Why is communication so hard?
Updated: May 31, 2020
The most common thing I hear when couples come in for counselling is “we need to work on our communication!”
There are definitely basic things that we need to learn about communication that would help in all facets of our lives. For communication to go well and be effective the following are vital:
- the motivation to communicate
- effective disclosure
- clear and precise messages
- clarity of thought and language
- effective listening
- the appropriate environment
Tillet and French, in their book Resolving Conflict say,
Effective communication means that what is meant is said, and that what is said is meant. It also means that what is said is heard, and that what is meant is understood.
But something different and beyond this happens when we are communicating with our partner. It’s clearly not a business relationship where we may apply all the good communication skills we do at work. In a relationship we are in the business of emotions and emotions can be tricky. So thinking about what Tillet and French say about effective communication, quite often what is meant isn’t said, what is said isn’t meant, what is said isn’t heard and what is meant isn’t understood. I’m sure many of us can relate to this sort of conversation, especially with people we care for most. Why does this happen?!?
We all come into a relationship with some sort of blueprint that is a mix of our genetics, personality and early experiences. We all have things that trigger us because of this. A trigger can feel like tightness in our chest, pressure in our head, muscles tightening… it varies from person to person. Different relationship writers use different terms for this feeling. The Gottmans (we refer to to the amazing work of John and Julie a lot on this blog) use the term “emotional flooding”; Dan Siegel calls it “flipping the lid” referring to our frontal lobe no longer firing at ideal capacity (we teach about this concept in our 3 session relationship education package); others refer to going into fight or flight mode.
No matter what it is called the feelings are the same and it means that we are so overwhelmed by something that has happened in the current interaction because it touched an existing wound. At this stage, we can’t listen effectively and we can’t express ourselves effectively. So all the great communication skills that we possess become quite useless at this point. This is were the concept of time out is becomes important- if you keep talking at this point things will only escalate even though part of you thinks If I keep saying this (louder and more intensely) they will hear me… We need at least a 20 minute of time out to be able to calm down and our brain to come back to full function. It is important during the time out to notice your breathing and to slow it and deepen it and focus on this or some other distraction rather than just sitting in another room and thinking about all the things your partner did wrong.
It is also valuable to notice when our partner is getting triggered in a fight. If you are still not flooded and your partner is, then you have the frontal lobe power to make the conversation not get out of hand. You can suggest a time out or say reassuring and soothing things. It is crucial in suggesting a time out you don’t use language that will further trigger your partner like “You are getting triggered again, I think you should go and have your time out…” That sounds really condescending. It would be better to say “I really want to hear what you have to say but our conversation is not heading in a good direction, let’s take a time out and get back to it after dinner.”
So in summary, in a relationship we are in the business of emotions. We need to look after and understand our partner’s emotions and triggers and take responsibility for the things that trigger us and how to self-soothe to ensure we are in the right headspace to have a conversation.