BY PAMELA LAMPERELLI, M.SW.
• “You never listen to me, you don’t understand.”
• “If you loved me, you should know what I want- I shouldn’t have to tell you.”
• “If I tell him what I feel, he’ll get angry with me.”
• "She lies and can't be trusted!"
• "She's impossible to talk to because she's always too emotional and irrational!"
• "When I try to talk to him all he does is read the paper and watch T.V."
• "Whenever I talk to Johnny, he just clams up and says nothing or mumbles, 'I don't know.”
• "We just can't communicate!'
Do any of these comments sound familiar? If so, you may be having some communication difficulties. Communication is a complicated learned skill involving more than just talking. This article will review some of the problems that can develop from poor communication habits and the benefits of good communication. Specific techniques will also be suggested to improve your skills today.
Healthy communication is essential to maintain a stable family environment and to aid the family in meeting basic needs. These needs include love, security and self-esteem. Love involves the need to grow and help your partner to grow within the relationship. Love also involves giving and receiving support and acceptance of the self and the other person.
Security needs include a sense of belonging to a given family and a feeling that the family is a safe place to cope with stresses by pulling together, protecting and supporting each member. Without such a foundation of good communication, stress can pull apart and sometimes even destroy a fragile family unit. Frequently the stress may come from within the family itself as a result of poor communication habits. A feeling of security can come from routine familiarity and from the ability to predict with a high degree of accuracy emotional and behavioral reactions of other family members. This may be true even with less than satisfying or destructive interaction. For example, an abused wife often finds it difficult to leave the security of her husband.
The enhancement of self-esteem and self-worth of each family member is also aided through good communication. With positive interaction and communication, family members feel secure, loved and self-confident, thus enabling them to be motivated and more productive at home and work.
Good communication provides a vehicle with which to deal with sources of conflict and stress in a relationship. The most common areas for conflict within a marriage, for example, are money, sex and in-laws (first, the mother of the husband; second, the sister of the husband). Lack of common interests is also a source of stress within a relationship. People often go their own ways until they have no sense of attachment or investment in each other that can develop through a sharing of mutual interests. Frequent ly children are the only common tie. When the children are gone the couple face each other as strangers.
Retirement is another change that puts stress on a couple. Both spouses have focused on work and child rearing and other outside interests prior to retirement. Suddenly, they face a large amount of time with each other frequently in a new environment without the support of friends and the familiar surroundings of "home.” If there isn't a strong healthy communication pattern this may be a time when the relationship that previously functioned begins to weaken.
In contrast, destructive communication patterns can cause a wide variety of symptoms and problems. The stress at home may create problems at work, interfering with productivity. Physical symptoms such as colitis, ulcers, nervous stomachs, headaches, muscle tensions, back problems and other physical ailments may develop. Other symptoms may be emotional difficulties such as depression, hostility, anxiety, irrational fears, and excessive guilt. Feelings of suspicion and mistrust of others may develop as well. Children may exhibit behavioral and emotional difficulties and their overall development can be affected. Some individuals may try to cope by turning to drug and alcohol which create additional problems and pressures on the family.
Eventually poor communication habits may cause the family to break apart. For women in their thirties there is a 60% divorce rate for first marriages. There is a second peak for number of divorces in the age range of 40-45 years. This may be due to “midlife crises” and the children leaving home. For second marriages, the rate of divorce is 50% higher than first marriages, primarily because destructive communication habits continue that were present in the first marriage. Pre-marital counseling or professional marriage counseling within the first year of marriage helps reduce all of these statistics and gives the couple an opportunity to develop good communication skills and correct old patterns.
The main complaint of couples at any age is "lack of communication.” In actuality, communication is taking place but in fixed, habitual, negative patterns that create stress emotionally physically.
Everything we say or do is a form of communication and conveys a message. Even silence is communication. For example, the "silent clam" may be conveying a message of hostility. Trying to talk to someone who refuses to respond can be frustrating and aggravating. As such, this can be a safe, effective way of communicating hostility without an open interchange of conflict.
