So recently, Pastorgeek at the MMSL forums asked
What good advice do the folks have around here for communication?
This is a pretty big question. So big, that it took me a couple of days to come up with a good answer, because I have so much information it is hard to parse it all out. I am currently hosting a TV show on local cable about this topic, and I hope to have a book out in the Fall on it.
I will start by saying that communication in relationships is one of the most important topics you can address in your life, whether it is on the matter of marriage, family, or just work relationships. A personal friend of mine, Dr. Nazir Hussain once said that in his professional experience as a Social Worker, nearly ninety percent of the mental health problems he saw, including depression, anxiety, and personality disorders were related to dysfunctional relationships, and a stunning majority of those were rooted in bad communication.
Good communication is vital to our well-being, mentally, emotionally, and socially. Sadly, the best practices in communication are rarely taught, and just like in driving or tying our shoes, we usually learn a mostly-functional, but often flawed way of communicating that works for a long time, but can slowly introduce instabilities into our relationships.
The Most Basic Truth
Is to remember that communicating with other human beings is a skill. You learned it when you were a child, by modelling your parents and learning from how you got along with other children. You might not have learned it perfectly, and you may have learned an inefficient or ineffective way of communicating with others.
This is not “how you are”, it is “what you learned.” You can always improve your communications skills. You do this by learning step-by-step techniques, tricks, and new ways to frame information that work differently, and possible more effectively than the way you have been doing things all along.
We have turned communications into a fine science. Tools like Assertiveness and The MAP are well-honed methods that when you learn them and internalize them, will make you into better communicators. The best tool in your arsenal to become a better communicator is to be open to learning them, and to start seeking them out.
My first recommendation to anyone trying to have a happy, healthy marriage is to learn how to communicate assertively. Assertiveness is the best style of communication to use in almost any situation, with pretty much every human being that you will ever meet. Your spouse is no exception.
I teach assertiveness from time to time, and I have written on it at great length but I will give you the barest bones outline of it here.
Assertiveness teaches you that every one has rights, like the right to say “No”, the right to be respected as an equal, and the right to set our own priorities. In fact, most schools of Assertiveness Training recognize somewhere between eleven and fifteen fundamental rights for communication. To be assertive you have to insist that others acknowledge your rights and you have to be sure to acknowledge theirs as well.
For example, an assertive person understands that all human beings have a right to be respected. So an assertive person never acts disrespectfully on purpose. He also never tolerates disrespect, and if someone is disrespectful, he respectfully asks that they behave better, or he refuses to talk to them.
One of the ways you make sure you are communicating assertively is to remember that nobody can ever know what another person is thinking. When you try to mind read other people, you can make them feel misunderstood, stereotyped, pigeonholed, or bullied. And when you expect other people to read your mind, by not giving out clear or honest information about what you want and think, you are opening yourself up to the same problems.
For this reason, it is important to never begin a sentence with “You” when you can begin it with “I”. Forcing yourself to use ‘I-statements’ can prevent all kinds of misunderstandings.
For example if you say “You are mad at me”, you could be wrong, and cause the person to shut down, become defensive, or feel hurt by what they consider an unfair accusation.
On the other hand, if you say “I notice that you seem upset, I am concerned that you might be mad at me.” you are not imposing any thoughts or feelings on the other person. You are leaving it open for them to tell you what they really feel.
Finally, in Assertiveness, we teach that everybody has their own needs, goals, and priorities, and you might not know what those are (because you can’t read minds), but they are there in every conversation. Ever interaction with a human being is a chance to get closer to your goals and to help them get closer to theirs.
Whenever you disagree on something, it really helps to ask the person what they would like to see come out of the disagreement. Asking “what can I do to help make this right for you?” or “what is it that you would like to see happen?” can let you figure out where those goals. Are. Sharing what you would like to see happen, can keep a person from trying to read your mind and guessing that you have a bad or hurtful attitude.
Once you know what the other person wants, you can figure out what of it you can give them, without keeping you from what you want, too. Most disagreements don’t have to be win-lose between two people. In fact, trying to be the “winner” in a disagreement will usually end up creating hurt feelings. Instead trying to figure out how you can both “win”, and get at least some of what you want through compromise is ideal.
Compromising, and creating a Win-Win situation is always the best result, because if you set out to be an adversary and make the other person lose, you have a good chance of losing yourself, setting you back on your way to achieving your goals.
