Almost every couple that comes to my office has the goal of better communication. They often seem confused as to why they are missing each other when they talk or when they want to resolve conflict. There are several contributing factors to why we have trouble communicating.
1. We are “different”.
We may come from different cultures, we have different personalities and we certainly experience the difference of being male and female. Second, most of us did not have superb models in our family systems for what effective communication looks like. Finally, even when we do a good job we don’t always connect! After 22 years of marriage and lots of tools in our marriage toolkit Gary and I still look at each other at times and wonder what in the world the other is really trying to say! Is there hope? Yes with time, practice and encouragement.
What does good communication look like? Good communication is the process of sharing both verbally and non-verbally in such a way that your message can be accepted and understood. The First Step to communicating more effectively is to have a good sense of your message and your expectations of the person you are communicating with. Before we ever begin to speak to one another we need to recognize that “how” we come to a conversation actually sets the stage for whether we will connect or whether we won’t. Have you ever thought about that? As I come to my spouse have I thought about what I want, what is my message and what do I expect in return. Sometimes our expectations are unrealistic. An example of an unrealistic expectation is that our spouse will agree with us. Know your message and set realistic expectations.
2. Good communication requires the ability to listen.
Words make up 7% of the message, tone of voice 38% and the non-verbal 55%. When we listen to one another we need to listen beyond the words. Listening enables us to really seek to “understand” our spouse. Listening keeps us from getting defensive and makes sure we get the full message before we respond back. Communication almost always goes bad when the listener interrupts with his or her own message or a defensive comeback. These types of interruptions get to be bad habits that breakdown connection. We cannot understand our spouse if we interrupt. Break the habit by getting good at saying such things as, “tell me more about that I really want to understand you, “sounds like you are hurt is that what is going on for you” or reflect back the message and ask if that is what they are trying to tell you. If your spouse is angry try not to respond to the anger-anger is a secondary emotion meaning that the primary emotion is hurt, fear or frustration or a combination. Try to respond to these emotions. You will connect on a deeper level when you go beyond anger to the heart of what your spouse is feeling.
3. Good communication requires clarity and safety.
John Gottman in his book “The Relationship Cure” talks of several contributing factors to the breakdown of connection between a couple. The first is communicating with a “critical spirit”. When we are critical we attack our partner’s character. Getting “defensive” is the second way that we prevent good communication with our spouse. We may “feel” blamed so we attack back with blame. No connection here. Blame, blame will never result in win, win. Thirdly we may actually experience contempt when we communicate. Remember that our non-verbal makes up 55% of our message. We communicate contempt when we roll our eyes or we get cynical and sarcastic. Loving our spouse means we are working to manage our emotions in healthier more effective ways. Good communication requires that we assume the best about our spouse, that we listen non-defensively and that we eliminate sarcasm and mean-spirited messages.
Why do we want to communicate better? Simply because God created us first to have relationship with him and then with each other. Communication is one avenue to connecting with our spouse-and avenue that we need to grow in and cultivate. Realize at times you won’t get it right, be willing to have a sense of humor and realize this is a lifetime process. Be tenacious, be in prayer and be willing to keep on growing!
Taken with permission from Carrie Oliver, a Licensed Professional Counselor with CMFS Relationships Center a division of the Center For Marriage And Family Studies at John Brown University. She specializes in working with couples and women’s issues. She travels and speaks with her husband Gary of 22 years and enjoys writing for Marriage Partnership magazine. Together they have 3 sons Nathan, Matthew and Andrew.