Stop Fighting. Start Communicating: #1 in a 5 Part-Series on Really Improving Your Communication
Joe and Suzy have been married for 15 years. Lately, Joe has been spending more and more time at work, and Suzy says he's being a selfish workaholic. She even wonders if he is having an affair. Joe agrees -- he has been spending more time at the office -- but he says Suzy's nagging and complaining has left him with no other choice. Joe says the office is just a welcome respite from the strife at home.
Sure, Joe and Suzy have a marriage problem, but more specifically, they have a communication problem.
In relationships, communication is everything. And as you well know, communication isn't just what we say, it's how we say it. It's also what we don't say. As therapists, we are trained to look at and interpret non-verbals -- but let's get real -- if you have a relationship with anyone in your life, you are probably pretty good at cueing in on those non-verbals as well.
Improving communication is a worthy goal; however, it is MUCH easier said than done.
But don't lose heart--it can be done. Over the next couple weeks, I'll be sharing a 5 part series with some really practical tips that you can begin using immediately to improve your communication with your spouse, your kids, your boss, or anyone else that is driving you nuts.
One of the biggest problems with talking to other people -- especially talking to people we love about issues we care about -- is those pesky things called "emotions." Have you ever started a conversation with the intent to be calm, cool and collected, only to have the whole thing devolve into a ridiculous argument in the matter of seconds?
You're not alone. The problem is your emotions. When we imagine ourselves calmly talking about a difficult topic, we often fail to factor in the possibility that we are going to be "triggered" by the other person's verbals or non-verbals. Even a slight tilt of the head, the smallest roll of the eye or the teeniest hint of a sigh can send us reeling and completely derail our communication.
The reason this happens is probably about the past -- you have either experienced this same scenario with this same person a hundred times, or, you have experienced the same scenario with a DIFFERENT person a long time ago. Our brain doesn't really stop to evaluate the current scenario. With that one little cue, our brains scan our memory files for every other time in our lives we encountered tilted heads, rolled eyes and testy sighs and responds to all of those events all at the same time.
This is called "flooding" -- our systems become flooded, or overwhelmed with emotion, and we start thinking all kinds of things and drawing all sorts of conclusions about why this time or this person is just like all the others. Then, rather than reacting to what is actually happening in the current moment, we react to what we think the other person is thinking, feeling or doing.
And that's really where communication breaks down.
So my first tip in improving communication is this: change your PERSPECTIVE. When we lose our cool in conversations, it is very likely that we have also lost perspective. We are either flooded with memories from the past, or catapulting ourselves into some horrible outcome in the future.
Taking on a new perspective involves some practice and self-discipline, so don't get discouraged if it doesn't come naturally. Here are some things you can try:
1. Focus on the big picture - what does this person mean to you? How would you feel if you knew this was the last conversation you'd ever have? What are your long-term goals for this relationship?
2. Focus on what you have in common - you and your spouse may not agree on how to discipline the kids, but you do agree that you want them to learn from their mistakes, or that you want them to grow up to be productive adults. Rather than zeroing in on the areas where you disagree, look for the things you both want.
3. Think about when you have been successful in the past - If this is a long-term relationship, try to think about times in the past when you have had productive conversations with this person. What went well? What was different about that time? Did you do anything differently? If this is someone with whom you don't have a history, think about times in the past when YOU have been effective in your communication. What did you do that was so useful?
4. Think about how you would like to feel about this tomorrow - When you look back on this conversation, what do you want to remember? Do you want to spend time beating yourself up for losing your cool -- again -- or would you rather feel a sense of satisfaction at having handled yourself well?
5. Put yourself in their shoes - ugh -- easier said than done, I know, but it can be helpful to legitimately allow yourself to consider where the other person is coming from. What about them don't you know? (Maybe it's a sales clerk who had a horrible day. Maybe your spouse just got chewed out at work, or has spent the afternoon with a grumpy teenager). No matter how well you know the person, or how well you think you know the situation, there may be information you don't have. How might that information impact this conversation? If you are really up for a challenge, try a bit of a role reversal. Switch roles with whoever you're talking to -- have them take your perspective, and you take theirs. How does it feel to have this conversation from another point of view?
Remember - this takes practice -- but changing your perspective can have a dramatic impact on your communication. And if you get this one mastered, stay tuned for our next fun topic: validation.
Need more? If you are feeling stuck and need some outside help in managing your communication, emotions, or relationships, our team at Generations Counseling is available! Give us a call at 317-743-8202 or email at: firstname.lastname@example.org today.