Despite all of the ways we have in modern society to share information, most people complain about communication issues. This is because communication is more than just transmitting information. I often hear my clients say, “If only we could communicate better, things would be fine,” or “Once our communication improves, this won’t happen again.” This happens in both individual and couple sessions and across all demographics.
As human beings, we are wired for social connection and belonging. Our ability to communicate is one of the most important tools we have to seek out and sustain a relationship. This process would be much more straightforward if everyone communicated “the same”: at the same level, in the same manner, with the same vulnerability, with the same investment, etc. The truth is that as individuals we all have our unique way of communicating.
Think about the people closest to you. Your mother might be someone who responds emphatically and speaks without thinking. Your best friend might be someone who takes time to process something before bringing it up. Your partner might be someone who avoids talking about issues at all costs. All of these people are operating in different ways. You are attempting to communicate with all of them – and that doesn’t even factor in that you have your own communication style and preferences!
Because communication can be so convoluted, so time-consuming, and make us feel so vulnerable, it can be a particularly tricky aspect of a relationship to negotiate. We may avoid communication, or dread it, or experience heightened anxiety in the process. As a result, we may try to tell ourselves that we don’t need to work on our communication, but deep down, we know that that is not true. Healthy and honest communication is the cornerstone of harmony, respect, and development in our interpersonal relationships.
While there can be communication mistakes at the workplace and in leadership, in this blog, I will be specifically focusing on communication mistakes you are making in your personal relationship with your partner, your friends, or family members. These tend to have higher stakes, making effective communication essential, and miscommunication is tough to deal with. In our personal lives, with our relationship on the line, it can be challenging to be vulnerable and ask for the vulnerability we need from the other person. We may find ourselves bending over backward to deflect, to avoid, to repress. But for every communication stumble, there is a tool we can employ to improve our situation.
In the heat of the moment, we tend to think that the best time to bring up an issue from a week ago is when we are talking about an issue that happened five minutes ago. We view this as an inventory, a supporting argument to help us communicate our point and validate our emotions. But if your excuse to bring up things from the past is because “it is related to what we are talking about,” let me tell you: it doesn’t help.
When you bring a list of things from the past, no matter how related they are to the topic at hand, all that does is make the other person feel more attacked and inadequate. When people feel flooded in conversion, they shut down. Emotional flooding is when an incident triggers your internal threat detection system to take over; you experience overwhelming physical symptoms and cannot hear or process anything the other person is saying. This flood can trigger Fight or Flight, which is not a productive mode to be in. Compounding incidents by bringing up x number of past “related infractions” very quickly leads to the other person being overwhelmed by accusations and can trigger emotional flooding.
Try this instead:
Talk about one thing at a time! It might be difficult to begin to implement this tool, but it can make a huge difference. This may mean that you are mentioning “little things” more often; you may feel at first like you’re nagging or repeating yourself, but what you’re doing is releasing small incidents before they become all-out encyclopedias of “wrongdoings.”
For example: if your partner is someone who consistently runs late, it is very easy to bring up the last time your partner was late if you are arguing about this time. “You were late last week, and we missed the train” or “This is just like that time you were late getting home from work, and we missed the first ten minutes of the movie” maybe your way of pointing out a pattern, but the odds are good that all that happens is your partner feeling attacked.
Focus on the current situation: “Because you didn’t let me know you were running late, I had dinner ready for us, and now I feel that you don’t respect my time and effort in making dinner.” Communicating what has happened and how it made you feel should be enough for your partner. If it’s not, then there may be a time and place to have a calm discussion about a pattern that is upsetting you, but it’s not in the middle of an already-tense conversation.
How many times have you held your tongue because you were afraid of upsetting the other person? How many times have you had an argument or discussion that left you feeling dissatisfied because you knew you hadn’t managed to say everything you needed to?
This occurs all the time, with the best intentions. We rank the list of issues and avoid the ones that might take too much time or that we perceive will upset the other person. We are trying to be “fair” in our conversations, trying not to have seven problems because our partner only has two. It can feel burdensome to “take more space” in the discussion or disagreement, and as a result, we simply “let some things go.” The problem with this is that we don’t actually let them go, and the anxiety that that creates can and will be felt by the other person. It will bother us, and our behavior will reflect our agitation. Withholding our truths to protect the other person’s feelings is really doing a disservice to both people in the relationship.
Try this instead:
Focus on how you are saying things and accept that other people are responsible for their feelings. This doesn’t mean that you yell at your partner, especially if your partner has stated that being yelled at is very upsetting for him/her/them. It means that you approach the conversation bearing in mind that your ultimate goal is to be honest, while being compassionate and respectful. This helps us to establish and practice boundaries and to express ourselves in a healthy way. Being mindful of our emotional state is also a great way to regulate our communication so that we don’t say something we can’t take back or speak in a way that we regret later.
