It is a rare relationship that does not experience difficulties in communication from time to time. Sometimes we feel that nothing we say is understood correctly – that everything is misconstrued. Or we get stuck in arguments that just spin around and around, going nowhere. Or we feel that our partner is dismissive of what we are trying to say — that he or she really doesn’t care. When we care deeply for another human being, we are our most vulnerable – and also our most human. We make mistakes. We say what we don’t mean. We don’t say what we do mean. We retreat. We attack.
How can we restore and maintain open, positive, and emotionally sustaining communication with our loved one when communication has gone awry?
One idea is to look at our troubled interactions in terms of defensiveness, both our own and our partner’s. Do we feel that we must defend ourselves against our partner? Does our partner respond defensively to us? If interactions are characterized by defensiveness on either side, we want to look at the extent to which our communication:
• Is controlling
• Is judgmental
• Is “the final word”
We communicate in a controlling way when we command rather than collaborate. For instance, we can say, “You need to get home by 6:00 p.m. tonight.” Or we can say, “I have a meeting tonight at 6:30 p.m. Can we work together to make sure the kids are fed before I leave?” The first approach is likely to be met with a defensive response, as few people like to be controlled. The second approach is likely to elicit a helpful response. We like to feel that we can be part of a team working together to solve a problem.
We communicate in a judgmental way when we convey to our partner that he or she is deficient. For instance, we can say, “You are always late getting home. You really have very poor time management skills.” Or, rather than focusing on our partner’s perceived deficiencies, we can focus on our own needs and expectations. We can say, “I really need you to be home when you say you will. I count on it to make my own plans and have a really hard time adjusting when it doesn’t happen.” The former statement will likely elicit a defense, as the recipient’s personal integrity has been attacked. The latter statement is less likely to arouse a defensive response, as the focus of the statement is with the speaker, not the recipient.
Finally, when we communicate as if what we are saying is “the final word” with no provisionality – that is, room for another point of view or openness to the possibility of a different result – we are likely to create defensiveness. We might say, for instance, “That idea will never work.” Or alternatively, we might say, “Well, I’ve got some concerns about that idea, but I’m open to talking through it. I guess anything is possible.” The former closes down the conversation, while the latter opens it up, inviting a spirit of mutual exploration and curiosity into the discussion.
When we can communicate with our partner with a real sense of collaboration, non-judgment, and provisionality, we decrease defensive responses. Then, we may find that real problem-solving happens and our relationships improve.
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