A key question to ask oneself is, "What are my actions communicating and is it consistent with my intended message?” The answer may sometimes be in the feedback you receive, which leads to a second premise of communication. The message sent is not necessarily the message received. What you intend to communicate may not be what is heard. This can lead to misunderstandings and arguments. People tend to assume that they are heard exactly as they think. However, no two people will see things the same way. There will be differences in perceptions and interpretations of messages according to ages, backgrounds, values, sex, culture, personalities overall and prior experiences. In addition, what we say and how we say it may not be consistent, which can cause further confusion. If someone says, “I’m not angry,” yet raises the voice, frowns, clenches their fists, grits their teeth, what can the listener believe? Here is a mixed message and a dishonest communication that can cause feelings of mistrust.
According to statistics, only 7% of communication is verbal! 23% is tone of voice, 35% is nonverbal body language and 35% is nonverbal facial expressions. So nonverbal communication carries tremendous weight. Nonverbal communication also includes some of the following: eye contact, breathing tempo, gestures, body position and distance from the other person, and even our overall dress and appearance.
A third premise is that communication commands behavior. In other words, information about ourselves as to how to progress in the relationship or how to be treated by others will be communicated. A marital communication study by Rausch, Barry, Hartek and Swain in 1974 indicated that if you treat your spouse in a certain manner you will receive that same type of treatment in return and a negative or positive cycle of interaction will occur. For example, a husband who continuously accuses his wife of being unfaithful or dishonest will frequently see actions that confirm his beliefs, such as coming home late from work or withholding information about how money is spent.
Frequently communication evolves into an argument. In an on-going relationship, this is usually a fixed pattern of interaction that repeats time and time again. The specific words may sometimes change, but the same predictable pattern takes place, over and over again. Usually one person feels that their wants, wishes or rights have been violated or their expectations have not been met. Anger is then felt. Consequently, the function of anger is to blame, punish and make the other person feel guilty or teach a lesson.
Either by implication or direct statement "you" are at fault. Each couple has certain "red flags" or "hooks" that set the other off and an argument starts. Often, all the sensitive areas of the partner are used as ammunition for the battle "to get even.” The usual response of the spouse who then gets "hooked" is to either attack or defend in return. They will get angrier, focus on side issues, and dredge up all the previous wrongs from years before. They physically move apart, avoid eye contact and voices raise. As a result, distance is created in the relationship. If this becomes a continual pattern, the relationship can gradually break apart. However, anger can be ventilated and used constructively if expressed with the intention of changing circumstances to prevent the reoccurrence of the same interaction. If the partner doesn't choose to accept the bait, the argument can be avoided and communication about the central issue and problem solving can proceed.
An effective communication technique is to use an "I" statement to avoid blaming. This includes a statement of personal feelings with nonverbal expression of feelings as well; the direct consequences to you or how it may interfere with your needs; and the source of the problem stated as specifically and concretely as possible without name calling or labeling. An example of an I statement might be, "I feel hurt and angry when you read the paper which prevents me from talking to you:' A key question to help describe the problematic behavior is, "can you take a picture of what you describe, or, can you record your description?" Calling someone "lazy" is not an observable description of behavior. But, to say he leaves his clothes in the middle of the floor is a specific description. Once the feelings have been ventilated, then communication can progress to problem solving, if there's disagreement.
Good listening skills are equally important in healthy communication. If you are a good listener and respect the other person's feelings, then they will be more likely to reciprocate and be a good listener to you. How this can be accomplished is through good eye contact, facing the other person in fairly close proximity and silence. Avoid interrupting or adding your "opinion" until the other person is finished. Nonverbal signals may be given that you are listening by head nodding, or assuming an alert, eyes open, facial expression. Using "I see”, "Uh huh”, "yes”, "I understand”, "Can you tell me more?" or "How do you feel?" also conveys an appropriate interest in listening. Verbal feedback can be given by summarizing in your own words what you hear the other person saying, including their feelings, that may be observed even if not stated. This is not a statement of agreement or an expression of your opinion, but, rather acting more like a mirror to reflect back what you heard. This will communicate "I am listening and hear what you say and feel.” This type of communication will give the opportunity for clarifications if the message received was not accurate to the message sent.
Another factor that may interfere in good communication is the time and place chosen to talk. Good communication will not take place while drinking, using drugs, within a time constraint, when people are fatigued, sick or in pain, in the middle of doing a task or household chore, watching TV or reading, or when you just come in the door from work or school. A good opener to a discussion might be "I want to discuss an issue that concerns both of us. When and where would be good for you?" A time and place that is favorable to all concerned needs to be chosen. Good communication and problem solving can then take place in the following steps. First, state your intentions and expectations as well as the problem as specifically as possible.
