The primary complaint of couples seeking therapy is a breakdown in communication. Couples often describe a repetitive pattern of arguing. “She always yells.” “He always leaves.”
Learn how to be a better communicator.
This is the first in a series about communication. This article will speak about what communication is, how to be a great communicator, what interferes with it, and how to handle these impediments skillfully.
What is Communication?
In its simplest form, communication is conveying ideas, thoughts and feelings through words as well as body language and behaviors. For example, a person uses their senses to pick up information and respond. Most people consider communication complete when their thoughts and feelings are received and understood.
Repetitive arguments are born from repetitive misunderstanding.
Being misunderstood by your partner is distressing, frustrating, and causes emotional distance. It can be detrimental to connection. What most people do when they feel misunderstood is to try to get their point across by being more emphatic, or they might go the opposite route, and disengage. Some try the “ultra-rational” approach, while others use sarcasm. The reality is that these tactics rarely produce the results you are longing for, which we assume, is to be understood by your partner. Put simply, you want to be heard.
Where Most Communication Breaks Down
Breakdown occurs when both the speaker and listening partner assume understanding of certain terms, without clarifying. To give an example, the term “support,” means one thing to you, and possibly, something completely different to someone else. Interestingly, when asked to elaborate, often times people have trouble explaining their thoughts. They assume that the definition is universal, when it’s quite the contrary. What makes thing even harder, is that the listener assumes knowledge of the term, so never asks for clarification.
Breakdown also occurs when the listener feels like they are being accused or are seen as failing. When these emotions bubble up, people often feel a need to protect (seen as defensiveness), leaving your partner woefully unheard.
Breakdown #1: "Mind reading"
Put simply, we expect others to know what we are thinking. Cognitive behavioral therapy calls this cognitive distortion, “mind reading.” What does mind reading look like?
The speaker is thinking: “I asked for more support. That means my spouse will pick up more responsibility around the house, ask me questions about my day and be more attentive to the children.”
The listener is thinking: “More support, okay, got it. I’ll pick up extra hours at my job to so we’ll have more resources for support.”
Breakdown #2: Defensiveness
Scenario #1: Your partner talks about something that they need support around. Loving partners intend to “be there” for their partners. They try to make their partner feel better by offering advice, offering an alternative way to look at things. These methods are often met with frustration and possible escalation.
Scenario #2: With the intention of improving experiences in the relationship, a partner present a problem or something that needs improvement.
Both result in defense against a real or perceived accusation or inadequacy.
How to change the cycle
Step 1 - Awareness: Understand your pattern of communication. This awareness gives you the power and freedom to do something different.
Step 2 – Remember Empathy and Clarity: Break the pattern through communication from a place of knowing your message, and caring for your partner. Be clear with what you want, and how to define it.
Step 3 – Use Skills: Use listening skills that build understanding and intimacy. In the above example, it would look like this, “What does support look like to you.” This will stop you from mind reading. Ask the simple question, and we are fairly certain your partner will elaborate generously. If they don’t? It’s a good thing you asked if they don’t even know what they want! If you find yourself feeling defensive generously turn toward your partner, and try to understand what they are hoping for and why it is important to them.