By Jude Bijou
A good relationship boils down to effective communication. Did your parents communicate well? As a marriage and family therapist, when I ask people this question, very few say yes. And there in lies the reason why we don’t communicate very well in our relationships. We were never taught how. Are you up for the relationship challenge?
It seems like it should be so easy. But often our best intentions take a turn for the worse whenever emotions enter the picture. We say one thing and end up communicating another. Differences get magnified. Words get twisted. Good intentions are misinterpreted. Talking escalates into arguing and, suddenly, we attack or shut down.
No matter our strategy and how we’ve learned to cope, the result of poor communication is a loss of connection and openness and an increase in feelings of alienation and confusion.
The goal of good communication is understanding and feeling more love. Luckily it’s not that hard. It just takes practice as we learn how to avoid the four communication violations and, instead, follow four simple rules.
The Four Rules of Good Communication evolved from my theory of Attitude Reconstruction – a model that is a blend of eastern spirituality and western practicality, The Rules work in the bedroom or boardroom, with children and neighbors, with co-workers and strangers.
The Four Rules and their opposing Violations
1. The First Rule is “TALK ABOUT YOURSELF.” This is our true domain. Our job is to share what we feel, think, want, and need. Doing so brings closeness, as we reveal information about ourselves. For some it can be scary and it definitely takes some practice to figure out what is really going on for us. We have become so use to being in other people’s business. But it’s not too difficult if we pause for a minute before we speak, and in that moment we ask ourselves, “What’s true for me about the specific topic at hand?”
The First Violation is that we “you” the other person. That means we tell others about themselves – what they should do, how they should be, and how they were, all under the guise of being helpful. When we “you” another person we’re out of own back yard. We give unsolicited advice and make negative observations. Our knee-jerk reaction is to blame, resorting to sarcasm and criticism, teasing, attacking, and finger-pointing.
These “you-ing” strategies are guaranteed to create separation and alienation. The recipient feels hurt, misunderstood, and angry. No constructive communication ensues and the receiver walls him or herself off against the pain and insult. Our “yous” immediately inspire defensiveness and fall on deaf ears.
This example brings the concept into focus. Instead of saying “You’re late. Obviously you don’t value my time.” Say “I was worried when you didn’t arrive at 5:00pm, especially since we agreed to text or call if we’re held up. I’d appreciate it if you would do that in the future so I don’t feel anxious.”
2. The Second Rule is to STAY SPECIFIC. That’s what we do with music, architecture, engineering, cooking, math, physics, and computers; and what we must do when communicating. When we stay specific, others can understand what we’re saying – the exact topic, the request, our reasons. Being specific also means we must deal with one topic at a time. Staying focused on one subject brings clarity as we can understand each other’s position and begin to find some common ground from that space.
The Second Violation is we overgeneralize. We bring up the past and live in the future instead of sticking to the specific topic at hand and dealing with the present. Overgeneralizing can take the form of sweeping conclusions, abstractions, labels, and using words like “always” and “never.” The tendency to bring in other topics barely related to the subject at hand, and not letting go of past situations does not clarify the issue at hand. Lumping topics together is confusing, overwhelming, and makes it difficult to understand what’s really going on and what the upset is truly about.
Rather than saying, “You always embarrass me in front of your friends. You treat me like I’m the maid.” Say “I felt hurt and humiliated at the party last night. I spent a lot of time creating a nice environment for everyone to watch the game and I’d like to be appreciated for my efforts.”
3. The Third Rule is KINDNESS. Kindness manifests in many ways: acts of compassion; helpfulness; empathy; forgiveness; and caring. Kindness is not a business transaction – it must be offered without expecting something in return, except for the giver to feel more love and connection.
Kindness can take the form of offering appreciations, praise, focusing on the positive, and sharing gratitude. Across the board, it’s infinitely more effective to praise actions that you want to encourage than to punish those you disapprove of. People can’t get enough genuine praise and appreciation, so keep voicing them, especially when someone is going through a difficult time.
The Third Violation is being unkind. Focusing on what’s not working or what we don’t like, throws a blanket on furthering a conversation. It also produces anger and feelings of separation in the recipient. It’s a real drag to be around someone who has something negative to say about almost everything.
Expressing appreciations for others doesn’t negate the differences we might have with them, but it super charges the good we see in each other.
By leaving out the negative observations and focusing on what you like instead, you’ll elevate your inner state as well as others around you. As you go through your day, replace the “no” with “yes, yes, yes.”
4. Rule Four is simply to LISTEN. This means pay attention and seek to truly understand what someone is saying. Encourage them to speak up about themselves. This brings closeness. If you tend to interrupt or dominate every conversation, slap some imaginary duct tape on your mouth when someone else is speaking. Listening well promotes love. It’s a form of selfless giving and an invitation to connect.
The Fourth Violation is not listening. Automatic interruptions, debates, and wise-cracks don’t acknowledge the speaker but are designed to further our own agenda. When you don’t listen to someone, you’re failing to acknowledge that person as an equal. And that’s never going to inspire good feelings. The other person perceives it as a violation and responds by pulling away or striking out. If you are planning your response while the other is talking, you are not truly listening.
