One of the most common things that comes up in my client sessions is a problem with communication. This can be anything from a client arguing with their partner, to feeling they are not listened to by their children, by their friends, or by their work colleagues.
When we feel we are not being listened to, then we feel we are not being understood. When it then comes time that we need help and support from the other person, we wonder whether they can really understand what we are going through.
In this article I have listed a few common communication issues that clients have wanted to discuss with me, the reasons these issues may be occurring, and then some of the things that have helped them in improving that communication.
Throughout this article I am referring to communication between partners, but the same ideas can be used for any people in your life that you may be struggling to communicate with.
My partner and I never talk, we just argue.
Most of us do not start a relationship based on arguments, so what has got us to the stage where we argue instead of talk?
Often when we feel we are not being listened to, we become resentful and angry towards the person we are trying to communicate with.
When some people are not listened to, they try to provoke the other person in an attempt to get a response. However, rather than getting a response, this often causes the other person to shut down and not respond.
What we need to remember is that by starting an argument, or by trying to provoke the other person, we are taking the conversation from an open dialogue to a battle – it becomes less about talking issues through, or discussing opinions, and more about winning that battle. If we want to win the battle then we need to prove that our viewpoint is totally right, and theirs is totally wrong, thus saying the other person’s feelings are no longer relevant to us.
So let’s not think of this as a war. Instead, is there 10% of what the other person is saying to us that we can acknowledge and agree with? If so, to move the conversation forward, concentrate on talking about that 10% and for the time being, set aside the other 90%. Now, is there 10% of what we are saying that our partner can acknowledge and agree with. Okay, concentrate on talking about that 10%.
If you cannot find even 10% that both you and your partner can acknowledge or agree with, then this may no longer be about the discussion itself, but is actually about the resentment you are holding towards your partner. To be able to move forward you need to seek an end to that resentment. Try to focus on the positives in your partner. If you need to, make a list of your partner’s qualities and things that you appreciate about them. Have these qualities in mind when you start to talk with your partner. You are then more likely to want to enter into a conversation with your partner rather than seeing them as an adversary to beat.
It is important to get in to a habit of conversations starting as a dialogue rather than an argument. Both partners are more likely to be able to come to a solution and resolve things between them when it is through a respect for each other and through a recognition that both can have valid points in the discussion.
My partner just doesn’t listen to what I am saying!
So some discussions can just lead to arguments, but what happens if it seems like your partner isn’t even listening to what you are saying?
In many cases this can be because our partner is choosing not to listen to us, and there can be a number of reasons for that.
Many of us do not realise that it is not just the words we say that are important, but also the way we say them and the way we present ourselves when we say them.
It is important to be aware of body language when discussing tricky issues. If we have our arms crossed and our body language is defensive, or our voice is aggressive, our partner may take in and respond to these signals rather than the words spoken so that even if you are trying to have a conversation, your partner may feel you are lecturing them or blocking their right to hold a differing opinion. This can lead to arguments, or your partner refusing to engage in the conversation in the first place. When talking with your partner try to talk in a calm, welcoming tone – without crossing your arms or legs.
Also remember that picking the time you communicate can be important too. You do not want to enter into important or emotional conversations at a time when one or both of you are having to watch the clock; or late at night when tiredness can be a factor. Ideally you need to find a time to talk where both of you can be relaxed, and you are not rushed for time.
All he wants to do is find a solution! All she wants to do is talk about her feelings!
I am using a stereotype here, but in general, men and women think differently – and this can often be true when it comes to conversations.
Through social conditioning, men have been brought up to communicate in order to relay information and to solve problems. If a man has a problem, he will try to find a solution for it. It is more common for men to struggle to talk about emotional needs, as they are conditioned to believe that this makes them seem weak.
Conversely, in general, women communicate in order to connect with others. Women tend to focus less on solutions and more on sharing the problem with others. Social conditioning means that many women are more comfortable talking about their feelings than men.
These differences don’t have to be about men and women. Regardless of gender, you may often find that one person in a relationship is more solution focussed than the other. Because of these differences, partners can feel frustrated when their partner doesn’t think in the same way they do. Remember however, they may be thinking the same thing about you.
The solution here is to try and meet each other half way. If you are talking to someone who is more logic and solution focussed, then try to be more concise in what you want to say to them, and to listen and be open to their ideas even if you do not feel you want to act on them. If you are talking to someone who is more emotion focussed, then remember you do not need to offer a solution to them, often all they are looking for is someone who is really listening to what they have to say, and to have someone to share their worries with. If you cannot offer a solution that is not a sign of failure.
My partner doesn’t want to talk about difficult issues.
Of course it may not be your partner who doesn’t want to talk about difficult issues, it may be you.
Everyone brings their own style of communication and many people bring their own “baggage” to communication as well. For example, someone who grew up in a household with an angry parent may have watched as everyone constantly tried to soothe or avoid talking to that parent when they were angry. Over time this attitude can become ingrained, so that when confrontation arises in adulthood they revert back to what they remember as a child; and try to either soothe or avoid becoming involved in the discussion.
In romantic relationships, one partner may have upset a previous partner when they tried to communicate honestly and openly with them, which has made them feel guilty or ashamed. This worry of upsetting a partner can be brought into later relationships and may even stop them from talking openly in future relationships for fear of doing the same again.
Some people struggle with hearing criticism, or feel they will upset or hurt the other person if they criticise them, so they keep these feelings to themselves. If you are fearful of having arguments or upsetting someone else, then there may be more underlying reasons for this, and exploring this with a counsellor may help. It is important that you can be true to yourself and express what you feel, and know that your relationship will be able to cope with that honesty.
If being honest in a relationship causes you or your partner to feel anxious then it is a good idea to start small and practice. For example, you could both agree that one of you could talk for five minutes about whatever has come up, while the other listens without saying anything. If there is silence, then say nothing, just stay with it for the full five minutes. Then the next couple of minutes you can both talk about what has been said. Then swap the roles for another five minutes followed by two minutes of discussion. This way both partners feel they can voice all of their thoughts, or worries, with time and space, without worrying about being interrupted. It can be difficult to voice your thoughts, but with practice it will become easier.
If you are worried about hurting a partner by saying something to them that they may find critical then you may find it easier if you use the following technique.
Start by telling your partner something you appreciate about them. Follow this by then telling them the thing about them that you wanted to raise – but say it in as constructive way as possible. Follow this up by then telling them another thing that you appreciate about them. By telling your partner the things you appreciate about them as well as the thing that concerns them, shows your partner that you still care and appreciate them.
Remember this is not just about you, it is about both of you. Be open and interested in the other persons points of view. If you are open to hearing about them: their thoughts, dreams, and worries, then they are far more likely to be open to hearing what you have to say.
Honest and open conversations can be hard because it means that we are being open and vulnerable about how we feel and what we are thinking. However, when we are able to open up and feel we are being listened to, and are being understood, it gives us the bravery to be vulnerable more often.
In the end this can help not only our communication in a relationship, but the strength of the relationship itself.
If you feel that you are having communication problems in any aspect of your life, and would like to talk about how you may overcome those issues, then counselling can help. Please contact me on the contact details on this page.
Written by Derek Lovell of New Thinking Therapy.