitly focus on mindfulness.

Mark Twain once said, “It’s easy to quit smoking, I’ve done it a thousand times.” I have learned that the most difficult part of both relationships and self-change is in the maintenance stage. With that being said, the real test is going to be whether or not we will continue to apply the skills and concepts that we have practiced during this 10-week program. This is not going to be easy, but it is possible. I have found that the best way to maintain both relationships and self-change is to continue to do the same things that facilitated them in the first place: assessing where you currently are, setting goals towards where you want to go, and working hard to get there. Relationships and self-change are fluid and, with that, there are often unexpected circumstances or challenges that can arise. Learning to be flexible allows those challenges to become valuable growing experiences. While completing this program, my wife became very busy with work leaving us with very little time to actually communicate. We reevaluated our situation and decided to use this to motivate us even more to learn how to communicate effectively.

That way, when we did have opportunities to communicate, we would be able to do so in a way that builds and strengthens our relationship. My Ideal Future Relationship: My wife and I were best friends for nearly nine years prior to getting married. During that time our relationship grew; we experienced many things together, and we came to know each other very well. Being married has been one of the greatest experiences in my life and has been an incredible learning experience. As great as the married life is, it does not, however, come without its challenges. I am convinced that some of the unique challenges associated with marriage are part of what makes marriage so great and leads to so much growth. It is not easy to take two separate people, who have different personalities, ideas, and ways of doing things and form a singular life together.

Even seemingly insignificant things, such as how the laundry is done, or how the furniture is arranged, can surprisingly present challenges for newlyweds. Learning skills and techniques that can help a couple navigate these challenges early on can be very valuable and can even change the long-term trajectory of the relationship. In my opinion, the ideal relationship does not consist of two perfect people who were destined to be together and never have disagreements or occasional conflicts. Instead, my ideal relationship is one that consists of two imperfect people who love, support, and respect each other. They are committed to each other and are willing to work hard in order to improve their relationship. When disagreements or conflicts arise, they do not see them as threats to their relationship but rather as opportunities to learn and grow closer together.

Growing up, I saw examples of both good and bad relationships. This class has helped me to identify how these past examples are influencing my current relationship. It has put me in a position where I am now better able to improve the positive aspects and eliminate the negative ones. I am so thankful for the kind of relationship that I have with my wife. We realize that we still have a long way to go, but this project was another step in the right direction.

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Relationship Improvement: Effective Communication Program . (2022, Aug 24). Retrieved from