2. Transactional Analysis
A fantastic tool related to Assertiveness called Transactional Analysis can also help you build clear, powerful, and effective relationships. If you have studied Athol Kay’s Male Action Plan, you are probably already familiar with Transactional Analysis, but didn’t know that there was a technical name for it.
At its heart, T.A. is the art of seeing every interaction between two people as an exchange of energy, feelings, and ideas, that will shape how every future exchange between two people happens.
For example: A Wife tells her husband, rudely, to take out the trash. He says he will get to it when he is done watching his television show. She gets angry and yells at him and blocks the TV, making sure he won’t enjoy the show until he does as he asks. He sighs and angrily does what she wants, then goes back to watching his television in a bad mood. This transaction has taught them both several things:
The wife has learned that she can bully the Husband and get what she wants. She has learned that the Husband being angry at her has no consequences. She has learned that as long as she doesn’t mind sulking or anger, she can get everything she desires. The Husband has learned that if he doesn’t do what she wants, he can expect bullying.
So the first question you always ask yourself when performing a Transactional Analysis is “How am I teaching the other person to treat me?” Abstract their behaviour and imagine what that would look like if it were always the case.
In the case of our example, if the Husband continued to respond to his Wife’s bullying in this manner, he could expect she would always resort to bullying if she didn’t get what she wanted. She would have no regard for his hurt feelings. And he would never get what he wanted unless it is also what she wanted.
Obviously the next question then becomes “Is this how I want our relationship to look in the future?” If the answer is “no”, then you do something differently. In this case, the Husband Might refuse to put the garbage away, or give her anything else she wants, until his wife apologizes; teaching her instead that bullying will only make it harder to get what she wants, so she will have to try a different, more respectful tactic.
In Athol Kay’s Married Game / MAP model he would call this “bumping back.”
When you use T.A. combined with Assertiveness you can very quickly shape the way communication happens in your relationship. A Husband who uses T.A. T understand a bullying behaviour from his wife can quite easily share his analysis using “I-statements” to incredible effect. He might say:
“I am feeling bullied right now. When I look at it I see that if I were to take the garbage out right now after you have behaved in this manner, I would only invite you to behave in this disrespectful way again. That is not what I want in my marriage. Accordingly, I will not take out the garbage, or do anything else you want, until you apologize, and ask again in a polite, respectful manner.”
Assertiveness and Transactional Analysis both work well on their own, but they are greatly enhanced by a sense of curiosity. When you are curious about another human being, you stop guessing and stop making assumptions, and instead try to understand what is going on in their mind.
When a person behaves in a way that is hurtful to you, it is easy to become dismissive and defensive. You can say things like “I can’t believe he said, that! I certainly won’t mention this topic to him again!”, at which point you cannot understand what happened. Your mind has closed.
On the other hand, if you can cultivate an attitude of curiosity about other people, you will find that curiosity opens doors. If you can instead approach things like a hurtful statement from your spouse with a question like “Well, that wasn’t the answer I hoped for, and I am feeling a little hurt by it; I wonder why he would answer that way?” You can ask questions, and get a better idea of why he said what he said, or did what he did.
Part of the art of being really curious is to also be curious about yourself; to learn not to take your reactions at face value. If an action someone else did offended you, if can often help to stop and examine it. “I am clearly offended by his words? Why am I so offended? What did I think he meant?” Which opens you up to looking for ways you might be mind-reading, or imagining the other person is thinking or feeling things based on how you think or feel about them (This is called “projection.”)
Using assertiveness, self-curiosity can help you check your assumptions and make communication much clearer. Based on the questions asked in the previous paragraph, you could compose an assertive line of questions. “When I heard you say X, I found that I was offended. I interpreted that to mean Y. Did you mean Y, or did you mean something else entirely?”
One of the most powerful skills a person with a healthy sense of curiosity can possess is the art of asking open-ended questions. These are questions that elicit a long answer instead of a short one. They can be a little vague, so that they invite the person to tell you what they would like to be asked, rather than what they think you are asking. I may elucidate on these a little later.
In the case of a marriage, curiosity is a powerful tool for enrichment. Once you acknowledge that your spouse is still a mystery to you, that you may not figure them out , even if you spend your whole life together, they become exciting and challenging in a way that they are not if you blithely believe that you “know” them.
Recently world-class cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs during the performances that had made him a hero to a generation of youths. Many people were shocked and awed by the confession. Especially after he had remained such an icon for so long. For many, the biggest mystery about the confession was “why had he made it?”
