Looking back over our thirteen years together, I can say without hesitation that miscommunication has been one of the greatest hindrances in our marriage. Sometimes, we have a long disagreement only to finally discover… we completely misunderstood each other. Other times, we leave a conversation thinking we are on the same page only to discover later… we are not! I guess that makes us a normal, married couple. ~smile~
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. – George Bernard Shaw
Communication, especially between men and women, takes learning and practice. Women can look at each other and know what the other is trying to say (and men may be able to do the same with other men). But, men and women can be married for years and be nowhere near that level of communication. Ladies, I am married to an intelligent man, so please take my word for it when I say telepathy will never be a communication tool you can use with your boyfriend or husband. You need to say exactly what you mean if you want him to understand you! It is not because men are less intelligent than women. They have different wiring and they will appreciate you forever if you tell them what you want instead of hinting or playing the guessing game.
Though I wish I could say we are model communicators, Eric and I are still male and female with completely different personalities. However, our communication has significantly improved since our early days of trial and error (mostly error). With that said, we want to share some ideas for how you and your sweetie might improve your communication – a required skill for all of us who want our relationships to last. And, these tools are not only good for romantic relationships. They are helpful with family, in the workplace, and anywhere else you need to connect with people.
- Internally process what you want to say first, even if you must walk away for a few minutes. Eric processes in milliseconds. Due to his personality type, he can think something through and have a well-thought out answer immediately. Oh, the jealousy I feel for him sometimes! Depending on the depth of the subject matter, I often have to walk away and think for a while before I can discuss. When I attempt to talk about something emotional before I take time to process, I always regret it. Then, I end up throwing out whatever sentences I can pull together and look quite “intelligent” in the process. Five minutes of self-deliberation makes a ton of difference for those of us who need time to think and process before responding.
- When possible, communicate your desires using concrete measures. (1-10 scale, glass half full, ¾ full, etc.) Tonight, Eric and I had a conversation which ended with him saying, “I need you to write down exactly what you are looking for from me.” Considering the subject matter, I responded, “I can make you a chart!” He seemed grateful. ~smile~ In fact, I should get started on that after I finish this post! Concrete explanations take the guesswork out of what you are trying to say. “I like cheeseburgers” is not nearly as clear as “on a scale from 1-10, cheeseburgers are an 8 for me.” If you are feeling a little lonely, instead of saying, “I miss you,” you can say, “My love tank is about a quarter full.” After introducing concrete scales into our relationship, Eric and I will never go back!
- Write down your points. Say them out loud a few times before you speak to your partner so you can communicate your points with confidence. Though talking to your sweetheart should not feel like a job interview, there is nothing wrong with being prepared. In general, are you more likely to listen to a salesperson who thoroughly knows his or her product or a timid salesperson who gets flustered every time you ask a question?
- If you are interrupted with rude interjections, yelling, or adamant denials, do not react. Simply stop talking, maintain eye contact, and wait. If he or she continues to talk or rant, give a calm signal which indicates you need a break and leave for five minutes. It is best to discuss and agree on these signals when you are not in conflict. When Eric maintains his cool, I respect his point of view even if I do not agree with it. When we lose our cool, our words are not powerful. Stay focused, do not waver, and do not tolerate being abused or derailed.
- Stay on topic; avoid rabbit trails and bush beating. “You sure like to chase rabbits!” My old friend, Kelly, used to laugh and tell me when I would get way off topic… which happened frequently… and still happens frequently! I still catch myself hopping from one thought to another when I am speaking with friends. My female friends smile and follow along as best they can, but Eric is not as patient with all my rabbit-trailing – at least, when I am trying to discuss a topic of importance with him. Our communication appears better thought-out, and we seem more confident, when we stay on point and succinctly communicate.
- Choose your discussion time wisely. When possible, plan a meeting. There is something I need to discuss with you. Let’s meet on the couch at 6:30 this evening. Over the years, I have learned Friday nights are the least effective time to have important discussions with Eric. He is completely exhausted and not in a state of mind to make big decisions or work through conflict. Saturdays, after he has caught up on sleep, are typically good days to talk. We also try to avoid discussing anything important after 10:30 at night because our minds are tired. Avoid important discussions before work, when you are in a hurry, when hungry or stressed, and when you are angry. Sometimes, timing is the only difference between a positive exchange and a negative exchange. When I approach Eric with something out-of-the-blue, especially when he is focusing on something else, the conversation rarely goes well. But, if I say, “When you finish this chapter, there is something I would like to discuss with you,” it shows him that I respect his time and it gives him the chance to switch from his study box to his conversation box.
- Tell a story. When done well, this can be an incredible tool. If you have a flair for storytelling, consider using your narrative gift to get your point across. For example, in the story of the tortoise and the hare, the mental image of a lazy hare and a slow, but steady, tortoise locks a valuable lesson in our minds forever. For someone with my personality, a story is more likely to stick and make a solid point than charts and graphs. Try taking your loved one on a verbal journey – realistic or complete fiction – where the end goal is getting your point across in a memorable way.
- Avoid accusations; instead, ask questions. When you corrected me in front of our friends tonight, I felt foolish. Is that how you intended it? Misunderstandings are to blame for millions of arguments happening in living rooms, bedrooms, and parked cars right now. Men and women communicate differently. Throw in personality differences as well and we have countless opportunities to upset the people in our lives. Whether the person is guilty or not, accusations always breed defensiveness. Questions – asked calmly and sincerely – breed reflection. And, let’s always remember that a soft answer dissolves anger (cf. Proverbs 15:1).
- Hush. Communication is about so much more than getting our points across; it is a two-way street. If we do not learn to listen to our partners, we will never master the art of communicating well. When I am ready to pounce on Eric for a perceived injustice, he often provides details which help me understand his motivation and point of view. Until I stay quiet and listen, I never have the complete story. And, we tend to look like idiots when we only have half the necessary information and get outraged. ~smile~
The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said. – Peter Drucker
The number of ways a couple can miscommunicate boggles the mind. Eric jokingly tells our clients, “God created male and female, then laughed and said, ‘Okay, now learn to get along.’” We cannot count the number of times we went around in circles – neither of us being able to get the other to understand our points.
When it comes to communication in relationships, I have a simple plea to couples: do not give up on communicating. Keep trying and learning and growing in this art form. Take classes, read books, and go to retreats if need be, but do not stop trying. After several seemingly botched attempts at resolving an issue, explaining yourself, or understanding your partner, it is tempting to ignore the need to communicate. But, what happens when you ignore problems is they pile up until they bury you.
Have you ever seen the TV show Hoarders, or know a hoarder personally? That is what happens to us emotionally when we choose not to communicate. We stuff our issues inside until we ourselves are trapped. Even a poorly executed attempt to communicate is better than refusing to communicate at all.
If you both keep trying, you will get better. Like with any other skill, communication gets better with practice.
In what ways do you and your significant other struggle to communicate?