3 Little-Known Communication Tools to Improve Your Relationships

Many people have cats or dogs in their lives, and others may call birds, fish, rabbits, and turtles their companions. But today I actually want to talk to you about porcupines.

That's right, porcupines.

Specifically, Schopenhauer's Porcupine. Sometimes called the hedgehog dilemma, Schopenhauer's Porcupine is a fable from the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer positing that human intimacy can be likened to two porcupines trying to figure out how to come close together to share warmth on a very cold winter's night: the porcupines are drawn to each other for survival against the cold, but in coming together they accidentally (and painfully!) get pricked from the spines of the other.

So then they move away until they get too cold again and then move back towards each other and so on and so forth. As a psychotherapist, I do actually believe there are some grains of truth in this parable. I believe that we are all fundamentally drawn to connect with one another, and I also believe that sometimes in trying to connect, we miss. And those misses can be so painful!

I also think that there are really concrete and skillful ways we can work towards better connection in our relationships and, to use the parable of the fable, reduce those spiny pricks. One of the ways we can create better connections with one another is by having some really effective communication tools in our proverbial relationship toolbox.

I want to share with you a handful of tools I use with my clients and that I try to use in my own life. These tools are largely drawn from my studies of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) and from my work counseling couples, but the tools can really apply to any type of relationship be it romantic, friendship, family, coworker, or neighbor. I invite you to read on to see which of these tools appeals to you and what you might like to add to your own relationship toolbox.

Tool 1: Frame the conversation for success

If you're a human in any kind of relationship, there are likely going to be moments when you have conversations with someone about your needs, wants, and opinions. And sometimes the person you're talking to has different needs, wants, and opinions. Ever happened to you? I'm guessing so. I'm also going to take a guess here that sometimes those conversations haven't gone exactly the way you want them to.

That makes sense: Expressing our emotions can be vulnerable and can frequently trigger defensiveness both in ourselves and in the other person (those darn porcupine quills that get in the way!). One of the ways we can set ourselves up for success if we need to have a potentially challenging conversation with someone (and reduce the possibility of quill spikes) is to practice a conversation frame that looks like this:

Conversation frame example:

  • Check in with them and get their permission about talking at this time
  • State the reason why you want to have this conversation (hint: it's because you care)
  • State the action/event/trigger of the conversation objectively (as a video camera might have recorded it)
  • Name the impact or, in other words, how this made you feel (eg: "I feel sad." not "I feel like you don't care if I'm sad.")
  • Check in with the other person about their intent versus impact
  • Make a request (not a demand) for what you would like instead
  • Be available to hear the other person's response and perspective

How this might look:

[Alex to Jamie] "Hey Jamie, can I talk to you for five minutes? There's something up for me that I want to check in with you about. You're available to talk? Great. So let me just start by saying that I really care about you and our relationship is really important to me. That's why I wanted to talk to you about what happened the other day. On Sunday morning at 10 a.m. when I asked you to spend an hour doing housework with me before we went out to brunch, you said okay. But three minutes into our work together, you took a phone call from your mom and spent 45 minutes on the phone with her while I continued cleaning."

"When that happened I felt frustrated and I made this assumption that helping me out wasn't as important to you as connecting with your mom. I want to check in with you about that: is that true? Is helping me out not as important as connecting with your mom?"

[Allow them to check in and share what was going on for them, practice reflective, empathetic listening and validation (see below) to what they say.] "What I would prefer from you instead would be that next time if your mom calls when we're doing housework together is that you call her back after we are done working instead of picking up the phone while we are still working. Are you available for this?" [Allow them to agree to your request or make a counteroffer, see what compromise might be available between you two.]

Tool 2: Reflect, empathize, and validate the other

Creating a good frame for potentially challenging conversations is a great first step to try and ensure that more connection happens between you and the other person, but using the framework without practicing reflective, empathetic listening and validation of the other's experience doesn't result in connection: it just results in you elegantly stating your demands if the other's perspective isn't taken into account.

Like Schopenhauer's Porcupines, we're looking for a real connection here, so try the following reflective, empathetic listening and validation steps to help connection happen during a challenging conversation.

Conversation frame example:

  • First, allow space for the other person to share their experience.
  • Seek to understand the other person's experience by offering what they said back to them.
  • Practice genuinely empathizing with their perspective (note: empathy doesn't have to mean agreeing, it means connecting with something in yourself that understands their experience or feeling).
  • Validate their perspective.

How this might look:

[Jamie to Alex] "Look, I picked up that phone call from mom because she's been having a really hard time lately and I'm one of the only people she talks to about it. It wasn't a dig at you, I just needed to pick up the call."

