In my last article I described how good communication can go against our natural instincts and requires “a series of unnatural acts.” Here I’ll talk about some of the underpinnings that are involved in being able to execute those unnatural acts.
First of all I should mention that despite everything I said previously, a lot of communication actually goes quite smoothly. In our everyday lives, the majority of communications probably are good enough, and misunderstandings are the exception rather than the rule. We get things done, synchronize with coworkers, transact with various businesses and services throughout the day, and enjoy conversations with friends and family. In a way, it is somewhat remarkable that all this goes as seamlessly as it does.
However, most of these conversations are at what I call the logistical level. They deal with relatively measurable things and events, the stress level is moderate to low, and managing your own and others’ emotions is not a central feature. This is part of why it’s that much harder when tensions rise in a conversation with our primary partner.
An instructor in a driving class I once took made an interesting point. He asked why we get in trouble with distractions while driving (such as nowadays texting or talking on the phone). It’s not so much that driving takes a huge amount of concentration, it’s more that driving becomes so automatic that we think we can do other things at the same time. Then when something happens that demands full attention and quick reflexes we are caught off guard. Something similar happens in arguments with a partner. We think we can just go on responding on autopilot the way we do in everyday banter.
But when heated emotions are involved, things complexify in a flash, and the thoughtful, deliberate parts of our brains can get hijacked. These times demand more skills.
At its essence we can think of communication as sending and receiving. Between two people, ideally there is an alternation: one person sends, the other receives, then they switch roles, and so on. Again ideally, in each exchange the information received matches the intended information sent. This is what we refer to as “being on the same page,” or being in sync. Problems occur when the intended message is not received as such — the experience becomes frustrating. The frustrations grow, especially when these mismatches build up in both directions, and over time. This is compounded even more when the two people love each other, since that ups the ante for wanting and expecting to be received. Being received or not becomes a measure of how much we are loved.
Imagine playing a game of catch where both people just let the ball fall on the ground before picking it up and throwing it back. Not much fun. When someone lets us down we say that they have “dropped the ball.”
You’ve probably heard the adage that listening is a crucial part of good communication and I would agree. This is because being received is so important — arguably it is the primary way that most of us feel loved (though not always verbally). As infants, before we could intentionally craft transmissions, we felt cared for to the degree we were received and comforted, how our primary caregivers were able to “read” our signals and respond accordingly.
To be received is to be cared for, and vice-versa. And for those of us who were not received adequately in early life, it becomes all the more important.
When we are not received well, or well listened-to, we experience frustration and hurt. These emotions take over, and interfere with being able be good receivers ourselves. Most fights occur because one or both people are feeling unreceived, therefore unloved, and so they go into self-protective modes. These include defensiveness, attack, and/or withdrawal in futile attempts to ease the pain. Ironically, however, these self-protective modes only serve to perpetuate the mutual non-reception. Listening and understanding each other is what enables communication channels to stay open. Or if some damage has been done, listening and being responsive can open things back up again.
But listening is another of those things that sounds simple, but is in itself complex and made up of its own set of skills. To really hear your partner is to understand and receive his or her experience to the extent that you can articulate it back to their satisfaction. This is a another critical skill that takes depth and practice. The key elements to listen for are what is important to your partner and why(even though it might not be important to you), and what are the emotional ingredients that make it important to them.
You also may need to go beyond what initially seems important to get to what the real emotional importance is. In primary relationships the real emotional importance almost always ultimately comes down to attachment needs, which are things like acceptance, comfort, security, feeling connected, or feeling special or needed. As you can see, many of these have to do with feeling understood.
For example, Latitia and Salmud argue about the cat litter box. Salmud has agreed to be the one to maintain it, but he can be forgetful. He doesn’t think it’s a big deal if it doesn’t get cleaned on time every time, but Latitia has an acute sense of smell which makes it much more unpleasant for her when it’s not cleaned on time.
