Communication — 26 February 2008
Avoid words that hurt – Communicate well

Couples and many other people speak with frustration about their communication difficulties. Having one’s words be misunderstood, misinterpreted, resisted or taken as offensive is exasperating. In verbal exchanges, as in any other sound transmission, a failed connection may be attributed to difficulties in transmission, reception or both. If the transmission of any message is done well, the reception is likely to be fine and the message with it’s intended meaning will be effectively shared by both parties.

Communication is derived from the verb “To Commune”, which is defined by the New Webster Dictionary as: “To converse; to talk together familiarly; to impart sentiment mutually; to interchange ideas or feelings.” Each part of the definition has a verb implying mutuality: “talk together”, “mutually”, or “ interchange”. Yet, many conversations between mates are talking AT or AGAINST each other rather than WITH one another.

Unfortunately, most people do not have a formula for the delivery of their ideas, wishes, thoughts or feelings. They make speaking a personal event – rather than a couple’s experience. I want to get attention, get my need met, solve an issue, or whatever is on my mind, so I just utter it with little preparation or forethought. As in any other accomplishment of a task, impulsive, unplanned and un-weighed actions are unlikely to result in a successful outcome. Speaking comes easily to us, so we do it extemporaneously, therein lies part of the problem.

People in business also experience some communication difficulties, but those who plan and prepare their presentation with the consideration of their own and the audience’s needs and responses, are more likely to get their ideas across than the unprepared ones.

Similarly, in couple communication, preparation is needed to avoid the harm of callous uttering. Taking the partner’s needs and responses into consideration means abstaining from attributing intent, malice or ill will to the partner’s actions. Respectful speech means having boundaries whereby you do not tell or assume what the mate feels, thinks or does.

Everyone experiences some uncomfortable feelings in relationship to a partner’s behavior. Feelings such as: anger, hurt, resentment, regret or shame are not “bad” feelings, since all emotions are helpful cues for our self- preservation, but they may feel very uncomfortable. Because feelings are our guides to emotional survival, we sometimes overreact to the perceived threat by attacking, being vengeful or hurtful in order to subjugate the “enemy” who has caused us to feel those threatening emotions.

In love relationship, we want to avoid perceiving the mate as a threatening opponent. We also need to understand that our emotions serve as cues to help us restore our sense of worth rather than as a cue to retaliate. Being discounted, for example, threatens our emotional survival so we charge to re-establish our significance by attempting to demean the other. The effective response is not to act in an instinctual way, but rather in a counter-intuitive fashion. That will entail curbing being reactive and asking for that which will restore your stability and security, such as requesting affirmation of our worth.

The magic formula for great communication involves you taking three steps: 1. Identify your feeling. 2. Avoid the automatic, self-protective response, and 3. Ask for what you need to receive.

Here are some examples:

• When you feel ANGRY, avoid verbally striking at your mate. Ask for behaviors that will reduce you HURT.
• When you feel CRITICIZED, avoid becoming defensive or demeaning your partner. Tell you mate how you want to be VALUED.
• When you feel DISCOURAGED, avoid resenting your mate for his/her optimism. Ask for specific words of ENCOURAGEMENT.
• When you feel REJECTED, avoid sulking, withdrawing or planning retaliation. Ask to be INCLUDED.
• When you feel CONFUSED, avoid blaming mate for being unclear. Ask for CLARIFICATION.
• When you feel JEALOUS, avoid trying to make your mate jealous. Ask for confirmation of mate’s COMMITMENT to you.
• When you feel UNATTRACTIVE, avoid assuming that your mate feels the same way, or withdraw from intimacy. Ask for a COMPLIMENT about your appeal.
• When you feel UNLOVED, avoid withdrawing your love. Ask for a ROMANTIC or VALIDATING gesture.
• When you feel DISCOUNTED, avoid minimizing your mate’s worth. Ask for PRAISE.

Since all ‘charged” issues between mates involve emotions. Following this formula facilitates getting your needs met while communing with your partner in love.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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