“Traditionally men have not been encouraged
Since you have read this far, I hope you have decided to improve your relationships and especially communication with your partner. That’s a good first step.
This may come as a big surprise to many women, but men really do understand that communication is an issue in the relationship. Traditionally, men have not been encouraged to develop good relationship skills beyond what is required in business and minimally interacting with each other socially. This falls far short of what is needed in marriage, and many of the communication techniques which work in a business environment simply do not work in an intimate relationship.
I don’t claim to be an expert in relationship communication; however, I have taught hundreds of courses on communication in general and I have learned a lot about relationship communication in my own relationships, and listening to men in small groups. My comments are based on my experience, including tips and pointers that have come out in marriage seminars provided by Men in BalanceTM as well as small group sessions I have led. I will cover some basic assumptions about communication in marriage and you can decide if they ring true in your case.
An over-arching suggestion to get started: Every substantive communication with your partner (especially when in conflict) should include an affirmation of who they are and how much you appreciate them. This is a need we all have and is usually more important to us than the issue we are discussing.
You Can Change
The good news for men is that you can make dramatic improvements in your communication with your spouse or partner by applying a few simple techniques — techniques you probably already know and use in a different way at work or in other environments. The good news for women is that by modifying some of your techniques which work in your relationships with other women you can truly connect with your man in a new and exciting way.
A couple of ideas for openers:
- A good communicator and close friend of mine, Frank McNair says, “Not everyone was raised in your mama’s house!”
What that means is that in your family of origin, you learned a certain style of communication, healthy or not, and the other members of your family learned it as well. Therefore, communication within that small group was fairly simple if not conflict-free. In other words, everybody played by the same rules—healthy or not. So when you enter a relationship with someone totally foreign to your family (i.e. your partner) it may come as a surprise that techniques you have used all your life no longer work. That doesn’t mean your techniques are right and the other person’s are wrong or vice versa. It simply means the two of you have different styles of communication and it would be really helpful to get on the same page. Then you can create your own (healthy) style of communication that works in your relationship and family. It is reassuring that even though two people come from very different backgrounds, their marriage can still thrive if they learn to deal with differences.
- Surprise! Men and women do communicate differently! In order to make any progress in communicating with each other, we have to get away from labeling the other person’s communication as inferior or inadequate in some way. (She is too emotional. He is insensitive). The fact is that because of our social conditioning we do communicate differently and that is a good thing–something to be celebrated. It is also true that women want men to communicate more like women and vice versa.
Let me give you an example illustrating the difference: If two women are introduced to each other at a party and they sit down to chat, it’s likely that within a very few minutes they will know a lot about each other and their families. They will know historical data, and they will have some insight into the person’s likes and dislikes. All of this is happening as both women are seemingly talking over each other. The data exchange is astounding. Both parties are picking up on each other’s word choice, tone and body language in addition to the words that are actually spoken.
Consider another scenario in which two men meet at a party. Quickly, the conversation turns to vocation and there is some immediate comparison (and measuring) about each other based on the limited data of what each other does for a living. The next level of communication may be about acquaintances they may have in common or some discussion of what projects or other things they may be working on. There may be little eye contact or perceptible body language. And there is almost no personal data or relationship information exchanged.
If you think about it, the difference in the two communication styles makes sense. As noted earlier, women’s sense of power for most of history has been based on relationship power. They were able to get things done by utilizing relationships to influence others. That was, in many cases, all they had. On the other hand, men have been socialized to be very competitive. This usually suggests the less you reveal, the better your chances of success. So why would you tell potential enemy things that may be used later to destroy you?
Once men and women understand the different approaches of their gender’s typical communication, it is easier to start talking about real and substantive things. In this section, we will examine going beyond our differences and limitations and opening up to each other in genuine intimate (couple) conversation, conversation which makes both partners feel they are on the same team, that they know, understand, and trust each other while still allowing each other to be a unique person.
By the way, I am keenly aware that the caricatures above about men and women and their communication styles are total stereotypes and entirely too simple. But for our purposes here, it may serve as a good starting point for discussion.
Why Our Communication Is Not Working
In analyzing communication, you realize that even simple communication has a lot of moving parts. In typical communication, the words you say only represent about 7% of the total communication. Tone of voice carries about 38% and gestures, body language and the like, account for the remaining 55%.1 This means that when we are lambasting our partner with unnecessary energy in an argument, we are sending so much data that our intent is unmistakable. If he or she hasn’t figured out from our sarcastic words that we are upset, perhaps the rage in our face or the blistering tone of voice will make it obvious. We need to ask ourselves whether this is what we really want. What purpose is being served?
It’s pretty much impossible to disguise our anger or displeasure. We can try to keep a poker face and reveal very little, but there is still so much data coming from our tone of voice and other sources that our partner is very aware of our feelings.
