A Research Paper By Sara Kwon, Relationship Coach, UNITED STATES
Relationship Coaching Improves Communication
What makes a successful relationship? The answer is multifaceted and may vary by individual opinion, but the aphorism “Communication is key” has earned its status for good reason. Communication skills are the building blocks of developing and maintaining trust, illustrating presence, providing validation, and respectful day-to-day function. Esther Perel, licensed psychotherapist, speaker, author, and podcaster expands upon the value in her blog, Letters from Esther: “From the very beginning, Western parents tell children “Use your words.” The current norm emphasizes direct communication and the ability to clearly articulate one’s needs as an essential step to building confidence and self-esteem.” Both confidence and self-esteem are crucial to embracing and expressing one’s authenticity, which is the foundation of stimulating and meaningful connections.
For clients looking for support surrounding the romantic relationship that they are in or are seeking, coaching has the potential to provide considerable benefit. While each client brings their unique goals and strengths that direct the session’s outcome, the tenets of coaching lend themselves a broadened communication toolset. Through listening actively, maintaining presence, cultivating trust and safety, evoking awareness, and facilitating growth, a coach both demonstrates strong communication skills and supports the client as well.
The client’s communication muscle is actively exercised throughout coaching, and there are many ways that this practice can significantly benefit their relationship including but not limited to preparation to navigate times when triggers inevitably occur; clarifying values and support needed; establishing a structure for harmonious partnership, repairing and strengthening trust and connectedness, and much more. When clients come to deeply understand themselves and create action plans that uplevel their lives, they not only lead by example in their current relationships and open up the conversation of growth, but also attract more aligned energy in any future relationships that they may seek.
The Benefit of Relationship Coaching
Self-awareness is critical to effective communication. It leads to a stronger capacity to speak and act in alignment with one’s truth, accuracy in words that are spoken, and a greater perception of how one’s behavior affects others. Essentially, greater self-awareness leads to greater Emotional Intelligence (EI). EI is comprised of awareness of one’s emotions, being able to articulate one’s emotions, managing one’s emotions no matter what is presented, awareness of others’ emotions and what the context calls for, and managing relationships. These qualities can be developed and practiced to foster constructive communication skills and resilient romantic relationships.
It is extremely difficult to communicate successfully when one does not understand his or her own priorities, needs, fears, or triggers. This can be particularly exacerbated if someone is experiencing difficulty with codependency, which Medical News Today describes as “…when one partner needs the other partner, who in turn, needs to be needed. This circular relationship is the basis of what experts refer to when they describe the “cycle” of codependency. The codependent’s self-esteem and self-worth will come only from sacrificing themselves for their partner, who is only too glad to receive their sacrifices.”Through inward reflection and unconditional support in coaching, there is potential for great impact for clients that share this experience or exhibit these tendencies.
Coaching provides a space for clients to form awareness around their values, beliefs, strengths, challenges, and more, and also empowers clients to prioritize what is truly important to them. In coaching, clients are offered the opportunity to explore beyond their current way of thinking about themselves and the situation(s) they are in which builds clarity around the outcome that they desire and how to achieve it. A coach leads with their curiosity and is trained to notice or inquire about aspects that often remain hidden or forgotten, such as cognitive distortions (beliefs, ideas, thoughts, and assumptions that we believe are absolute truths but are often irrational), underlying and limiting beliefs, existing knowledge or resources, and more. This process allows the client to visualize with ambition and plan with pragmatism.
Coaches often act as mirrors, reflecting what they hear and see objectively for the client to consider and reflect upon. Romantic partners also act as mirrors, whether intentionally or not, through life. This may expose emotional and psychological triggers, which require thoughtful intention to work through(and when appropriate, necessitates a referral for therapy). Appreciative Inquiry is a valuable tool in a coach’s arsenal. It helps the client identify their resources and strengths and appropriately address these feelings so they do not lead to negative behavior, so they can effectively respond rather than react. This process cultivates Emotional Intelligence and ideally, the significance attached to these triggers is also minimized through this awareness and empowerment.