The truth is that the most important topic takes multiple conversations to sort out and resolve, and sometimes you’ll have to “go to bed angry” to rest, reflect, and refill your energy. Too often, we think that if we are returning to a subject, that’s a bad sign. We falsely think, “If we were good communicators, we would be done with it already.” You have to remember that it is not quantity that matters; it is quality.
Having fewer conversations about an issue doesn’t mean much about your communications skills; it simply means that the topic at hand wasn’t complicated enough to require multiple conversations. Often, issues that are complicated and very personal may take multiple conversations to address. They may require discussion and then trial-and-error periods where behavior is adjusted, new routines are tried, or a different communication skill is employed. Then, they may require that we revisit the subject to discuss what we learned, what we liked, what we didn’t think worked, etc. Think about your life: the bigger tasks do not take an hour. Why should conflict resolution about an important issue have a deadline?
How to overcome it?
Let go of your high expectations around the number of times you discuss an issue. There will be issues or boundaries that should only require being told once. But for most “daily issues,” it may release a lot of stress to stop counting the number of times you’ve had to revisit a given conversation. Give yourself and the other person permission to take time and revisit, and stop mentally clocking the time spent discussing or arguing, and start focusing on improvements you see and feel after every conversation. There are very few situations where a deadline is necessary.
This is an easy one because we often don’t want to admit our part in our unhappiness. The ego will seek to assign external blame at all costs. Yes, there will be times when we state a boundary, and it is not respected; in a perfect world, that wouldn’t happen. But a lot of the time, if two people who care about one another are at odds about an issue, both have a part to play.
Sometimes, what starts as a “simple conversation” can suddenly become heated when one person’s emotions heighten. If you are the person on the other side of this situation, it can feel straightforward that you were trying to have a civilized conversation, and the other person overreacted or “flew off the handle.” In this case, when the conversation becomes an argument, you might be tempted to blame the other person for making too big a deal of the situation, rather than reflecting and realizing that you said something upsetting to the other person. There are situations where one person is at fault; cheating or stealing comes to mind. But even in those situations, our response has the ability to dictate our next steps, whether they set us onto the road of rebuilding or whether we will inevitably want closure after parting ways. During an argument, and especially a heightened one, there are always two sides to the story, even if we don’t want to admit that we have a part to play in the problem. We always have a part to play in the solution if we want a solution.
Look at your role in the situation, and be honest about it. Don’t just look at the last thing your partner said, but things you may have said earlier in the conversation. Ask yourself, “Is there anything I can do differently?” and “Am I proud of the way I am showing up in this conversation?” This doesn’t necessarily mean that you are taking the blame for the situation; instead, it means that you are taking responsibility for finding the solution. While you and the other person may come to an impasse, you can know that you at least did your part to take responsibility, analyze, reflect and contribute.
This is a very tricky communication barrier for both yourself and the other person. It can be very tempting to bury our heads in the sand, but it doesn’t help us feel better and doesn’t help the other person meet our needs. It doesn’t help us to clarify what is upsetting us; it doesn’t help the other person to avoid behaviors or habits that trigger us; it doesn’t fix anything.
Perhaps you didn’t have open and honest communication modeled for you as a child. Maybe you had a partner who shut you down when you voiced concerns. Whatever your reasoning is, it probably came out of some tough experiences that shaped your confidence in expressing yourself. But the fact is that we are never too old to learn how to adopt healthy habits, even if we adopt them slowly. The mental weight of carrying around a problem because we don’t want to talk about it is far worse for us than having a tricky conversation.
The best tool for any type of avoidant tendencies is ultimately exposure, which means having these conversations. It doesn’t mean that you have to go all-in and start with the most significant looming issue and tackle it in one sitting. It means that you have to begin. Set a time and place that works for you and the other person and ask to talk about something. Be honest about your fears and let them know, “This is difficult for me to bring up.” Maybe let them know you only want to deal with the issue in pieces. You are entirely within your right to have short conversations at a time so as to keep your anxiety at a moderate level.
Prepare yourself to feel anxious and focus on making sure your anxiety doesn’t become so heightened that it clouds your thinking. Keep a notepad with you for the things you want to make sure you say. It is understandable to worry that people aren’t willing to do this work with you, but anyone who cares about you will be willing to show up for you and want to know how you feel.
When approaching communication, it is important to remember that we all see the world differently. From our genetic predisposition to temperament, to the way our parents nurtured us, to our life experiences, we formulate a worldview and internal dialogue that is unique to us. Being willing to communicate is our way of allowing those we love to know and love us in a healthy way. Sometimes, we may forget that not everyone sees situations, habits, incidents, and behaviors the way we do. We might find ourselves wanting those around us to innately know our wants, needs, and boundaries without us having to say anything, but this way of thinking doesn’t serve us or our relationships.
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.
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