Also, while it is true you may not be able to control what is said to you, you can control how you react to it. So the old idea of counting to 10 when you are upset is probably a good idea. But it’s also a good idea to look inside and figure out whether your partner really intended to slight you in some way or whether your own insecurities are bringing out feelings that have no place in the current discussion. It can be very important to ignore the emotion in what she says (it is the emotion that usually hooks us) and listen instead for the message, paraphrasing it back in a neutral manner until she agrees you got it.
What Was the Question?
The first rule of good communication is the use of questions. Using questions instead of offering opinions provides far more valuable information that will keep us from working with false assumptions.
Suppose you are getting ready to go out with your partner and she says something about what you are wearing which you see as disapproval. While you may sense the sudden rush of adrenaline because of the comment, a more rational approach is to ask a simple question, “Do you think this outfit is inappropriate for this evening or what are you trying to say?” Just the few extra seconds you gain by asking the question gives your brain time to reset and allow for some other possibilities, and it allows your partner to resubmit the earlier comment in a less clumsy manner. What just happened is that one partner said something critical, and the other party took the time to clarify the communication rather than light the fuse to some unhealthy fireworks.
This use of questions is one of the main tools in good communication. Asking questions is invaluable for clarifying what is really going on in an argument (instead of what our emotions may be telling us).2 By asking questions we grant our partner a reprieve while taking responsibility for a miscommunication that may not belong to us but preserves the relationship.
I’m sure you can recall arguments in which you could have used questions to clarify the issues and perhaps stop the dialogue from going in an unhealthy direction. Questions are an excellent safety valve that most of us fail to use when we are tracing the circuitry of an argument. Instead, we let the emotions take over and re-route the power to places it doesn’t belong. The result is that the “circuit board” is shorted out or damaged.
The answer to the question at the top of the section is: the reason our communication is not working is that we fail to
- build in safety checks to make sure we heard accurately before responding, and
- give our partner a chance to restate what she said using a better choice of words.
The payoff when we discipline ourselves to do this is simply incredible. It puts the two adults in charge and demonstrates a level of trust with each other each that allows each person the right to make a mistake without real consequences.
Prove this to yourself
Next time your partner says something harsh or sarcastic or hostile, instead of responding with your own forceful statement, respond with a question such as:
“Is there a point you wish to make or are you just venting?”
“I’m hearing a lot of energy around this. What do you need from me with this issue?”
“Do you wish me to conclude there is something I have done wrong and you want me to correct it?”
These phrases may sound harsh or awkward, but they put the responsibility back on the speaker to speak in a more appropriate manner.
The second tool we have is critical: paraphrasing what we heard (mirroring). Actually, this is the only way we have of telling someone we heard (accurately) what they said. Using phrases such as the ones below, we alert the person that we are about to summarize what they said, proving we “got it.”
- So if I heard you correctly, you said…..
- What I hear is your concern about X that…..
- It sounds like you are saying that……
These phrases are helpful in keeping the conversation neutral, on track and advancing properly. They should be followed by a confirmation question, such as “Is that correct?” This ensures accurate transmittal and receipt.
Note to men: When she says you are not listening to her, saying “I can repeat back everything you said.” is not the answer. Paraphrasing along the way ensures you get it—and you get credit for getting it.
We all want deep listening or rather to be heard, which is different. Being heard implies being understood and that is what we are after. It does not imply agreement, merely understanding. It will be hard to arrive at this deep level of listening without a sizeable amount of openness on your part. That means you have to remain neutral and non-judgmental about what you are hearing. And one more thing: If you are listening for a problem to be solved, you’ll miss most of the message. But once she feels truly heard she no longer feels the need to “stick by her guns” so genuine progress is possible. If you want extra credit, say something like, “Let me see if I can articulate what you are feeling then you tell me what I am missing.”
The third tool is Telling—injecting your own fact or opinion into the discussion. Too often we start, sometimes forcefully, with this tool and never get around to asking questions or truly hearing the response.
- “The way I see it is……” or “Here’s what I think…”
- “The invitation says we should be there at 6pm.”
- “The checking statement says we are overdrawn. Looks like you failed to record a check or something.”
There is a lot more information about these tools on the web or in my earlier book (having) Better Conversations available on Amazon. There is much more detail about making the conversation successful. But you can be sure none of us will ever follow all the steps consistently. Frustration, anger, biases, stubbornness—all these keep us from playing by the rules. But if we can do it even 50% of the time, our conversations will be better and we both can be left intact and feeling positive about the discussion.
MAGIC WORDS: “Honey, I know we’re disagreeing about this right now and it is really unpleasant for both of us. I’m sorry. We will get through this because I am committed to hearing you out and working through this problem with you. I love you and this issue should not be keeping us apart.” You’re welcome.