[Alex to Jamie] "So let me see if I understand: you picked up your mom's call – not as a dig to me – but because she's been going through a hard time and she was reaching out to you. Is that right? I can really see how you would have felt if you had to pick up your mom's call – I know how much you love her and I know she doesn't talk to many people and doesn't call very often. You must have felt like you had to and I imagine it was a tough choice to show up for me and your mom at the same time. That makes sense, I know it's hard for me when I have to make tough choices like that, too."

[Jamie to Alex] "Yes, exactly. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place! And honestly, if she calls again when we're cleaning, I'm probably still going to want to pick up the call with her – not with someone else – but with her."

[Alex to Jamie] "Makes sense. I can be available for that if it's your mom who calls. Do you think you could then help me afterward and we could either postpone brunch or do the cleaning when we get back?"

[Jamie to Alex] "Totally. Yes. Thank you."

Tool 3: Slow things down when tempers speed up

Okay, so in the above example Jamie and Alex moved through this challenging conversation like a pair of super skillful porcupines, but let's face it: rarely is this level of ease always the case. Despite our best intentions to communicate skillfully and despite how much we may love someone, a rupture in a relationship is inevitable and conversations don't always go so well.

That's why I think it's super helpful for all of us to have a handful of mini-intervention tools to use when tempers start to speed up so we can slow things down, repair if necessary, and increase our chances of coming back together in connection:

Practice timeouts

Kindergarten-ish though it may seem, taking timeouts (with a very specific frame) when conflict is happening between you and another can be a really wise move if either or both of you are feeling too emotional or too defensive to communicate productively.

In order to practice a timeout effectively, both individuals have to agree to take one (even though one may want to continue and the other needs to take a break, it's important to come to some kind of consensus to take one), and both have to agree on the time that will be taken (ten minutes, five?) and who will re-initiate after the timeout is over.

A timeout is counterproductive if one person just storms off and takes one and doesn't provide the other person with any sense of security that they will return and the conflict will be re-addressed. Use that timeout to ground, to breathe, to move the energy in your body, to reconnect back to why you care about that person in the first place, come back together after the timeout is over and try again.

Establish a safe word

Creating a mutually agreed-upon safe word that either or both of you can use in private or in public when things are escalating can be a good way to pause the conversation and bring some mindfulness to how you're just not connecting at that moment. And, bonus, if the word is really funny (think "Tardis!" or "Chewbacca!") it can bring about some comic relief in an otherwise tense time and help you guys connect back together in some shared humor.

Create some relational ground rules

Taking the time to establish some "rules of engagement" for your relationships before conflict occurs can be a great, bonding experience and also something highly effective you can fall back on when you're in the midst of conflict. Here are a few ground rules I think are key in a relationship:

  • There is no right and wrong
  • You're not having this conversation to convince each other of your own righteous truth, you're having it to try to connect
  • The idea is to make space for each other and your differences in the relationship
  • You're in it together, you're not on opposites sides so trust that you both want what's best for one another

My invitation to you

So we've covered a lot of material today and explored quite a few tools that might be supportive for you in creating more connections in your relationships. I'd like to invite you to consider what you know about how to create a greater connection in relationships and what you could implement from what you've read.

  • What do you know doesn't work when trying to connect?
  • What do you know that has worked for you in the past when trying to connect?
  • What, from this list of ideas, could you practice in the next week or so?
  • Could you have a conversation – maybe even with someone or on some topic you normally find challenging – and try out one of these new tools?

And finally, I want to invite you to remember, you're aiming for progress here, not perfection. These communication tools and skills (like anything new!) take practice before they're fully internalized. So be kind to yourself and to each other as you – like the cold, little Schopenhauer Porcupines – seek out greater connection with one another.


Additional Resources

  • Schopenhauer's Porcupines
  • Non Violent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg

    Disclaimer: This article and accompanying content (links, etc) is for informational and discussion purposes only and should not be construed as psychotherapy or psychotherapeutic advice of any kind. Annie Wright Psychotherapy assumes no liability for the use or interpretation of any information contained in this post. The information contained in this post is intended for discussion purposes only and should not be an alternative to obtaining a professional consultation from a licensed mental health professional in your state based on the specific facts of your clinical matter. Annie Wright is licensed to practice psychotherapy in the State of California only.
After coming from and then healing her own extensive relational trauma background, Annie became a licensed psychotherapist - specifically a trauma therapist who specializes in relational trauma recovery - and, in addition to her clinical work with clients, she also founded and runs a boutique, trauma-informed therapy center in Berkeley ( where she oversees a staff of 20 clinicians and 5 operations staff who deliver top-notch clinical care to clients across California and Florida.

Moreover, she's a published mental health writer with over 200+ essays on her personal blog ( centered around recovering from childhood trauma. Annie's writing and opinions have been featured in Business Insider, Forbes, NBC, Buzzfeed, and The Huffington Post, to name but a few.