Updated: May 19, 2021
Perhaps the most common goal across all of the couples I work with in therapy, is improving communication skills. Learning what is blocking you from connecting, how to navigate or even prevent conflict, and how to share your thoughts and feelings are essential skills to a thriving relationship.
Developing deep intimacy with your partner and improving your connection with your friends and family is one of the most important pursuits you can have in life. We are wired for connection and we all long for it. So, today we are going to talk about an exercise and a resource to help you grow in your connection with your spouse, partner, or your friends. Deep human connection is based on developing specific skills. Today we are going to talk about a few of those skills for improving your intimacy, and making you a better friend.
Identifying and Connecting
These skills can be developed, and a helpful way to develop these skills is through an exercise I call "identifying and connecting".
Let's break it down:
An element of emotional intelligence is identifying how you feel and what you need in the moment. Without awareness, without knowing what you need, it's like you're floating down a river being carried about by your external environment and merely reacting. Without awareness, without identifying how you feel and what you need, you are stuck in a cycle of reacting, rather than having autonomy, freedom, and insight and responding based on intentional choice.
In terms of connecting with others, when we know how we feel and what we need, we have healthy individuation and can avoid getting sucked into being codependency or losing our identities in other people's desires or narratives of who we are. If you don't know who you are, then someone else will decide for you!
If you don't know who you are, then someone else will decide for you!
Now, back to breaking down the identifying and connecting skills. We just talked about identifying, now let's talk about connecting.
What I mean here, is that an element of connecting with your partner, or other people, comes through sharing your emotional needs and asking for specific kinds of verbal communication. This kind of connecting is actually pretty rare. Most people don't really know what they need, or how to ask for that from their partner. So if you learn how to identify how you feel, and request what you need from someone else it can really improve your communication, connection, and intimacy.
Another benefit of this is that your partner or friend, when they are listening to you, will be less tempted to read your mind about what you want. So often in communication, especially when you are hearing someone share with you a personal, vulnerable, and painful part of their life, it is easy to read their mind and assume what they want. This assumption of what would be helpful causes a disconnect. For example, it's easy to try to solve the problem, when all your girlfriend wants is to vent. Or it's easy to assume that what is needed is to give advice, or to share a similar experience you have had, when all your husband wants is to be encouraged and affirmed.
Here's an example of identifying and connecting: Let's say you are stressed about work and a comment that your boss said to you. You aren't sure what she meant and you are running it through your mind over and over again. So you take a moment to step back and identify that you need to verbally process that stress to hopefully gain awareness and identify what you might want to do about the stress at work.
A common pattern in your relationship might be that if you begin to just jump in and verbally process this with your partner, they might respond by giving advice, saying 'me too' and giving an example of a time this happened to them, or maybe say something that feels like it is minimizing your experience. Instead of just jumping into sharing with your spouse and have them be likely to try to read your mind react in one of these ways, you try to be intentional and use skills from the “identify and connect” exercise. So instead of having them read your mind, you tell them what would be helpful for you before you begin to share.
You identify that you would like two specific kinds of responses from your partner and you ask:
"I'd like to talk about a work situation, can you give me active listening and summarizing?"
If your partner agrees, then you share your thoughts and feelings. Your partner could respond by saying: "It sounds like your boss said such and such to you, and you are concerned about what she thinks about you, is that right?"
In the future, when your partner has learned these skills, 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?”
Then when you say: "I'd like to talk about a work situation, can you give me active listening and summarizing?" your partner could ask: "Would it help maybe for me to encourage you, and give some perspective? Or would you like me to just hear you vent?" Benefits for this kind of communication and connection are:
As the listener, you know your role and can focus on a specific skill or two at one time.
As the listener, you know what your partner needs. 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 more clear state of mind.
It helps the speaker to have a safe space to share what they want to share without unhelpful reactions.
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 one of the connecting skills to them. "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?"
There are many different connecting skills. Ways that you can actively support and engage with your spouse, partner, or friend.
I have created a PDF document where I list out 20 of these connecting skills for you to use as a cheat sheet to help you work on developing your identifying and connecting skill set. This is a process, and having an intentional tool to break things down will really help you develop this skill.
It helps to break things down and have a resource you can pull out and refer to so you can improve in specific ways.
Just like learning any other skill, to deepen your intimacy and connection with others requires a specific set of skills and can be learned, intentionally practiced, and improved over time. It can feel intimidating, mysterious, or impossible, but by learning and practicing these micro skills you can improve your connection, navigate difficult conversations, and be known more deeply.
If you made it through this article, it shows your heart, it shows that you desire deep connection and to improve your relationships. You deserve it! But it won't happen if you don't practice these kinds of skills. So get the Identifying and Connecting resource, and practice this week.