“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Wow! Did George Bernard Shaw really hit the nail on the head with this quote! Couples frequently cite communication as their primary problem when they first enter counseling. They are aware that they aren’t hearing each other, so they at least have some awareness of where the problem lies. The problem is actually so much deeper than basic communication styles, but learning to watch for some of the biggest problems with communication can go a long way. Here are some of the most common things we see:
When we have deep rooted issues from our past, we often hear through “filters”. Filters create a distortion between the message that we hear with our ears and the message we hear with our hearts. The wounds of our past can cause us to hear the messages that confirm our worst fears, like . . . “I’m not good enough.” “He doesn’t love me.” “She thinks I’m incompetent.” “They are going to leave me.” Then we react based on the message we HEARD, not the message that was MEANT. Couple this with our partner’s filters and we’ve got a huge mess on our hands when trying to communicate!
LISTEN TO RESPOND
Many people are guilty of listening to respond vs. listening to understand. Listening to respond is when someone cannot even wait until the speaker is finished before their brain (and sometimes their mouth) has moved on to their response (defensiveness, arguing the facts, anger, withdrawal, etc.). When we don’t take time to let the person finish, then we are assuming we know what they are trying to say and we react based upon our ASSUMPTION, not what they really meant. We all know how painful and frustrating it is to be interrupted or cut-off mid-sentence when we are trying to speak. And what do we do when we feel unheard and misunderstood? We get angry. When BOTH parties are listening only to respond, it can create a lot of fireworks and, trust me, NOBODY is getting heard!
Another sure fire way to cause communication problems is telling the other person that they shouldn’t feel the way they do. Generally this isn’t directly said, but the message often gets sent in a number of subtle ways without even realizing it. Defending or justifying what you said or did (“but I told you I was going to . . .”), focusing on the facts of the argument vs. how your partner feels (“it didn’t happen that way!”), trying to fix it instead of hearing how your partner felt (“ok, fine, I”ll just take it back to the store”), minimizing what our partner is feeling (“oh it’s not that big of a deal”), and taking things to the extreme (“fine, I guess I will just NEVER see my friends, then”) are some of the ways we invalidate our partner’s feelings. It leaves them feeling alone and unheard which is not good for the long term health of the relationship.
When someone wants to communicate something and the other person abruptly cuts off, it can be very painful. Cut off can take on many forms . . . sighing and eye rolling, getting angry and storming out of the room, threatening to break off the relationship, silent treatment, threatening suicide, etc. All of these are passive aggressive (some more passive and some more aggressive!) ways of expressing your feelings about what the other person is saying, but they actually STOP the flow of communication. Both parties end up walking away feeling pretty crummy.
I love the George Bernard Shaw quote. Most of us think we are perfectly clear when we communicate with our partner, but generally speaking, most people could use a little work in both the sending and receiving end of communication. Start with yourself. Watch for these biggest problems of communication in your interactions and try harder to hear your partner. It is not until we learn how to listen that we will actually be heard!