The Clumsy Conundrum of Communication

I dread the phone call that I know will come before I am ready.  Her timeline is vastly different from mine.  She wants to know what I am thinking about making for Thanksgiving dinner… in September.  I generally get down to business about 24 hours before the celebration.  She wants to discuss what I am thinking about for summer plans in February.  I, on the other hand, hold off as long as possible from thinking about summer and the pain of no free education-based entertainment during those two incredibly long months.  For her, planning ahead calms.  For me, planning ahead hurts my head.  We have different motivations, different timelines, and different ways of dealing with the world.  Neither she nor I are in the right, per se.  We simply communicate differently.  If she were my partner instead of my mother, I would likely have some communication challenges ahead.

In the game of communication, one of the most important aspects is to understand your partners’ communication style and needs.  What do they need to know?  What level of detail do they prefer?  When do they like to know it?  When is the best time to talk with them productively?  Getting used to fine-tuning the way you communicate in the following ways can help you enjoy your relationship more.

What isn’t working?  Sometimes this is the easiest place to start in your search for good communication.  When do you not feel heard?  When does your partner seem not to be listening?  When does your subtle comment turn into a fight?  Ask yourself the following questions:

Was I clear in what I was trying to communicate?

Is there a better or ‘softer’ way to say what I was trying to say?

Did I use any blaming language that may have made my partner defensive?  (“You always…” “You made me angry”)

Did I give my partner time to respond?

Did I try and understand his/her position?

Was the environment conducive to a good conversation?

Are there certain words I use that tend to “trigger” my partner?

What triggers me?  What did he say that made me angry?

In a recent workshop, men and women talked about what is happening when conversations go awry. 

“I was rushed.”                 “We were late.”                 “I just got home from work.” 

“I felt disrespected.”       “She didn’t try to understand me.”          “He cut me off.” 

“He told me how I was feeling.”                 “She was telling me what to do.” 

What is working?  Think it through: when was the last time you had a really effective conversation meaning that you felt heard or you and your partner worked well together?   These are things you might recognize:

Calmness works. Being able to stay calm in your body and tone tends to keep the other person calm.  Think of it this way: people tend to mimic the body language and feelings of the one they are around.  If you are calm, she will be calm.

Environment matters.  Think “where” and “when”.  Don’t start a conversation when either of you is rushed.  Find a place that is quiet and a time when each party can relax into the conversation.  If he likes to have 30 minutes after he comes home to play video games, let him and ask him to let you know when he is ready to talk.  Sometimes I need to take a shower when I get home to wash off the day and then I am ready to face the world again.  Also, put your phones away and reduce any other distractions.  This goes a long way towards building an environment of respect.

Words matter.  We each have phrases that bug us.  Maybe it’s “you always” or “you never”.  Or maybe it’s a condescending tone that makes you feel belittled.  Notice the impact you are having on your partner.  Be willing to try different ways of speaking that build partnership rather than animosity.

Be a good listener.  This is the one to really pay attention to.  Be a good listener.  Being a good listener means not talking (at all!).  It means making eye contact and listening to understand your partner’s perspective.  If you are really listening, you are not be using the time to formulating your comeback.  You are not be planning your next move.  If you fear you will forget what you want to say, write it down.  A good practice to know whether you were listening is to repeat the words back to the talker and ask them if you got it correct.

This is what I think you were trying to say….. Did I hear you correctly?

Simply listening will go a long way to strengthening your communication with your partner.  If your partner feels heard and even better, understood, there is a lot less to complain about.

I fumble as much as I fly in communicating effectively.  It is a practice.  Allow your missteps to lead to you to being in step with your partner (or your mother), at least occasionally.  It is worth it.


Erin Oldham, Ph.D. is a researcher and relationship & divorce coach. Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships. She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world. Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child well-being and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years. She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective. She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Email her here.

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