What is communication?September 24th, 2011 | Posted by in Couples
Dan and Grace (fictitious names), sat on the couch in my office, looking straight at me and not quite acknowledging each other. It seemed that anger and hurt feelings were getting in the way of their relationship. But when I asked what had brought them in for couples therapy, Grace quickly replied “We don’t communicate”— in a tone that reflected the feelings I intuitively perceived coming from them. Dan did not bother to look in the direction of his wife — he only sat stone-faced staring at the floor. If I could had read his mind — which I cannot, by the way — I would have probably heard him saying. “Bear and grind, bear and grind,” as if it were a mantra.
When I see couples in my practice requesting assistance with “communication”, I do not see it as quite such a simple a prospect. On one level, what I hear is something like “We don’t talk,” or “We don’t agree with each other.” Trying to avoid stereotypes, I would say that most of the time, the wife is complaining that her husband not talking, or not talking enough. At another level though, what I hear is something that many times is left unspoken — things that cause deep emotional hurt, like “He does not show that he cares,” or “Are we still a couple?”
But people do not want to expose themselves so deeply at first. Talking about communication – or the lack thereof, is more popular, more acceptable and saves face. It might also be that being part of our popular culture, communication is the one and only reason couples can comprehend what they need to work on to improve their marriage. “Communication” is a frequently used word in our vocabulary — but it is also simple and safe.
And, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that what most people usually mean by “communication” is hearing another person’s voice — or talking. Just talking.
So, I would follow this request with a psychotherapy cliché: “What do you mean by “communication?” As a result, I do get some surprised looks at times, as if to ask “Don’t you know what I mean?”
But for the most part, my question is just followed by what could be described as opening the flood gates — a full description of who is doing what. The person giving me this information is usually the one who is already “communicating” — maybe a little too much. The person sitting stoicly next to them — often the one who, in their view, is the non-communicator — is the one quietly staring at the floor.
What about those cases when, they both “communicate”, but they do it with such negativity — criticism, sarcasm, maybe even adding cursing and a demeaning tone — that do not realize that they are hurting the relationship more than helping it?
When I began my practice, I used to give couples a list of the Dos and Don’ts of arguing —which is how I interpreted their requests for better communication. I believed people wanted to know the rules of engagement for a good argument — to make it fair and less frustrating.
After 10 years of working with couples and refining my list, I have to say that the Dos and Don’ts list was only the beginning of the bonding and respect needed in a functional marriage. The list is still effective, though, and allows partners to take a quick look at themselves and assess their behavior during an argument. It helps them look honestly at what happens, and determine what ineffective behaviors they are actually displaying. They get in touch with at how they lose their mind during an argument, and transform into an irrational being fighting for dear life.
What I failed to see back then, though, is that I was only touching the tip of the iceberg. The list was helpful as a quick reference, but it was only one tool for the much more challenging work to be done later, in therapy. I also failed to realized that the list helps each partner in different ways. The recipient — usually the more passive party — would feel safer, and the sender would feel less frustrated, once they both learned to use more effective skills.
So, as primitive as this first attempt may have been at conquering the world of distressed relationships, I would still like to share some of the important items on the list with you. I still find it helpful, as an adjunct to the deeper and more sophisticated work that is to come.
I recommend that couples place this list in a visible place in the privacy of their homes, as a constant reminder of the skills they can be working on, and not as a way of pointing a finger at their partner.
- Use “I” statements (e.g. “I feel that …”)
- Express what you want as concretely (specifically) as possible
- Stick to one problem at a time
- Take turns listening and talking without interrupting one another
- Label (“lazy”, “dumb”)
- Point the finger at your spouse (“You …”)
- Present an inventory of past perceived misdeeds
- Don’t generalize using terms like “never” and “always”
These are some of the examples of a few simple ways you can improve your communication. Remember that the secret as to what effective communication can be — if there ever was one — is practice, practice, practice.