Express your own feelings through "I" statements and ask for how the other person is feeling. Explore all relevant information, facts, opinions and feelings from both sides. Brainstorm all possible alternatives. Be careful not to get caught up in arguing and defending only two possible solutions. Evaluate all the possible options. Everyone then needs to agree on a solution before it will be carried out.
To summarize, here are 10 Do's and Don'ts for good communication:
1. Do be specific and stay on the topic to be discussed. Don't bring up everything includ ing the "kitchen sink!'
2. Don't let the discussion break down to nagging, arguing or trying to convince the other person to change to your way of thinking. Avoid playing the “I’m right, vs. you’re wrong” game.
3. Don’t monopolize the conversation or interrupt. Do allow for everyone to have a say or express an opinion even if it disagrees with yours. Do wait expectantly for a response. Avoid asking questions that may be answered by yes or no if someone clams up. Don’t fill silence with your own comments.
4. Do show respect by avoiding name calling, criticisms, put downs, judgments, unfavorable comparisons to others such as “you’re just like your mother, father, my ex-wife,” etc. and you will receive respect in return. Remember the golden rule of communication - speak as you would be spoken to.
5. Don't assume you are making yourself clear or understood. Check it out by asking for a summary of what you said. Don't assume the other person can read your mind. Do tell them your feelings and wants.
6. Don’t be afraid to say what is on your mind in anticipation of what the other person may say or think. Communication involves a risk because the other person may not like what you have to say. But if issues are not expressed the problems only fester and get worse.
7. Don't dictate or tell others what to do or feel. Avoid blaming by not using phrases like "you always,” “you never,” or “you make me feel”. Don’t take responsibility for their behavior or feelings. But do take responsibility for yourself by discussing only your own actions, feelings or needs. We are all capable of generating our own solutions to problems and can only change our self. You cannot change the other person.
8. Be aware of "hidden agendas" in communication. Many times people will act in ways to “con” the other to “do it their way” or to change according to their expectations. This will only lead to rebellious uncooperative attitudes in response. Intentions behind communication are extremely important in determining the outcome.
9. Do give your point of view as a opinion, not as law. There is a difference between fact and opinion. When discussing behaviors and feelings there are only opinions.
10. Do avoid focusing only on the negative. Do focus on getting and giving information to problem solve. Then be willing to let go and end with some positive communication or feedback. Always end on a positive note.
By keeping these key points in mind and implementing these suggestions you can improve your communication skills. As a result, you can gain from more fulfilling, interpersonal relationships. A word of caution is necessary to mention. To change old habits takes a lot of hard work and energy. As such, using new techniques and approaches may take repeated attempts over time before the other person will respond differently. It is import to be aware and avoid the old “hooks” that draw you back into old patterns. Expect that change will take place and don’t give up. If there is no improvement, a consideration to seek help from a reputable professional counselor may be advisable.
HOW WELL DO YOU COMMUNICATE WITH OTHERS? Check yes if the statement is most often true for you. And add up the total.
1. I tend to interrupt people when they are talking to me or others.
2. I avoid looking directly at the other person.
3. I frequently make guesses about the other person’s motives or attitudes.
4. I rarely question the other person about how they feel or for their opinion about a problem.
5. I tend to get overly emotional and repeat myself over and over when there's a disagreement.
6. I avoid discussing my feelings.
7. I often find myself arguing about small, insignificant issues.
8. I tend to blame someone or something else for my troubles.
9. I dislike and avoid open confrontation.
10. When I lose my temper, I find myself name calling and using put downs.
TOTAL SCORE_______________(yes only)
8-10 You may be having serious communication problems.
5-7 You need help in communication. 2-4 You are improving your skills.
0-1 Excellent communicator – keep up the good work! Pamela Lamperellii is in private practice for individual, marital and family counseling in Broward County. She teaches courses on stress management and parent effectiveness, and works part-time as a psychiatric social worker at Henderson Mental Health Center in Pompano Beach. A psychology grad uate from the University of Connecticut, she received her Master of Social Work degree from Barry University in Miami. (This article was originally published in the IMC Journal, Summer 1986, p.20-23)