Seek to understand before being understood
Communication! Communication! Communication! Well what can I say! Communication is a very important tool which allows us to acknowledge our similarities while also helping us learn how to love and accept each other, by understanding and supporting the differences between us. It shows us a way to navigate through relationships and gives us the ability to keep negotiating and renegotiating the terms of our relationships as our lives, life circumstances and roles change. In essence, communication is integral to a healthy relationship and effective communication is the key to this. Effective communication allows us to stay conscious of our issues by putting them all on the table so we can then see them, understand them and work with them in a positive and creative way. By doing this we are ensuring that they do not become a sabotaging force within the relationship.
So how do you effectively communicate you may ask? Some people find communicating difficult, but if you willing to follow a few simple rules, be patient and practise learning to truly listen to each other, it can become a very intimate, joyful and fulfilling experience for both parties in a relationship. To begin with, as I touched on earlier, the key to effective communication is learning how to truly listen. When I say this I mean to be able to really feel what it is like for the other person, to step inside their shoes and get a sense for a moment in time what it feels like to be and understand them. It is not listening to what your partner is saying while all the while formulating in your own mind what you are going to say next. You are there just to listen without judgement, not to fix anything, give advice, dispute what they are saying, or talk about you. Rather you are there just to be attentive, with an open heart and mind to the other person.
Now for some of us this may be difficult at first because we are so used to not really listening to each other and are more interested in thinking and worrying about ourselves. We want to be defensive, interrupt, make a rebuttal and say what we think because we ourselves want to be heard. The reason for this is that most of us were not listened to as children. We were quite often ‘seen and not heard’. No wonder we want to express ourselves now and haven’t learnt the art of listening. We are still reacting as adults to both being silenced and not listened to as children. To help with learning how to listen, we must first learn how to express ourselves from our hearts. This is achieved through using open and neutral language that allows us to not take what the other person says personally. Examples of open and neutral language are: ‘I feel’, ‘I’ve noticed’ or ‘I’ve observed’. When we use this form of language it allows us to take responsibility for how we feel and yet communicate our needs in a way that others can hear. By owning how we feel, we do not project our issue out onto our partner, making it feel as if it is their problem.
If we do project out issue out onto our partner and make them feel like it is their problem they will generally react towards us in a negative way. When this happens they will either:
- Flee (withdraw and say nothing),
- Fight (argue),
- Freeze (not know what to say but look worried) or,
- Fragment (look confused and disorientated but try to make amends).
These reactions are all survival instincts and defence mechanisms that kick into action when we feel threatened or perceive we are under attack. We feel threatened and under attack when our partner (or anyone else for that matter) is trying to push or dump their emotions onto us and want us to take responsibility for them.
A scenario that demonstrates this is:
Your partner goes away for the weekend. They tell you they will call you when they get in that evening. They don’t call. So you do not know if they arrived safely or if they are OK. Meanwhile, you are frantically calling them all that night and the next day and cannot get hold of them. Finally, you do get through to them and you say, ‘Where have you been??? You said that you would call me and you haven’t!!! I have been calling and calling you!!! I have been really worried!!!’
What has just happened in this exchange is that you have effectively projected and dumped all your fears, anxiety, worries and anger onto your partner. Now depending on what their survival pattern is they could react in a number of ways. They might simply hang up on you (flee) or say, ‘How dare you speak to me that way, you always speak to me like this’ (fight) and proceed to get into an argument with you. Or they might simply take on your emotions and feel more downtrodden and unworthy in themselves, apologising profusely and taking on all the blame, simply to keep the peace with you (fragment).
Once you’ve dumped your emotions on your partner you might feel better for a while. However, when they react negatively towards you, deep inside you start to feel bad again. Hence, this destructive communication cycle continues once more.
But what you don’t maybe get to know, by engaging with each other in this way, is that in this particular case, your partner has a legitimate reason why they didn’t call you. That in fact the mobile network in the area was down and they had no access to a land-line. So most of the night they had been awake worrying because they could not call when they said they would and had ended up exhausted, with a headache and hardly sleeping. When you finally talk to them you do not realise the network had only just been restored and that it is only now they can receive or make calls from their phone.
Talk about jumping to conclusions and making a mountain out of a molehill. This communication exchange has effectively served no one and has closed down any chance of a mutual exchange between you and your partner in which both can feel good and understand each other. This is unless of course your partner has the ability to not take your outburst personally but to respond to what you have said from how they are feeling. When I say this, what I mean is for them to express how they feel about what you have said.