The following are NOT good listening strategies:
• Leaping into problem solving
• Offering unsolicited advice or opinions
• Finishing others’ sentences
• Changing the topic
• Matching stories
• Debating or challenging
• Cornering or interrogating
Abiding by the four rules creates effective communication and feelings of connection. These rules are very simple (but not easy) and the rewards are great. In contrast, their violations cause communication breakdowns and distance. If you are quiet by nature, then you may need some additional help in learning how to speak up. So read on.
Speaking Up for Love
Men and women share the same reasons for not speaking up which include:
• I don’t want to rock the boat — I want to keep the status quo
• I don’t want another person to have any emotions – be upset, scared, hurt, mad
• I don’t want to hear what they have to say because I’m angry and when I’m angry, I’m convinced that my way is clearly the correct way
• I want to avoid conflict
But we pay a high price by going silent, stonewalling, and withdrawing. We create distance. We bury what’s true for us and lose ourselves in the process. We become unwitting victims of our own inability to stand up.
It’s important to handle upsets as they arise or shortly thereafter. Stockpiling your unspoken truths can become chronic and will eventually destroy your self-esteem or result in internalized anger that can blow up and lead to unpleasant confrontations. In either case, your needs will never be met, your physical and mental health will suffer, and the relationship will likely be destroyed.
If you tend to be the silent type, withholding your thoughts and feelings, now is the time to be brave and give it a shot. There is nothing that brings intimacy in a relationship like heartfelt sharing about what’s true for you. When you’ve finished what you want to say, you can solicit other’s impressions, feelings, and suggestions, IF you want them. As scary as it can seem at first, I guarantee that speaking up will bring copious rewards and breakthrough moments. Both men and women must learn how to speak up and then just do it!
Talk and Listen
When a couple or family has gotten into the habit of not communicating, a simple exercise of talking-and-listening allows each person to say what he/she has to say, while the others just listen. It’s an opportunity to express your thoughts without interruption that helps you come into your personal power, be in the present, and increases your empathy for someone else’s position.
Everybody gets the same amount of uninterrupted time to talk about themselves on a specific topic, which could be as mundane as how their day went, or as significant as views on what to do about your upcoming vacation. It’s not a dialogue. While one person is speaking, everyone else gives full attention and only listens. Exchanges are free of name-calling, finger pointing, debating, or rebuttals.
Take two minutes for brief check-ins; expressing important personal viewpoints might require a bit more time, perhaps three to five minutes. Agree on the duration and stay flexible within those parameters. Use a timer to impartially keep track of time. If it goes off mid-sentence, allow the person talking to finish his immediate /thought before the next person begins.
When the next person speaks, he doesn’t respond to what the preceding person said. Rather, he says what is true for him about the topic at hand. Although the time allotted might be short, those few minutes may be the longest interval of undivided attention and uninterrupted talking you’ve ever experienced. And don’t underestimate the difficulty of just listening.
In a group setting, participants can pass a “talking piece,” such as a stick, so it’s undeniably clear who has the floor. Keep alternating until everyone feels heard and understood.
Despite our best intentions, we all mess up and do or say things we later regret. Often we ignore and pretend it didn’t happen or we fret, get defensive and rationalize that what we did wasn’t so bad. “It’s no big deal.” “Anybody could make that mistake.” “Who would remember?” These are all stall tactics we resort to because we don’t want to experience the discomfort associated with an apology.
And what’s the downside to not apologizing? Little by little, not fixing our wrongs becomes a pattern. In our relationships it destroys trust, openness, and true closeness. We carry this secret burden and it nags at us.
There are two parts to a successful apology. One is to speak up sincerely about your mistake. The second is to listen with empathy and compassion to hear the effect it had on the other person or persons.
In terms of speaking up, it’s best to take a few minutes to think through and get clear on what you want to say. Pinpoint the subject you are addressing; a specific event or comment. For example – it’s not “I was a jerk last night.” But, “I feel awful about that comment I made to you last night about your weight.” Stick with your own part. Search for what is true for you about the situation. Don’t talk about them.
Pick a neutral time and ask if it’s a good time for a conversation. After you have shared about yourself, don’t allow the recipient to brush off your apology or downplay it. You may need to repeat it two or three times until you feel like it is genuinely received. Then ask if there is something you can do to remedy the situation. And finally extend an invitation to just listen while they talk about the impact of your actions on them.
It’s never too late to offer an apology when you know you were hurtful and not acting in line with your best self. Your willingness to apologize shows your strength and desire to stay connected. Once the interaction is complete be sure to lavishly appreciate yourself for taking personal responsibility for your words and actions. And feel the love!
Here’s the wonderful part – each time we stop ourselves from our old ways and abide by the Four Rules of good communication, we feel more powerful, confident, and true to ourselves. Others will understand us better and we will also understand them. All it takes is a little practice. Everyone can learn to effectively communicate and create more love everyday. Are you up for the challenge?
About the author:
Jude Bijou is a marriage and family therapist and the author of the award-winning book, Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life. An Attitude Reconstruction offers both practical and spiritual tools for happiness and a unified theory of human behavior. Learn more at www.attitudereconstruction.com.