There is more to good communication than simply expressing your views and opinions or hearing another’s words in a conversation. Believe it or not studies show that about 10% of communication between two people is actually the words spoken. What makes up the rest? Roughly 40% of the message sent is one’s tone of voice and the last 50% is body language. The next time you need to do some serious communicating with another, do it in person, or else you will miss half of the message. Let us describe good communication, how to go to a deeper level of relating where real communication takes place, what blocks good communication, what active listening is, and finally ten fair fighting rules to build sound communication. The emphasis in this article is about improving communication skills and intimacy in close relationships.
Good communication is like a circle, with one person sending a message and the other receiving it. Communication does not take place if one sends a message and the other does not receive it. So simply talking does not cut it. Many times the circle is not complete until an emotional connection is made between two people. A dialog and discussion that moves back and forth builds understanding. Expressing and being heard by each partner is paramount for a genuine encounter to take place.
Communication takes place on two levels. One is the content level where the focus is on the words spoken; most of the time we get by with this level of communication. When there is conflict between two people, however, simply emphasizing the words spoken ignores the deeper, underlying meaning in a conversation. Feelings and emotions must be dealt with here before good communication can take place. Many barriers in communication stem from a failure to appreciate this dual nature of interaction between people. Understanding of others and yourself improves by paying attention to both levels.
Why does communication fail many times, even when you understand there is a deeper message than the words spoken? There are many reasons, some you have control over and some you do not. As the sender of a message, pay attention to your timing. If you have a deep issue that triggers your partner, wait until a quiet time in evening, probably after dinner to bring up the topic. When I was young I would wait for my husband to return from work and as soon as he entered the house I would bring up the topic that I had been pondering all day. Poor results were achieved this way. Just because I had a clear understanding of what I needed to say, I had to learn there were good times and bad times to open the conversation.
Besides the timing of a conversation, you have control over the tone of your voice and your body language. Standing too close to someone, squarely facing them, with strong eye contact, for example, is aggressive and puts the other person immediately on the defensive, essentially closing communication. Emphasizing only your point of view closes communication as well. Learn the difference between being aggressive and being assertive.
Being assertive is respecting both parties and promotes equality in human relationships. It enables us to act in our own best interest, to stand up for ourselves without undue anxiety, and to express honestly and comfortably our feelings, desires, goals, frustrations, opinions, etc. It is accepting and encouraging the same from the other person as well. To build intimacy and open communication, assertiveness requires many of us to try out new patterns of thinking and behaving. The more we can think before we speak, the better. And when we mess up, go back in the ring with the intention to practice new skills. Admit any poor choices of words that may have hurt your partner or closed communication. Apologize if necessary. Then reopen the dialog with what you wanted to say. Your partner will certainly be watching you when these new patterns of communication are being tried out. Over time the two of you will get better and better at healthy communication.
What else gets in the way of failed communication? One thing that gets in the way of good communication is being unclear in the position you are taking. Many times you send double messages when you say one thing and unconsciously mean another. Take time alone to think and write about your point of view, your feelings, and what you want empowers you to express clearly.
There are communication blocks that relate to the receiver in our communication circle allegory as well. For example, the other person may have little or no experience working on him/herself and, therefore, not know what he/she thinks and feels. It is common for the more unaware partner to become defensive or angry and back off when deeper issues surface in a conversation. It takes time to work with a partner like this, to build trust, to help him/her take responsibility for what he/she thinks and feels and for his/her part of the equation. You may have to model good communication skills and keep working on your abilities.
Now let us look at active listening, a very helpful communication tool when dealing with children or defensive people. This requires hearing between the lines, to go behind the words spoken, and to pick up the feeling messages of the other person when they get angry or withdraw. Then you verbalize what you think they are feeling/experiencing. You can say things like, “It sounds like you feel… about…” or “If I were you, I would find it very difficult that… is happening.” Sometimes you simply restate what the other just said. People respond positively when they feel they are heard, even if there is not agreement.
Following is a list of Fair Fighting Rules. Consider working on only one or two at a time to build communication skills, so as not to overwhelm yourself and the other people in your life. Small changes over time become a part of us.
1. Be nonjudgmental, (I get angry when… rather than, You make me angry when…..)
2. Be empathic
3. Take responsibility for self, not other person
4. Do not give advice
5. Do not interpret, finish sentences, assume anything
6. Stick to the subject
7. Stay in the here and now
8. Practice silence when the other person is talking
9. Deal with feeling first (feelings are not right or wrong)
10. Problem-solve, attack the problem not the person
To build sound communication in your close relationships there are many things you can do. Listen behind the words and look for the deeper messages, pay attention to tone of voice and body language. Make positive changes in the blocks in your own communication style. Build awareness and acceptance of your partner. Active listening opens communication. Remind yourself of fair fighting rules often. Practice one or two ideas at a time to make small improvements in your communication. When communication breaks down or you get confused, frustrated, angry, or depressed, take time to communicate with yourself. Spend time pondering your issues or journal writing to gain clarity with yourself. Knowing yourself is the first step in opening communication with others.