Top Communication Techniques to Improve & Heal Relationships

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

So many of our problems in life are the result of poor communication. Fortunately, communication skills can be improved with the proper guidance. In this episode of The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast, Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen give techniques you can learn that will help you to have more functional and meaningful interactions and improve the quality of relationships in your life.

Read Full Transcript

Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen ...

Tana Amen: ... and I am Tana Amen. Here we teach you how to win the fight your brain to defeat anxiety, depression, memory loss, ADHD and addictions.

Dr. Daniel Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we've transformed lives for three decades, using brain SPECT imaging, to better target treatment and natural ways to heal the brain. For more information, visit

Tana Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is also brought to you by BrainMD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceutical products to support the health of your brain and body. For more information, visit

Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast.

Welcome back. I guess this week we are talking about attachment disorders, and relationships, and they affect relationships.

Dr. Daniel Amen: We're calling this Attachment Week. When your relationships are right, you're right. When your relationships are troubled, you have much more trouble in your life. Ultimately, relationships are a function of how healthy your brain is. Of course, we'll talk a little bit about brain health in the process.

We're gonna divide this into three podcasts. One, we're gonna talk about what are the things that interfere with relationships. Then we're gonna talk about something called reactive attachment disorder. These are kids and adults who have serious attachment problems. Then we're gonna finish up by giving you some very specific tips on how to improve the quality of your relationships.

Tana Amen: Awesome. Before we start, I want to actually read this 'cause this is cool. It says, "Everyone should know," this is a testimonial from Beyond Tired Da Da Da Da Da. That's what they call themselves. "This information here has been eye opening. While we all know parts of it, the explanations have cemented so much of that knowledge. The discussions are well presented, which is not an easy thing with some of these topics, and I feel like you talk to us, not at us. Thanks."

Yeah, some of the topics are not always easy. Today some of it's gonna probably get a little heavy, but that's okay.

Dr. Daniel Amen: When I first started doing the imaging work in 1991 ... I'm a classically trained adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist. As part of my training, I always like to do couples therapy. But I had these couples that they just weren't getting better. When I started scanning people, I began to realize why they weren't getting better. Sometimes people had low frontal lobes, and so they were impulsive. They just said the first thing that came into their mind, even if it was hurtful. Sometimes they were compulsive, and they couldn't let go of hurt. Sometimes they had traumatic brain injuries that made them more irritable, excitable, in a bad way. Sometimes they had things like bipolar disorder. If you just put your family in $30,000 of debt, your partner's gonna be irritated with that.

We realized that there was a brain component to it. Over the years, I did this really fun study. I called it the Couples From Hell Study, people who failed marital therapy but still wanted to be together. What we found was almost 90% of them, one or both people in the relationship had a brain that wasn't firing the best it could, and that when we balanced their brain, their relationship was better.

Tana Amen: Yeah, I know, it's really interesting. We did this great podcast with Michael Peterson and Jill Chambers, and it was amazing. If you haven't listened to it, you should listen to it. It's fantastic. He was so honest about just some of the struggles he's had, and how bad he felt about himself. He thought he had these moral dilemmas. It's really good.

It made me start thinking, 'cause I've often felt that way about my childhood, my past. It's really interesting. We're listening to this great series at church about parenting and families. It made me laugh because the truth is if you ever want to feel really good about yourself, read the bible. I don't mean that because it's a sweet thing to do, it's a good thing to do, and it's a positive message. I mean because all these people are so dysfunctional that you'll actually feel good about yourself. It's so true.

From the beginning of time, people have been, families have been so dysfunctional. You figure, if that is even a biblical thing, we can do better. The point being, this isn't new. You're not alone. We need to be able to talk about these things. We need to be able to be very real about it, figure out a solution, figure out what's going on, and make it better.

Dr. Daniel Amen: It's often ... Brain health if often the missing link in why people are struggling in relationships.

I wrote a book once called ADD in Relationships. For many people it's the missing link on why people can't get better in their relationships because their frontal lobes aren't working optimally. Unconsciously ...

Tana Amen: Certainly King Davids were not.

Dr. Daniel Amen: No, they weren't. Unconsciously they can be drama seeking, negative seeking, excitement seeking. That can just wear out a relationship.

What I want to do now, and this comes from my new book Feel Better Fast and Make It Last, talk about 10 ways communication is sabotaged in relationships. The first one is you have a bad attitude. You expect the conversation to go nowhere. Subsequently, you don't even try to direct it in a positive way. You assume negative things about the other person, and that really feeds into the bad relationship, or it feeds into the negativity.