The fact is that dishonesty is physically and emotionally unhealthy. Holding a secret that you are ashamed of in your head can wear on the body. It can lead to impotence, cancer, insomnia, digestive problems, and far worse. Not to mention mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Honesty is the best policy for a number of reasons, but most don’t consider their health among them.
Confession really is a cleansing act that heals the ravages that emotions like fear and shame have on the body.
Beyond that, one thing that is a manifest truth is that if you are not being honest, you are also not being curious or assertive. You cannot help another person create a Win-Win situation for you if you cannot honestly share your real motives with them.
Showing gratitude by telling others when you appreciate their actions encourages them to keep doing so. It also lets them know that their words are heard, and that the things they do for you are rewarded. In their own Transactional Analysis, your show of gratitude, and the warm feelings it gives them are a reward that makes them want to continue doing more of the same.
6. Acknowledging Gender Difference
Whether they are inborn, nurtured into us, or a little of both; there are differences between Men and Women. If you married well, the chances are that you chose a husband who is very masculine, or a woman who is very feminine, and these differences will be very important to understand.
While a number of books have been written on this topic, and a number of further books still need to be written, I would like to cover some of the basics here just to make them overt. Keep in mind I am not saying all women are like X. Or all men are like Y. Only that the majority are, and will be for the foreseeable future.
- Women tend to be aware of a lot of things at once, if something is bothering them out of the corner of their eye it will be a huge distraction.
- Men tend to have a powerful singular focus, when they are doing something, most everything else around them is filtered out.
- Bringing a woman into singular focus can be very difficult, it is easiest to engage them in a clean, comfortable space where there are few distractions to be had.
- Jarring a Man out of focus can make him angry.
- Women value their feelings and want them to be acknowledged. When something is bothering a woman she wants someone to listen to them, and let them know that their feelings are understood and valued.
- Men tend to communicate to share and solve problems. When they are confronted with a story, they look for a problem to solve.
- Women feel devalued when Men try to solve their problems, unless they are specifically asked.
- Men feel honoured when someone asks them to solve a problem.
- Women assign emotional value to every idea and object around them.
- Men have feelings only about things that they feel are important.
- Women respond best when they feel like they are loved and understood.
- Men respond best when they feel respected.
- Women process their feelings by talking about them.
- Men usually process their feelings by brooding alone.
- When women push men to share their feelings, it can feel very intrusive.
- When Men push let him share a problem it also feels intrusive.
- Women often test men by asking them to do something inconvenient, and respect men for saying “no”.
- Men tend to assume that people are telling the truth about what they want.
This is far from an exhaustive list, but it is there to give an idea of how different we can be and how that means we need to stop and remind ourselves that in most marriages, we are talking about someone of a different gender with different approaches to life, especially when it comes to why we choose to talk and how.
7. Communication Space
Communication skills work best once they have become good habits. There are a lot of ways to facilitate this. One that I often teach people looking for communication advice, is to select one place to do all of their serious communicating.
When you do the same thing in the same place over and over again it gets easier. If you are always in the same place when you act in an assertive manner, then it will be easier to be assertive in that space. If you talk frankly and honestly in a space all the time, then it becomes easier to be frank and honest in that space.
As a flip-side to the same problem, if you have hurt feelings, arguments, hard conversations, and the like in a space, they will likely happen more often there. This can be a good thing if you have a designated safe-feeling space to have those conversations that are used for nothing else. However, if you are having them in a space used for something else, it can be destructive. If you argue, risk hurting feelings, or act seriously in your bedroom, arguments will happen there. That will keep the bedroom from being the restful, sensual, and sexual space it ought to be.
Establishing your Communication Space away from the bedroom or the rooms of your children can create much healthier relationships in other aspects.
8. Communication Habits that will Enhance Your Rapport with your Spouse
I will finish off with a few basic tips for communication that can make it healthier and more effective all around.
- Thank your spouse for listening after you have shared you thoughts and feelings.
- After any emotionally-charged conversation, reaffirm your love by saying “I love you” and hugging or kissing your spouse. They may be so emotionally tapped that it could be in doubt.
- If you cannot speak honestly about a topic, say simply “I am having trouble talking right now” and ask for some time to process. Take that time to ask yourself what you are afraid might happen.
- If you have a habit of interrupting each other, use a “talking stick:” the person talking holds it, and the other person may not speak until the holder gives it to them.
- Don’t think of communication as an argument: if you do you invite it to become adversarial.
- Remember that your first goal as a married couple is to build a good life together where you both win.
- Develop a signal when you need time to process your feelings, so that your spouse knows that you are not able to talk right now.