I initially became a therapist because I wanted to teach couples how to communicate more effectively. Over many years of analyzing the relationships of those around me, as well as my own, I discovered that communication was one of the primary problems people face, whether those relationships are personal or business. Messages are often not clear, are passive-aggressive, or involve erroneous assumptions. Sometimes people hear messages that were not spoken because they are listening with a different intent than the speaker, or are listening to respond rather than to understand. And sometimes the words just fall on deaf ears.
A vast majority of couples who visit my office have correctly identified that communication is a major problem in their relationships as well. But I argue that the problem is a symptom of a problem somewhere else, at a more fundamental level.
Jennifer and Terry represent a typical couple I work with. They have been married for 8 years, together for 11, and complain that they just can't communicate with each other. Terry is a successful salesman, and Jennifer is a program manager for a large software company. Both of these positions require extensive relationship building and communication skills, and they would rate their individual communication abilities as very good. Why then do they have such a hard time communicating with each other?
My office has 4 very large picture windows. One would think my cellular reception would be strong there. However, I frequently get missed text messages and dropped calls, showing that without a good connection there's poor or limited communication. The more fundamental problem I have found with relationships is also related to a lack of connection. People try to communicate with each other without first establishing a connection, resulting in missed or misinterpreted messages.
Terry (from above) likes to relax after work by playing video games. He gets home 2 hours before Jennifer and indulges himself in computer role plays. One day Jennifer walks in and notices that the dishes have not been washed. Her goal when she came home was to get dinner started for them, and is frustrated that this will be more work she has to finish. The first words out of her mouth to Terry are "Are you playing those games AGAIN?! I told you I wanted the dishes done before I got home." Terry receives this message as badgering instead of a request for help. He continues playing his games, and she feels ignored and stomps off to wash the dishes noisily.
Jennifer really wanted help from Terry, but her emotional ambush created an emotional disturbance in Terry, resulting in more distance between them. It is less likely that he would now pause or shut off his game except to halt her nagging. She failed to make a connection with him up front, and the rift continued in to the evening with more tension, problematic communication and hurt feelings.
The Do Over. In an alternative scenario, Jennifer enters and sees the dishes, and keeps in mind a revised goal, instead of responding to her frustration. Her new goal is simply to connect with Terry, to get on the same page as him and establish the relationship upon first meeting. She walks over to Terry and kisses his head, rubs his shoulders for a second and sits next to him to cheer him on in his game. She shows interest in his activity, lets him know that she's happy to be home with him, and helps him to feel good about her presence. After just a couple minutes, she announces that she has a wonderful dinner planned and asks for his help in getting the kitchen ready when he has a break in his game. Now, there's no guarantee that Terry is going to jump right up and gleefully wash the dishes, but more so than complaining or nagging, by spending that short time connecting with him, Jennifer increase the likelihood that she will get buy in from him, AND possibly feel more connected with him throughout the evening.
Eye Contact. There are many ways to make a connection and improve communication. The simplest of these is to look someone in the eyes. I recently adopted a dog and realized that if I want her to pay attention to me and follow my commands, I need to first make sure she looks at me. The eyes connect two beings in a profound way. Most couples live their lives in parallel, rarely making eye contact. When was the last time you had an entire conversation with your partner while looking them in the eyes? Couples drive down the road or take a walk, all the time looking in the same direction. They sit and watch their shows, staring towards the television set. They might talk during dinner, but their attention is on their plates, the kids, their phone, or the TV set. Making eye contact decreases the distractions between a couple and strengthens their connection, and makes sure the message is more likely to be heard.
Same Room. Many couples try to communicate through walls (or floors). That is, one person has a thought they need to communicate and calls to their partner who is in another room (or maybe on another floor). As stated above, increased attention between two people makes it more likely that the message is heard as intended. If you are in another room, I don't know where your attention is or how available you are to hear my message. You may be talking on the phone, dealing with the kids, listening to your headphones, or even sleeping. If I have something to communicate, it is my responsibility to go where you are, find out where your attention is, and make a connection with you first. To assume that you are available for my message when I need you to be is not fair. Oftentimes we have a problem with patience and self-control, needing to communicate our message as soon as they come to mind, before we forget it. If you can't wait to share a message with your partner, you place the burden on your him/her to be ready at any moment for an ambush.