Communication & Relationships

We've all heard that communication is an important factor in relationships.   We know this, but why is it so hard to actually communicate well?  I believe it is because there are three obstacles we face in achieving goal to better our communication. 1.  We don't know what it means to communicate effectively.

2.  We don't know how.

3.  We don't actually want to communicate fully.

1.  We don't know what it means to communicate effectively.

In psychological research, we use the term "operationalize," which means, what specifically are we doing that will cause a change?  In other words, what can be measured.  For example, let's say a researcher has a theory that reading fitness magazines "tend to provoke depression and anxiety" (This is actually true, by the way, according to a recent study by Ann Wertz Garvin PhD - quote in "O" Magazine, October 2008).  You can't really measure someone's depression or anxiety, but you can measure answers on a depression assessment or measure someone's heart rate.

So to communicate effectively, we need to know what we mean, specifically when we say we want to communicate.   You must break it down to a specific behavior change to operationalize "effective communication."  In a nutshell, effective communication other that expressing oneself and having another person receive that expression as close to your intention as possible.  So you get to choose what you would like to express.  (I'll explore the part about the other person to whom you are expressing in another section.)

Here are a few ways of operationalizing your communication that might be helpful to begin to communicate effectively:

  • Only expressing what is true for me
  • Only expressing what is really going on with me and how I'm feeling
  • Decrease or stop yelling
  • Decrease or stop sarcasm (an especially tough one to give up!!)
  • Expressing using Non-Violent Communication (more on that later)
  • Meaning what I say
  • Telling those I care about how much I appreciate them
  • Telling those I care about things that need to change and why
  • Decrease the silent treatment
  • Increase Responsibility
  • Increase Optimism

Then you can add - once a day, 5 times a day, all day, every time or some other time frame that makes sense to you (i.e. no sarcasm for a whole day). You could also end each of the above with a specific person (i.e. no sarcasm to my children)

Now you have a plan.  Get specific.  Practice.  Any of the above suggestions are hallmarks of good communications skills.  Notice the word SKILLS.  I hope that is a relief to you because they are skills, you can certainly learn them and add them to your repertoire.

Try one of the above skills, name your time frame and/or your person and try it on for a week.  Keep a log of your progress.  You'll be amazed at the improvements and healing in your relationships.

2.  We don't know how.

For all of us, at some point we were told or we learned that it was not okay to truly express ourselves.  Notice how unselfconscious little children are.  Babies don't think, you know, my mother is sleeping, so I should probably wait until she wakes up to communicate that I am hungry.   But then things change.  A dear friend of mine is a school counselor and she sees the difference between the unabashed kindergartners, first and second graders and the reserved 4th and 5th graders.  We learn to shut ourselves down, to hide what's really going on from our parents, teachers, other children and relatives and then society at large.  We are taught what's appropriate and what's not in our own little universe.

Unfortunately, some of us get very wounded in the process and lose our voice out of necessity and sometimes in order to survive.  We even lose that voice to ourselves.  As children, we were victims and it was not our fault, but once we become adults it's time to reclaim that voice of what's true for us and it is our responsibility and blaming the past or others, I've found, is not helpful.

Notice, I use the word "lose."  That is because your voice cannot be destroyed.  If you are still here, so is that inner voice.   You know what is true for you, what you really like, what you believe and what you want.  That voice is there.

So, once you begin to get in touch with it, how do you use it with others?  The best way when you are first starting is through what is called Non-Violent Communication which was developed by Marshall Rosenburg, PhD.  Below is a chart from his website, that shows the 4 step process of beginning you use your voice in a way that is effective and non-threatening to others.  When expressing your truth, you use the left column and when you are listening to another, you can use the column on the right.  It takes work, however, because we aren't used to speaking this way.  You cannot go wrong or fail when you use non-violent communication for expressing yourself.

Clearly expressing how I am without blaming or criticizing
Empathically receiving how you are without hearing blame or criticism
1. What I observe (see, hear, remember, imagine, free from my evaluations) that does or does not contribute to my well-being:

"When I (see, hear) . . . "

1. What you observe (see, hear, remember, imagine, free from my evaluations) that does or does not contribute to your well-being:

"When you see/hear . . . "

(Sometimes dropped when

offering empathy)

2. How I feel (emotion or sensation rather than thought) in relation to what I observe:

"I feel . . . "

2. How you feel (emotion or sensation rather than thought) in relation to what you observe:

"You feel . . . "

3. What I need or value (rather than a preference, or a specific action) that causes my feelings:

" . . . because I need/value. . . "

3. What you need or value (rather than a preference, or a specific action) that causes your feelings:

" . . . because you need/value. . . "

Clearly requesting that which

would enrich my life without


Empathically receiving that which

would enrich your life without

hearing any demand

4. The concrete actions I would like taken:

"Would you be willing to . . . "

4. The concrete actions you would like taken:

"Would you like to . . . "

(Sometimes dropped with

offering empathy)

3.  We don't actually want to communicate fully.

The idea of communicating fully and expressing ourselves sounds great, but to really communicate fully takes a tremendous amount of courage.  Imagine if you would only speak the truth from this point forward.  No white lies, no hedging, and no lying by omission.  The thought for those new to personal growth work is terrifying.  I imagine your life would be radically different one year from now and I would put good money on the bet that your life would be much happier and you would feel much freer.

The truth is, we only want to communicate fully when it is in our best interest.  We still want to look good, still want to be liked, still want what we want when we want it and truth telling might put an end to that.  And then there is the fear of "if people really knew how I felt, then they would not like me" or being afraid that people will leave you if they knew the truth about you or the real you.  You may also fear that you actually know what you need to say or do, but are too afraid of the consequences and of the unknown.

Unfortunately, we may have been not communicating for so long that we may feel that we have lost the ability to know what our truth is or even what we really want.  If this is the case, you may find that a trained counselor can help you find your truth.   The thing is, we never lose ourselves.  Our truth is in there.   Eleanor Roosevelt said "You must do the thing you cannot do".   If you want to be free and happy, communicating fully is a thing you must do.