Each week I sit with couples who experience the frustrations, misunderstandings and problems caused by poor interpersonal communications. And, although almost everyone knows about the importance of having good communication skills, many don’t understand the underlying obstacles which interfere and prevent us from being able to understand one another.
While communication is a complex topic, a key ingredient is empathic, non-anxious listening. But, putting our thoughts and emotions aside and being able to focus on another person is not easy.There are three common problems which get in the way and create unnecessary misunderstandings and conflicts between couples and among families, friends and workmates. Fortunately , these problems can be eliminated or corrected with some information and a little practice. Here are the basics:
In general , if you look up the word, communication means to impart or exchange information. Not all human communication is the same, however. When I go to the bank, for example, the kind of information I convey when I wish to make a deposit is concrete and unambiguous and can be written on a deposit slip.
When it comes to marriage and close relationships, however, communication becomes more complex and vulnerable to distortion. Good intimate communication involves accurately conveying personal feelings and wants. Distortions, which can corrupt what is conveyed and what is received, can occur either on the part of the speaker or the listener. Our interest today is on the listener and what prevents him or her from being able to accurately hear what is being said.
COMMON OBSTACLES TO EMPATHIC LISTENING
- BEING DISTRACTED or PRE-OCCUPIED — Although it may seem obvious, many forget that it takes both a speaker and a listener to have communication. Before a conversation can begin , there must be a mutual understanding and agreement that a conversation is to take place. In other words, the listener must indicate that s/he is willing and able to carefully listen. Likewise, it is important for the listener to indicate if it is not a good time for a conversation and suggest a better one. For example, if a listener is emotionally upset or distracted s/he will unable focus on or hear the needs of the speaker. Many miscommunications , misunderstandings and conflicts occur simply because the listener was not really ready to listen and this fundamental agreement between the speaker and listener was not secured.
- NOT HEARING WHAT IS BEING SAID — Another serious obstacle to empathic listening is that a person’s awareness is cluttered with and influenced by experiences from the past. This complicated awareness makes it difficult to simply and objectively hear what is being said in the present. For example,couples who have known each other for a long time are especially prone to falsely anticipating what is about to be said based on prior conversations. These anticipatory thoughts can actually affect what is heard. Likewise, the demeanor, words , facial expressions or voice tones of a partner may parallel those experienced as a child with a problematic adult in the listener’s past and make it difficult for the listener to actually hear what is being said in the present. “You sound just like my mother/father (etc)” is a common response given in the midst of an argument which exposes that the conversation is being contaminated by memories from the past which may block the listener’s ability to hear significant differences being spoken by the speaker in the present.
- NEEDING TO FIX THE PROBLEM — Most importantly , many folks, (especially men) don’t understand what empathic listening really involves.. That is, many have a problem listening in engaged silence. For some reason, men feel that they have to give advice and fix what ever problem the speaker may have. Many men have trouble understanding that listening and expressing understanding , uncritical acceptance and caring is really all that the speaker needs or wants from them. When it comes to intimate communications, less is often more !
In a nutshell, good intimate communications boils down to understanding and being able to listen with compassion and … maintain a non-anxious silence while doing so. When a non- anxious connection is attained, the listener is able to really listen, understand and ,if necessary, reasonably respond. It is important to understand that many times with intimate communications, all that a speaker needs is to be in a safe and accepting space and be listened to without interruption or criticism. Intimate communication is, above all, about expressing emotion and being heard.
When problems arise with intimate communication, it is often because anxiety on the part of the listener prevents him/her from, emotionally, just being there in a supportive and engaged but quiet way. Much of the advice giving or commentary by the listener is an attempt to deal with the listeners own anxiety and not primarily concerned with the what the speaker has said. (Sadly, this phenomenon is present with clergy and inexperienced counselors and teachers.)
If you or your partner ,family member or close friend have been having some communication problems lately, give these tips a try. With a little effort you will be amazed how much your conversations will improves.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC