Why can’t we talk to each other more easily, or better yet – more effectively? Why do couples struggle with addressing their most basic needs and feelings? Why is being understood – and understanding – so damn difficult?
In a recent discussion with an old friend, also divorced, we wandered onto the subject of marriage. Naturally, the conversation came around to communication – as both cause and symptom of marital problems.
Well, you say, this is hardly news.
But why do we start out so well, then fail to connect in this most basic way? Are we kidding ourselves in the beginning? Are we more critical or careless as time goes on? Are we afraid of being judged? Too tired to speak our minds?
Perhaps as we build history together and get caught up in the whirlwind of daily life, communication dramas that arise reflect a complex muddle of factors — including a lack of fundamental skills that we don’t notice until it’s almost too late.
And we’ve all fallen into unhelpful habits over time. Oh, you know the ones: assumptions over questions; sullen silence replacing straight talk; avoiding tough topics because conflict is hard. So we find ourselves smiling (because it’s simpler), grunting (because it’s expedient), nodding and dashing out the door (because we can), or turning to passive-aggressive behaviors as frustrations build and we act up rather than speaking out?
Cross-Talk? Men, Women, Communication Styles
Communication challenges aren’t solely the domain of male-female relationships. We have difficulty getting through to our parents. We struggle to process the intentions of our children. Friends erect self-protective barriers and refuse to share what’s troubling them, or to accept constructive criticism.
But there’s little question that men and women communicate differently. If we don’t pay attention, we may misread the insignificant or miss the obvious.
And let’s face it, this screws up our relationships.
Some time back, I referenced this 2010 article in Psychology Today on communication, providing expert input to what I had observed.
Most men have a hard time communicating anything that remotely resembles an emotion. Why? Because emotions are scary to men, who think much more than they feel… It is interesting to note that women think and feel at the same time, while men can only think or feel.
Marriage Basics: Communication
As I read online, certainly anything to do with marriage or divorce, the topic of communication is raised on a regular basis. If you scan comments on any of these articles (Huff Post comes to mind), beneath the anger or pain you may wonder (as I do) what might have been… if the couples concerned had been able to speak plainly and listen effectively.
Is anything between two people really that simple? Yet how many of us can look back at almost any relationship that fizzled or exploded, and see that straight talk and careful listening might have bypassed huge problems? If not that, could clear communication have expedited an ending and spared some pain?
About.com’s Marriage 101 has this to offer, when it comes to wedded bliss and its premature termination.
Lack of communication is a primary reason marriages fail.
What follows in their series of related articles is a variety of communication tips, including sample dialog to assist. That alone might help us embrace “plain talk” in ways that are not hurtful. They also offer listening tips, suggestions on compromise (certainly important), how to deal with conflict, and recommendations like “talk with each other, not at each other.”
All helpful. But what about a different perspective? More skill and less psychology?
How to Communicate Effectively
As a marketing writer, before I craft any communication, I identify the goals, audience, and appropriate tone for effectively reaching my reader or listener.
Care for specifics when dealing face-to-face?
Our arsenal, from the speaker’s viewpoint:
- Choice of words
- Tone and body language
- Awareness of our underlying emotions (frustration, insecurity, resentment)
- Awareness of our agendas (persuade, inform, unnerve, “win”)
- Knowledge of the receiver’s emotions, triggers, agendas, etc.
Similarly, stepping into the listener’s viewpoint, consider:
- Potential openness or resistance to the message
- Trigger words / sensitivities
- Reading reception (words and body language)
- Underlying emotions (as above)
- Experience with this individual
- Experience in similar situations
- We don’t know what we don’t know
Communication is not static. As we “read” the response, we can adjust tone and message accordingly. As we’re speaking plainly, we also need to be prepared to listen – really listen – to the response.
Emotion and History
In the Real World of Relationships, it’s not so simple. Time is tight and the pressures are many. Loose lips may not sink ships, but they can severely damage an otherwise good relationship. Cruelty can sear, a good word can uplift, and as years pass we may grow lazy in our speaking as well as our listening.
I know myself to be as guilty as anyone when it comes to dancing around difficult subjects (fear of being judged; dislike of confrontation). I was also raised in the mode of people pleasing (reinforced by living with a narcissistic parent), and insecurities led me to stay silent in ways that impacted my relationships, including my marriage.
For me, critical listening and reading body language are easier than speaking my mind. But over the years I’ve learned to speak more plainly. Kindly I hope – but plainly nonetheless.
I’m more willing to confront issues though it’s still a challenge. So I take my time in considering the what, how and when, I choose my words carefully, and try to anticipate the possible responses. I also return to my objective – what I want out of the discussion. It may be nothing more than a sympathetic ear, or the conversation may involve constructive criticism, explanation of a behavior or situation, or a request for help in solving a problem.
And I remind myself: Never assume.
Your Communication Tips?
Communication can be damaging in its absence, and even more so if wielded as a weapon. But when effective and respectful – it’s powerfully connective. Why is straight talk in a relationship so damn hard?
Maybe we need to practice. Maybe we need to learn from the past. It doesn’t hurt if we get lucky – finding a communicator who can encourage us to do the same.
At present, I’m in enjoying a relationship in which my partner is a Plain Talker and a Great Listener. He is articulate, open, and non-judgmental. When I ask for an honest opinion, I get it – kindly. I would hope he can say the same for me, as it takes two for communication to work, and two to believe that it’s of the utmost importance.
Will this dynamic endure as time passes? I can only hope.
- How good are you at straight talk and real listening to your relationships?
- Should we be auditing our own speaking and listening skills, and checking in with our partners on how we’re doing?
- Your tips for improving communications with your spouse or partner?
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