We've talked before about ANTs, automatic negative thoughts, the thoughts that come into your mind automatically and ruin your day. Often, you read the other person's mind as negative and you just have a bad attitude. If you do that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As soon as you hear what you think of is a negative tone, you just go, "See." Then people can just cut off the relationship.

Tana Amen: Well, and this happened to me with someone, yesterday, with someone I'm close to, yesterday that did that. It did, it shut down the conversation. I got my feelings hurt and I'm like, "Fine. I'm done." Because that very thing happened. It just, it shuts down a conversation and then it takes time to cool down and pull it all back together.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Right.

Tana Amen: You can only pull back together if both people are sophisticated and mature enough to do that.

Dr. Daniel Amen: What I found as a psychiatrist, and it surprised me because people often say, "It takes two to make a relationship." That's not my experience as a psychiatrist [crosstalk 00:07:50] 'cause I often have a husband and a wife are really struggling, and she's willing to come in but he's not.

Tana Amen: That's true.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Or sometimes it's the other way around. I find, when I work with her or I work with him individually, they can often make a radical shift in the relationship. I always say things like, "There are ways to say things and there are ways to say things." I know within six seconds, I can get you to yell at me. But I ...

Tana Amen: But you don't.

Dr. Daniel Amen: But I choose not to. Right? But I'm powerful [crosstalk 00:08:32] in our relationship.

Tana Amen: Yeah, except when you're just being annoying. When you want to show people ... You just want to ... What is that?

We're on vacation and you look at our [inaudible 00:08:40] and you're like, "Watch this. You want to see this? I can get her to scream within six seconds." Why do you do that?

Dr. Daniel Amen: 'Cause she was having trouble with her mother, and I want to go, "Look, there are ways to say [crosstalk 00:08:50] things. There are ways to say things."

Tana Amen: Don't use me. Go use somebody else. Why are you doing that? Just starting trouble for no reason? You are a trouble maker.

Dr. Daniel Amen: I am, absolutely. Bad attitude is one. Second one, is unclear expectations or needs. Do you expect people to guess what you want or need?

Tana Amen: See, I'm very clear.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Is it great when others anticipate your needs? It is great, but most people are so busy it's hard for them to see the needs of the other person. They're just reacting out of their own pain.

Tana Amen: But I will tell you, sometimes when you are very clear, people can take ... They can also get a little intimidated by that.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Especially from you.

Tana Amen: Yeah, and I don't know why. It's not like I'm very clear.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Is it the red air.

Tana Amen: No. I'm just clear. I'm clear.

Dr. Daniel Amen: The third one is no reinforcing body language, like you're not paying attention. You'll often ... If I'm texting [crosstalk 00:09:53] and while we're talking ...

Tana Amen: Hello. Get off your phone. Put it down, I'm not gonna compete with the mistress. That's very clear.

Dr. Daniel Amen: We are more distracted than ever in relationships, and I'm guilty.

Tana Amen: Yeah. No, it's the mistress.

Dr. Daniel Amen: The phone.

Tana Amen: Yes.

Dr. Daniel Amen: That's what we're talking about, is the phone.

But that can impact relationships. You've actually been very clear.

Tana Amen: Oh no. I'm not gonna ... Me and a mistress, I will win.

Dr. Daniel Amen: That actually goes to number four, which is competing with distractions.

Tana Amen: I will win.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Which means if it's the fourth quarter of the Lakers game, you probably [crosstalk 00:10:30] shouldn't come into my office and go, "I need to talk about this now."

Tana Amen: Oh no. I'll walk away. I'll walk away.

That's different. That's different. I won't do that. I'm not that stupid.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Five is never asking for feedback on what you're saying. We make these assumptions, and I know a lot of you have seen what happens to the word assume when you break it up.

Tana Amen: And make an ass of you and me.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Make an ass of you and me when you assume things, because even if you know someone really well, you cannot read their mind.

Tana Amen: No, and one thing that actually irritates me is women are like, "Well you should know that." That's actually irritating. Don't do that. Women, don't do that. It's irritating.

Dr. Daniel Amen: What I find really destructive is six, I call it kitchen sinking. This occurs in arguments when people feel backed into a corner and bring up unrelated issues from the past in order to protect themselves, or to intensify the argument and disagreement. Try not to do that. I call them the big bucket of smelly fish. Everybody's got a bucket of smelly fish from things that have hurt to you from the past. But every time you bring them up, it really causes the relationship to stink.

