Better Communication for Better Relationships

Sometimes, the most basic things can mess up something we’re trying to do. Whether you are trying to bake a cake or build a bookcase, the wrong materials or the wrong tools can derail the whole effort.

Relationships are a lot like that as well: sometimes the most basic things, done incorrectly or not done at all, can have a serious negative impact; and one example is communications.

The interesting thing is that literally everyone thinks that he or she is a good communicator. Many people look at themselves and think they see someone who expresses ideas clearly, who listens, who is always logical, and someone who instinctively knows how to both share and accept ideas. The ironic thing is that, especially within the context of a relationship, many of these same people are wrong about what they think they see in themselves.

“I communicate perfectly well at work,” someone might say, but whether he or she is correct in that assessment (and their co-corkers might disagree entirely), it is important to remember that communications in a relationship is in many ways an entirely different thing. This is because we are nowhere as vulnerable as we are in a relationship. Yes, other people –our boss, friends, relatives, people we work with- can say hurtful things, and insult or offend us. But no one knows us like our significant other does; and no one can therefore hit all “those buttons” that make us crazy, or that really hurt us to the core. The other thing to remember is that while we all learn to talk as children, it can take years to learn to communicate, which is not simply talking, but involves transmitting information, having that information accepted and understood, and listening

Good communications is what makes a relationship (How many ways can you say “I love you,” or make someone feel special?); and bad communications can be one of the things that destroys a relationship. There are several things a couple can do to improve their communications; and it is helpful to remember these five pointers:

  1. You can’t “communicate” if you don’t communicate. There are many reasons why couples avoid conversation. Sometimes it is to avoid a fight. Sometimes people are tired. Sometimes they are just lazy and would rather zone out in front of the TV or a computer screen than engage in conversation. There is nothing wrong with “quiet time;” but consistently not talking to one another is obviously not a good way to improve communications.
  2. You can’t communicate if you’re doing 17 other things. Whether the subject is something important, like finances, something your partner should know (By the way, Honey, I applied for that job in Bora-Bora) or just filling each other in on how the day went, it is tough to have a meaningful conversation if you’re trying to bathe the kids, watching a football game, or answering e-mails or the constant buzz of your Blackberry. Experts suggest that couples make time, an actual appointment if needs be, to sit down and communicate with one another. With today’s hectic schedules, yes, it can be difficult. But it is even harder if you don’t at least try to make the time.
  3. Hearing isn’t Listening. The sad truth is that many of us are terrible listeners. Oh, we can hear all right, but we’re not listening, which requires focus on words, tone, body language, intent, and context. Probably the worst thing most people do is to immediately start preparing an answer to what we’re hearing before the actual message has sunk in. Put another way, many of us are more interested in what we have to say than we are in what the other person is trying to say. This is a deadly habit if you are interested in good communications.
  4. Avoid Presumption. Everyone sees and hears through the lens of his or her own experiences. While many experiences are common, many are very different. Those differences often cause very different reactions and associations to the same words, phrases, and even body language. And none of us are mind readers. We can’t and should not expect our partner to know what’s bothering us if we don’t tell him or her, and don’t presume that he or she knows. Be careful that what you’re saying is what they’re hearing, and don’t assume your partner hears it the same way.
  5. Forget the Kitchen Sink. This one a classic: the disagreement begins over the shoes you left in the middle of the floor…yet again. But 15 minutes later you’re arguing about your partner’s mother, and in between have touched upon the toothpaste left uncapped, whose fault it was that the dog messed on the floor, the party one of you does NOT want to go to next week, and the late payment on the electric bill. It often seems like natural human instinct to change subjects when you feel that you’re losing ground in an argument. “You left your shoes n the floor again,” is often responded to (in the face of the incontrovertible evidence of your shoes being, yes, on the floor again) with “Oh yeah? Well YOU left the cap off the toothpaste again this morning.” And from there things spiral downward as skeleton after skeleton is dragged out of the closet and used as ammunition. Experts advise that couples stay in the here and now and resist the temptation to toss everything but the kitchen sink into an argument in an effort to “win.” Good communications, we should all remember, is not about “winning.”

If you and your partner are experiencing difficulties in communicating, or if your relationship is experiencing problems, we urge you to call Capital EAP and make an appointment with one of our experienced counselors. We’re here to help.