By Dr. Amelia Jo Mitchell
In my role as a psychologist, I have counseled many couples. I often begin the first session by asking each partner, “What do you think is the most significant problem in your relationship?” Overwhelmingly, the answer given by both men and women is “communication.” How is it that we don’t know how to speak so that we feel heard? After all, most of us have been talking since we were toddlers!
There are a few rules that we are not necessarily taught that may help improve our communications with one another. They will take practice if they are not already your style and might feel awkward and artificial in the beginning. But keep in mind that there are few things we perform proficiently without practice – and sometimes we practice a skill in the wrong way for a long time!
You are the only one who knows what you are thinking or feeling until you share that thought or feeling with another. That makes you the authority on YOU! No one can tell you that you don’t think or feel a particular way or that you shouldn’t experience whatever you are experiencing.
From that perspective, isn’t it wise to talk from your authority? Begin by saying, “I think (or feel)…” and then state the thought or emotion and the cause of it. It might sounds something like this: “I felt disappointed, because I was looking forward to seeing the movie with you as we planned, and then you didn’t show up or call.” Even as the offender, I can hardly argue with that. I may or may not offer explanation, but if I value our relationship, I will certainly apologize.
Let’s use the same example with the complaint focused on the offender. It might be delivered in an angry or sullen manner and would sound closer to “You never keep your word. Once again, I waited and waited for you. I don’t know why I bother. I should learn that you can’t be trusted to follow through with anything.” The experience was the same, but there is no identification or ownership of feelings, and the complaint is full of criticism and blame.
When we accuse and blame, especially if our accusations are accompanied by absolutes (like always and never), the offender is immediately put on the defensive. It’s human nature; if we feel attacked, we defend, even if we are in the wrong. Furthermore, the observed problem is now an attack on character and may very well escalate into more hurt feelings that could even threaten the friendship.
How often do you start with a desire to simply share an experience you had with another but sense that the other misunderstands you? Maybe they offer unsolicited advice on how you should respond to the situation or indicate that you are overreacting. Before you know it, you’re in a shouting match, perhaps escalating into name-calling, or perhaps you just walk away feeling the other doesn’t hear or understand you. The exchange becomes full of contempt (defined as a powerful feeling of dislike toward somebody or something considered to be worthless, inferior, or undeserving of respect) or stonewalling. This name fits the behavior perfectly, for the person who experiences it feels as if he or she is talking to a stone wall. In essence, stonewalling is saying to the other, “I find you so undeserving of my time and attention, I will not even listen to you.”
Don’t allow contempt or stonewalling to enter into your communication. Both are disrespectful and hurt. Do open yourself to the possibility that your eagerness to express yourself might not be the optimal time for your listener to attend to you. If that is the case, be willing to hear, “I’m sorry, I just can’t give you my full attention right now. I’ve had a hard day at work and need some time to unwind. I am interested in what you have to say, so can it wait for 30 minutes or so?”
Following these guidelines will go a long way in improving the chance that your message is heard. But, of course, I’ve addressed only one half of the communication exchange. The other responsibility belongs to the listener. Giving our undivided attention to another is quite challenging; it is hard for us to silence our own reactions and responses long enough to hear another’s message.
That’s a lesson for another article.
About the Author
Dr. Amelia Jo Mitchell is a clinical psychologist who wrote the book, “Lemon Pie, Lesson From Unlikely Places to Nourish You In Troubled Times.” Visit Dr. Mitchell online at ameliajomitchell.com.