Other tools and assessments that coaches may draw from to evoke self-awareness along with relationship awareness might be the 5 Love Languages, Enneagram, and CliftonStrengths. According to the 5 Love Languages, “different people with different personalities give and receive love in different ways. By learning to recognize these preferences in yourself and in your loved ones, you can learn to identify the root of your conflicts, connect more profoundly, and truly begin to grow closer.” Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson share in The Wisdom of the Enneagram that the Enneagram, which outlines nine personality types rooted in childhood desires and fears “…is a development of modern psychology that has roots in spiritual wisdom from many different ancient traditions…it concerns itself with one element that is fundamental to all spiritual paths: self-knowledge.” CliftonStrengths
If we hear something that contradicts our values or our interests, we tend to react, by becoming defensive; our ability to be effective listeners is a hostage of our own filters. As a consequence, our capacity to build meaningful relations, even with the people we love, our ability to lead effectively, to be a catalyst of change, to make a positive contribution, is negatively affected. Aldo Civico, PhD
Cultivating Trust and Safety
There is an instinctually unsafe element to vulnerability; it means opening one’s heart and mind to the input and interpretation of another, which carries the risk of disconnection or disapproval. Partners must face the fears that come with authentic expression in order to nurture a romantic relationship. Esther Perel shares that taking this risk is the only option to (re)build trust, citing author Eli J. Finkel’s All-or-Nothing Marriage, “Deep intimacy…requires some tradeoff between relationship enhancement and self-protection. He asks “are you more willing to let yourself be highly vulnerable in pursuit of deep intimacy, or are you more willing to sacrifice some level of intimacy to avoid being highly vulnerable?”
Courageous communication brings meaningful connection. A safe coaching environment helps to make taking these risks more manageable for the client. It is the coach’s role to model unconditional support through sharing objective observations and feedback without attachment, acknowledging the client’s expressions and insights, and showing empathy and concern. This allows the client to practice vulnerability and experience the benefit of having a partner that embraces their honest introspection.
The coach and client partnership require established trust and safety to thrive much like any other relationship. Dr. Brené Brown discusses the seven elements of trust in Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience using the acronym BRAVING highlighted below. This is a helpful tool for partners to assess and communicate about trust and is also a valuable guide for coaches to best support their clients.
Boundaries: You respect my boundaries, and when you’re not clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay, you ask. You’re willing to say no.
Reliability: You do what you’ll say you do.
Accountability: You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends.
Vault: You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share.
Integrity: You choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.
Nonjudgment: I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment. We can ask each other for help without judgment.
Generosity: You extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.
We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection. Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart
Maintaining Presence & Actively Listening
The cornerstone of communication is listening. Active listening requires focused attention and awareness, non-judgment, echoing/mirroring/summarizing, and clarifying. This practice ensures that the listener is fully present, understanding the speaker’s message, and responding thoughtfully – as opposed to the less-engaged tendencies one tends to exhibit such as simply repeating back information or (often impatiently) waiting for the speaker to finish and then insert one’s own thoughts. One of Clifford Notarius, Ph.D. and Howard Markman, Ph.D.’s “Six Truths for Couples” notes, “It’s not the difference between partners that cause problems but how the differences are handled when they arise…rather than focusing on areas of agreement and disagreement, partners in happy relationships develop good listening skills. These skills have nothing to do with eliminating differences, forcing consensus, or giving advice. Listening skills involve understanding and acceptance of differences…”
Coaching empowers the client to more clearly articulate their goals, desires, and values, but self-expression is just one-half of the art of communication. The coach also demonstrates presence and active listening for the client, which allows them to experience the value that this level of attentiveness and appreciation brings to deep understanding. Active listening is not asked or expected of the client, however, an overarching agreement in coaching is that the client is open to reframing their perspectives which requires mindful contemplation of feedback. This practice equips the client with greater cognizance of this soft skill, which is useful both proactively in times of appreciation and gratitude, and as a part of repairing and validation in times of conflict. A tool that a coach might offer proactively would be a version of Dr. Martin Seligman’s Three Good Things/Three Blessings/What Went Well activity. Seligman, “the father of Positive Psychology,” Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and American Psychological Association President created this practice with the aim to avoid anxiety and depression by intentionally focusing on positive events. Thinking about what went well keeps us from dwelling in a negative mindset, and encourages presence and gratitude.