They get into escalating arguments where he puts off cleaning the box, she nags or criticizes him to try to get him to clean it, he gets defensive and says she’s blowing things out of proportion, and pretty soon they’re yelling at each other. Part of why arguments escalate is that both people are feeling unheard and frustrated, and so they get louder and more forceful in trying to get their points across.
The Catch-22 is that in getting louder and more forceful they actually are creating barriers to really hearing each other in a way that would settle things.
On first being asked what the most important thing about the conflict is for Latitia, she might say that the box be cleaned on time. This is the logistical, or practical level where many couples get stuck. At this level the argument is a power struggle. “You need to clean it on time” vs. “I’m not going to clean it on your schedule.” It goes nowhere. But drilling down a level, the reason Latitia wants it cleaned on time is that her sense of smell is more sensitive and so it affects her more than it affects Salmud.
This might be hard for Salmud to receive completely since he can’t really experience it the way she does, but it’s important for him to be able to hear and trust that it does affect her differently. And then below that is the attachment significance, which is that Latitia has come to believe that if Salmud doesn’t clean the box on time it means he doesn’t care about her or love her. And the significant emotions connected with that are fear that he doesn’t love her, and then sadness at that perceived loss.
On Salmud’s part, he might say that the importance of not cleaning it on time is that he doesn’t want to be so tightly bound or controlled. In fact, the more he feels constrained, the more he’s likely to fight for autonomy by not doing it on time, though he might not be consciously aware of this rebellion. Of course that exacerbates the cycle, where Latitia gets more upset, and then Salmud feels more criticized, so he’s even less reliable, etc.
But at an attachment level, what’s important to Salmud is feeling accepted for occasionally not being right on schedule, and to feel valued by having a voice about how things are done. The significant emotions are hurt and sadness at being criticized or told what to do, and also at feeling like a disappointment to Latitia.
So one substantial set of skills has to do with listening, and being able to suss out what’s important to your partner, why it’s important to them, and ultimately to understand and be responsive to those attachment needs.
Another set of skills has to do with sending, or getting your message across. The crucial point here is that the more you deliver your message with a tone of anger (including frustration, annoyance, irritation, etc.), and particularly with criticism or blame, the less likely it is to be received. Criticism and blame evoke defensiveness, counterattack, or shut-down and withdrawal, all of which will render your message DOA. And at the opposite end of the spectrum if you don’t bring up your concerns at all, or in such a tentative way that they don’t register for your partner, then that won’t work either.
It’s not what you say, it’s what the other person hears. If your message isn’t getting across, you need to do something different. And it might mean more listening!
Back to the ball analogy, imagine that the throws aren’t aimed well, but go off to the side so that the receiver has to go out of his or her way to get the ball. Or worse, the ball hits you when you’re not even looking! Which makes you want to hit the thrower back. You get the idea.
Deeply related to both those sets of receiving and sending are another set of skills involved with emotion. These are the skills often referred to as emotional intelligence and emotion regulation, and they are at least as complex as the others, if not more-so. Emotion regulation is pretty much what it sounds like, but more difficult in practice. Emotional intelligence is defined variously, but I describe it as the ability to know your own subtle emotions, to know your partner’s, and to be able to bridge between the two. This also includes understanding what emotions do for us, how they work, being able to recognize and make use of them, being attentive to both non-verbal and verbal cues, knowing how to soothe yourself and your partner, impulse control, and more. A start is just being curious about emotions and open to learning about them.
If this seems overwhelming, you’re not alone. However, there is some good news. Somewhere around two to three out of four people are securely attached: they do these things pretty much automatically (even under stress) and tend to have easier and more solid relationships. Among the 30–40% insecurely attached, these skills can be learned, though it may take some time, effort and coaching (for example, in therapy, or through extended close-association with secures). Also, for most people there are one or two dominant attachment needs and pivotal emotions, so those are the main ones you need to find out about for yourself and your partner. Once you know those well, can address them, and understand the patterns between you, things will be easier. Meanwhile, be curious and learn about your own and each other’s attachment needs and emotions.