Communication is the foundation of your relationship. Without it, you can’t really have much of a relationship–just imagine how futile it is to build a house on quicksand rather than concrete. And with healthy, reciprocal communication, your marriage or relationship will continue to evolve in a positive direction.

Therefore, it behooves all of us to understand the fundamentals of communication so that we can apply them to our cherished relationships. It’s easy to lose sight of these fundamentals and wonder why your relationship is in trouble.

Communication basics:

All conversations involve a speaker (the person sending messages) and a listener (the person receiving messages). You’ll need different skills for each role. An effective speaker without an effective listener is like a billboard in a desert. Communication breaks down when you (or your partner) fail to use the different skills needed in the respective roles of speaker and listener.

Let’s look at the fundamentals of each role.

The ABC’s of an effective Speaker:

A: Acknowledgment. Start with your needs.

As the speaker, your goal is to acknowledge your needs and share them with your partner, not to shine a spotlight on your partner. For instance, if you’re frustrated with your partner’s failure to help out around the house, you might say, “I’ve been doing most of the cleaning and it feels unfair to me. I need us to be a team and work together around the house,” instead of, “You never help me. What do you do all day?”

B: Body Language. Be aware of how you send your messages.

All communication includes a what (the content of your message) and a how (how you deliver the content). Body language is the how–the message’s gift wrapping. Very often, this is the message your partner will remember most. The tone and volume of your voice, facial expression, eye contact, and posture will enhance or block your message. Like an email message that ends up snagged by a spam filter, if your body language exudes disinterest, judgement or hostility, your partner is likely to disregard your message.

C: Clarity. Keep your message simple and consistent.

Your message needs to be clear and easy to understand, or else your partner will be confused and unsure of your needs. Clarity begins with knowing what you want to say before you say it. Jumping from topic to topic and/or sending mixed messages violates the clarity rule. Make every effort to stay “on task” while you’re discussing something with your partner. How many of us would be able to internalize a message if we’re unsure of what the message really is, or if we feel overwhelmed by pop-up tangents?

The ABC’s of an effective Listener:

A: Attentiveness. Be attentive and focus your energy on your partner’s message.

As the listener, your job is to show that you are interested in what your partner is saying. This occurs through commonsense courtesy (not answering the phone or checking email while your partner is speaking) and through the unspoken messages you send with body language (eye contact, nodding when appropriate, sitting up straight, not fidgeting).

B: Bite your Tongue. Your job as the listener is to understand your partner’s point of view.

There’s a saying in twelve-step treatment programs that goes something like: Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth. As the listener, don’t interrupt or talk over your partner (even when you don’t agree with what s/he is saying). Don’t plan your retort the entire time your partner is speaking. Work on being receptive and open to your partner’s message rather than contemplating counter-arguments.

C: Curiosity and Clarification. Simple questions communicate genuine interest while helping you gain clarity.

When appropriate (when your partner isn’t in the middle of a statement), show genuine curiosity by asking questions–questions that will help you clarify what your partner needs. You don’t have to be Dr. Phil to do this well. The most powerful questions are simple: Are you OK? What can I do? How can I help? When you show curiosity and seek clarification, your partner will feel that you’re engaged and interested.

This simple ABC model of communication can go a long way in helping you become a more effective communicator. To build a stronger relationship, share these ideas with your partner. Practice taking turns as the speaker and listener. Before you know it, your communication ABC’s will become a habit and your relationship or marriage will reap the benefits.