Mind reading, we arbitrarily predict what the other person is thinking, even though they haven't told you. You're projecting your thoughts onto them. Even if you've been married 30 years, it's really impossible to know what's going on with the other person, "you're thinking this, or you're ..." check it out.

For my cingulate people, where their frontal lobes work too hard, number eight is having to be right. When you have to be right in a conversation, there's not communication. [crosstalk 00:12:21] There's just ...

Tana Amen: Does that include, "I told you so?"

Dr. Daniel Amen: Oh my God.

Tana Amen: But that's because I am right. I say that when I am right, not 'cause I have to be right. I just am. Sorry.

Dr. Daniel Amen: I have no words. I'm just telling you it's not helpful. If you want to be [crosstalk 00:12:42] right ...

Tana Amen: But it feels so good.

Dr. Daniel Amen: You really have to ask yourself, what's the goal? Is the goal to be right because your self esteem is so low that you have to be right [crosstalk 00:12:52] in order to feel good about themselves.

Tana Amen: Look, honesty. We promise to be honest here. "I told you so," is just one of my things.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Sparring is number nine. Using put downs, or sarcasm, or discounting someone else's ideas arose meaningful dialogue and sets up distance [crosstalk 00:13:11] in relationships.

Tana Amen: Yeah, That's actually a really destructive one.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Have you ever been in a relationship where it felt like you were in a fight all the time.

Tana Amen: Oh my God, every freaking day. You don't want to walk in the door. Have you?

Dr. Daniel Amen: Yes, I have. It's not fun.

Tana Amen: No. I won't [inaudible 00:13:28]. No, it's terrible.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Putting active listening can help so much to decrease the sparring.

Byron Katie said, "The first act of war is defense," which means [crosstalk 00:13:41] if you start getting defensive with the other person that can be [crosstalk 00:13:46] [inaudible 00:13:47]

Tana Amen: If you put it down ...

But it's not an easy thing to do. But if you can just go, "Yup, you're right," it's really not ... It takes a lot of practice. Or, "whatever." It just ...

Dr. Daniel Amen: Number 10 is lack of monitoring and follow-up. Often it takes repeated efforts to get what you need. It's very important not to give up. When you give up asking for what you need, you often silently resent the other person which subverts the whole relationship.

Tana Amen: See I'm good, I don't give up asking.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Persistence is very important to getting what you want.

Tana Amen: Neither one of us give up asking for what we need.

Dr. Daniel Amen: No. That's why we have a good relationship.

There's actually four communication styles, before we have to stop. One is called active and constructive. That's enthusiastic support, eye contact, where you're authentic. It's the most effective way of communication. Another one is called passive and constructive. Low energy, quiet, delay your response, [inaudible 00:14:57]. Then destructive active, which is you squash anything positive. They don't believe you, it dismisses you. I have somebody in my life who I'll go, "This cool thing happened." She'll immediately go to the negative and diminish it. I'm like, "Do you have to do that? That hurts my feelings. What's the payoff for that?" Or passive destructive where you turn the focus inward and you just ignore the speaker. It's like they said something but you didn't react to it at all.

If you want to improve the quality of your relationships, we're gonna talk about that, active constructive. Think about what's the goal, like our goals, real [crosstalk 00:15:57] [inaudible 00:15:57].

Tana Amen: That's something we actually start off with a lot when we're having discussions, is what's the goal? What's the outcome?

Dr. Daniel Amen: The goal for me, and I think for you always, is to have a kind, caring, [crosstalk 00:16:07] loving, supportive, passionate relationship.

Tana Amen: That's actually a really good one when you're talking to kids, because kids aren't ... With us, we're both more psychologically savvy, we have more training. But with kids, you're talking to kids and they don't have that. You really have to ask yourself, "What's the goal here? Do I want to hang on to this? Do I want to be right?" Because you have to ask yourself what the goal is, or you're gonna get really frustrated talking to teenagers and kids. You have to ask yourself constantly, "What's the goal? What's the goal?" That's what I find myself doing a lot.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And bonding relationships [crosstalk 00:16:37] really required two things.

Tana Amen: That is my goal.

Dr. Daniel Amen: I'm holding up three fingers. Two thing. Time, actual physical time, it's impossible to have a close relationship if you don't have some time and the ability to listen and communicate effectively.

Stay with us. When we come back, we're gonna talk about reactive attachment disorders where relationships can really go south from the beginning. Stay with us.

Thank you for listening to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. Go to iTunes and leave a review, and you'll automatically be entered into a drawing to get a free signed copy of The Brain Warrior's Way, and The Brain Warrior's Way cookbook we give away every month.