The struggle is real. If you think your partner and you are the only two who struggle with communication in your relationship you are wrong. Communication is one of the most common challenges in marriage or partnerships. What is more challenging is that we are less effective at communicating during the most critical times – conflict. Handling conflict is critical to a successful partnership.
Before you can fix communication problems it helps to understand some of the problems that are innate in all of us. Have you ever noticed that what you’re trying to say to your partner can be very different from what he or she hears? We’ve all experienced the frustration of being misunderstood.
In their book, Fighting for Your Marriage, the authors help us understand that we come prebuilt or preprogrammed with filters that can affect couples as they struggle for clear communication. These filters come from our previous experiences with parents, siblings, friends, and culture. We must first understand these filters to understand why communication breaks down.
The 4 Filters are:
Beliefs & Expectations
Differences in Styles
Pay attention to me! Boy is that becoming harder and harder. Some (false) studies are claiming that the human average attention span is now less than a Goldfish. You’ve probably heard this (and it is wrong); but it is fun tongue-in-cheek because it seems like attention spans are that short. Think about the music you listen to (or your kids); can you handle a 3-minute song or are you switching before it is finished? The real challenge comes with the firehose of information/content we are faced with every day, which is making us be more selective.
We are hit with external factors and internal factors that distract our attention. External factors include noisy children, a hearing problem, a bad phone line, background noise, TV, music, even the atmosphere around us. Internal factors include: feeling tired, thinking about something else, mentally forming a rebuttal, being bored and frustration.
Internal and external distractions cause the listener to “not hear” the conversation. This appears rude and aggravates any situation. However, the listener is often not purposely trying to be rude. Choosing to believe your partner is purposely rude can be a destructive interpretation if you are wrong. Studies have shown that you would be wrong most of the time. Psychological studies reveal that people differ in their ability to attend to several things at once. Often, the unhearing listener is focused on something else and truly doesn’t hear what is being said. People also differ in their ability to break off their focus on one stimulus and turn their attention to another. And for everyone, the ability to switch or maintain attention suffers greatly with fatigue.
Have you ever tried to talk to your partner while they are watching TV? Do you get frustrated because their attention is not on the conversation or your needs? Remember this is often not a purposely rude behavior, rather a distraction. You could wait until a commercial or ask them to turn the TV off for a minute. Scientists recommend that we accept lapses in attention as part of life. Sometimes these lapses will affect your communication in frustrating ways. Try not to make too much of it. The key is to make sure you have your partner’s attention and give your attention when it counts.
2. Emotional State
Emotional states or moods become filters that affect communication. Studies show that we tend to give people the benefit of the doubt more frequently when we’re in a good mood and less frequently when we are in a bad mood. If you’re in a bad mood, you are more likely to perceive whatever your partner says or does negatively, no matter how positive he or she is trying to be. Have you noticed that sometimes, when your partner is in a bad mood, you get jumped on no matter how nicely you say something? Emotional filters are not tied only to “bad moods.” There are many kinds of emotional filters- angry, worried, sad or upset can all have negative consequences to even the simplest of communications.
One of the best ways to help communication when you or a partner are in a heightened emotional state, is to be upfront with the emotion. Letting your partner know upfront that your emotional state is not in a good place will help and validation of that state will also help the communication.
Your body naturally produces cortisol and adrenalin when you are at a heightened sense of emotion. Often when you are feeling angry or scared your body naturally produces these chemicals. While these chemicals aid our physical body in coping with situations; there are some challenging physiological side effects that include: irritability, impaired memory, intolerant and more. So next time you’re in an emotional state that puts you on alert (conflict), know that you are likely going to suffer from these side effects. You can help your partner by letting them know where you are at emotionally.
3. Beliefs and Expectations
“Perception is reality.” The lens in which we see the world shapes our reality. Research shows that expectations not only affect our perceptions but can influence the behaviors of others. For example, if you believe that someone is an extrovert, that person is more likely to sound like an extrovert when talking with you, even if he or she is introverted. We “pull” from others behavior that’s consistent with what we expect. One common example of preconceived notions is that of “mind-reading.” Mind reading occurs when you assume that you know what your partner is thinking or feeling.
Another possible expectation filter is called, “negative forecasting.” Negative forecasting is when you make predictions for the future in your head, or you believe someone has negative intentions for their actions. Basically, you are finding a reason to be upset with your partner’s intentions.
Many of us play out scenarios and situations in our heads before we experience them. There are a lot of names for this behavior, but it is most commonly called “Real thinking” (Not very creative, I know). Real thinking is when we consciously use the powers of reason and logic to evaluate different options, decisions, plans and so forth. This is very common and normal. However, it can create beliefs and expectations that you believe your partner should be doing.
4. Differences in Style
Everyone has a different style of communicating and different styles can lead to filtering. Our communication style is the way in which we share information with others through language. Although we may speak the same language, our methods and interpretations are not the same. Communication styles can differ for many reasons: culture, gender, upbringing, age, and geography, just to name a few. Family upbringing can be a very influential filter. One partner may have been brought up in a family that is very expressive, showing great intensity when they’re emotional. Another partner may come from a more reserved family, which means a slight rise in voice could mean great anger in her perception.
Have you ever had an argument that when it is over you realize that both of you have been arguing on the same side of an issue? This happens because of communication and interpretation styles. We develop these filters over time. Some differences occur because of emotional and cognitive differences. Emotional communicators tend to express through feelings and cognitive communicators express themselves through fact, rationale and logic.
Another study talks about two types of communication and listening. The Inferential communicator likes to infer, guess, speculate, conclude or judge and as an inferential listener, you read between the lines of what someone is saying. The literal communicator takes things at face value. You mean the words you say, or you don’t say them. But there are drawbacks, you can be seen as insensitive, inconsiderate or uncreative. You might miss subtle hints or sarcasm because you are looking for specific words to guide you.
We expect everyone to communicate and think like us. Thus, we think that they understand what we are saying in the way we say it. However, the truth is that everyone else is doing the same thing, including your partner.
Understanding the styles and filters we have as individuals will start the journey of understanding. We must first understand our styles and filters impact both our ability to communicate effectively and our ability to be effective listeners. The good news is that we are not purposely trying to harm or make it a challenge for our partners, and if we can realize that communication filters and styles are different (not right or wrong) we can begin the pathway to understanding and better conversations with our partners.
For more tips on how to have stronger relationships, take the RELATE assessment today.
[Much of this blog is taken from: Fighting for Your Marriage. Authors: Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, Susan L. Blumberg]