Almost every couple that comes for marriage therapy describes the problem of poor communication in their relationship. It may be expressed by a man as, “she does not listen to me” or by his wife as, “he never tells me how he really feels.” Frequently, most of these couples have an unclear idea of what good communication actually means, so it seems like a good idea to take a brief look at how we can more effectively talk to one another.
First of all, remember from the outset that whenever two individuals fall in love, it is like two universes coming together, and the sky is not the same color in both universes. In other words, our individual expectations of how things are “supposed to be” rarely, if ever, matches that of our partner. You cannot convince your mate that the sky is blue if he or she looks out the window and sees green. Therefore, the essence of communication is not convincing someone of how they “should” see the world, rather it entails describing how you see it, listening to the other person as a whole, separate individual, and respecting each other person in the process.
With that in mind, let us imagine that you sit at a radio transmitter sending signals into the ether, hoping that your spouse or partner has a receiver that will pick up your transmission. This particular radio would require you to speak in a clear, centered manner. That is, you would need to speak from “I” and “me.” If you want to be unambiguous, you will limit your transmission to one subject, so that your listener remains clear about what you really want to say. Finally, as best you can, you would talk about whatever you want to say in the here-and-now.
If, on the other hand, you sit at your radio and begin receiving a broadcast from someone else, for instance, your spouse, then you need to be quiet and pay careful attention to get the whole message clearly; you would need to listen. Listening means that you maintain attention to the speaker’s words, as well as non-verbal clues such as tone of voice, with the goal of allowing yourself to absorb what the speaker feels and thinks. Remember that if you try to make a comment, the person at the other end cannot hear you, because they in the process of telling you something. In that case, no one gets heard. So, the listener remains quiet as long as the speaker is talking. When the speaker stops talking, they may still not want a response from you. You could, though, ask open-ended questions (who, what, when, where, how – stay away from “why” questions) to help yourself understand more of what the speaker is saying and also as a way of encouraging them to continue talking. You could also reflect back to the speaker what you hear. Doing so enables the speaker to know that you understand the message and also allows them to clarify something if they believe they are being misunderstood.
These, then, are the two roles of communication: speaker and listener. Being a good communicator requires practice, patience, and, yes, self-control. Everyone wants their point of view accepted, so it may feel difficult to stay quiet for someone else’s opinion. This task may not always be an easy one, because both sides may believe strongly in their point of view and so feel emotional.
Keep in mind what I mentioned earlier about the two universes and that everything being said refers to the speaker and the speaker’s world. Each of us may believe that we have the correct idea about an issue. Genuine growth, though, develops within loving relationships from comprehending each others’ universe. To achieve this, we need to practice the skills I have outlined here with a perspective of respect.
What is the payoff for working to discipline yourself to improve the communication with those you love? Well, first of all, you will find that you do not argue as much because you will not need to defend yourself. Second, you will feel heard more. Third, you will find that you increasingly discover more about your loved one than you could have imagined. Even couples together for decades have reported learning things about their spouse they had not known. You will also begin to share more about yourself and feel increasingly safe doing so.
Be realistic. If you genuinely want to improve communication in your relationship, you need to practice these skills on a daily basis. Also keep in mind that you cannot get your spouse to start this process; you can only make the effort to communicate and trust that your husband or wife will do the same thing. Continue trying.
As a final note, recall, as well, that none of us are perfect and all of us have bad days. If the person you love seems abrupt with you on a particular day, try to consider their manner a form of communication. On those days, “listen” with love and understanding.
For anyone interested in more information, I suggest checking out:
Bernard J. Bonner, Ph.D.