A conflict is often a dialogue of the deaf. Aldo Civico, PhD
Ownership, accountability, and purposeful action are vital to an honest, respectful, and enduring relationship. The ability to acknowledge when personal change is needed strengthens safety and trust around being vocal and vulnerable when a conflict has arisen, but also when new goals and desires arise in life. Taking action to achieve those goals is a part of living with integrity and reliability, as mentioned in Dr. Brown’s elements of trust – But this does not necessarily mean massive, dramatic changes. In another one of the “Six Truths for Couples,” Notarius and Markman assert that “Little changes in you can lead to huge changes in the relationship…Most couples in trouble think that for things to improve, extraordinary changes, if not a miracle, have to take place. And human nature being what it is, most of us who have relationship troubles think these changes need to b made by our spouse, not ourselves. But we often don’t realize that we have no control over our partner’s behavior…The breakthrough comes when we realize that by making even small changes in ourselves, we can affect big, positive changes that make us more optimistic and open to our partners.”It takes work to move out of a disempowered mindset but a change in perspective here, as Notarius and Markman note, opens us up to the possibility that both we and our partners are capable of the growth we desire. The renowned remark from Henry Ford, industrialist and founder of Ford Motor Company, resonates: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
Coaches help clients to create better awareness around any disempowering mindsets and empower them to create supportive action and accountability plans to ensure the steps toward their desired goals are carried out. By using the“SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Bound) assessment, the coach engages the client in a discussion of feasibility and motivation, prompting ownership around their plan and its significance. This clarity supports the client and also sets them up for communication success with regard to their relationship – From eloquently sharing their journey to directly involving their partner in their learnings and growth, clients walk away from each session with a clear understanding of what their next steps are and why.
The premise of coaching is that clients, when open-minded and motivated, can achieve their goals. The unfortunate reality of relationship coaching is that the client’s partner may not be as open-minded and motivated to change as the client is. Effective and respectful communication requires two individuals, but coaches and clients must operate under the knowledge that one can only control one’s own mindset and behavior. Coaching empowers the client to take purposeful steps toward their goals, supported by a deeper understanding of themselves and their values, but this cannot guarantee that their partner will be receptive.
Beyond that, successful communication may also result in the ending of a relationship. The growth and clarity that results may reveal that their current relationship is not working for them. Relationship coaching is about supporting the individual to make the most supportive and aligned choices toward achieving their goals – It is not centered around preserving current relationships. Coaches should remain mindful of not leading the client one way or another based on their perceptions or the outcome that they think would be best for the client. These journeys are highly personal and it is essential that coaches uphold their unbiased, objective roles.
Humans thrive with quality partnerships. When our relationships are generally positive, we experience happiness, and when we feel happy, we continue to nurture our relationships and regard our lives as meaningful. It would therefore be logical and make life most enjoyable to proactively invest in self-awareness and Emotional Intelligence as an individual and as a partner, to contribute to these positive outcomes. Coaching, particularly from a Positive Psychology approach, helps clients to understand and cultivate the different parts of life that bring them happiness, meaning, and purpose. With greater self-awareness, a sense of safety around vulnerability, mindfulness and presence, accountability, and empowerment, coaching equips clients with the tangible tools and soft skills to authentically connect and communicate effectively with their current and future partners. But it all begins from within.
What you focus on expands, and when you focus on the goodness in your life, you create more of it.Oprah Winfrey
5 Love Languages.
Berry, Jennifer. “What’s to know about codependent relationships?” Medical News Today. October 31, 2017
Brown, Brené. Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Penguin Random House, 2021.
Civico, Aldo. “How Self-Awareness Leads to Effective Communication” Psychology Today. April 21, 2014
Finkel, Eli J. The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work. Penguin Random House, LLC, 2017. Quoted in Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller. “Want to Build Trust in Your Relationship? Take Risks.” Letters from Esther.
“Three Good Things.” Pathway to Happiness Program. Greater Good in Action: Science-Based Actions for a Meaningful Life. Greater Good Science Center – University of California, Berkeley.
International Coach Academy. Frameworks and Models: Emotional Intelligence. coachcampus.com
International Coach Academy. Frameworks and Models: Positive Psychology. coachcampus.com
International Coach Academy. Coaching Presence: Creating Awareness. coachcampus.com
International Coach Academy. Facilitating Growth: Active Listening. coachcampus.com
Notarius, Clifford; Markman, Howard. “Six Truths for Couples” Psychology Today. January 1, 1994 – last reviewed on June 9, 2016, Adapted from We Can Work It Out: Making Sense of Marital Conflict (Putnam), by Clifford Notarius, Ph.D., and Howard Markman, Ph.D. Copyright 1993 by Clifford Notarius and Howard Markman.
Perel, Esther. “The Art of Conversation.”Letters from Esther.
Riso, Don Richard and Hudson, Russ. The Wisdom of the Enneagram. A Bantam Book, 1999.