Communication — 08 May 2005
Why is good communication essential to all relationships?

“We can’t communicate” is the single most common complaint of couples in distress. “We don’t see eye to eye about the business” is typical of feuding business partners. “I can’t talk to my teenager about anything” is a parental lament familiar to most people. “The kids don’t listen to me” is a statement voiced by a parent of small children. “I can no longer talk to my aging parents”, say some saddened adult children.
Lovers, parents, children, business people, friends, young or old find the failure to communicate a very limiting factor in their relationships. Conversely, good communication is the most enriching part of any connection.

Why is conversation so crucial for people? Because it is our way of establishing an interpersonal connection in the process of getting our needs met. Today’s conversation with another adult replicates the four steps infants go through in getting their basic physical and emotional needs met.

• The first need is of being SEEN and recognized. In infancy it is a prerequisite for attention. In adulthood, the first step in human connection is the eye contact. It may be followed by a smile or a welcoming facial gesture, which invites further contact.
• The second need of survival for infants is being HEARD. The parent responds by coming to help the infant. In adulthood being heard validates our worthiness and promises to get us closer to our needs.
• The third need of infants is to have their cry be UNDERSTOOD. When the parent figures out that the cry is in response to hunger, the infant is fed. For adults, unless they are understood, they are unlikely to get their needs met.
• The fourth need of infants is of being ACCEPTED. The parent’s willingness to accommodate the baby readily is a sign of acceptance and caring. For adults being understood and helped is a source of reassurance and safety.

Being seen, heard, understood and accepted leads infants and adults alike toward a sense of safety and self-regard.
Failed communication invalidates the individual and leads to fears about unworthiness and survival risks.

In love relationships: when a partner is silent, non-responsive, unavailable, or talks but doesn’t listen, the mate is likely to feel invisible. When a partner is present, seems to listen, but disapproves, criticizes or solves problems, the speaker is unlikely to feel heard. When a partner belittles reactions, ideas or feelings associated with the statements, the speaker is likely to not feel understood. When the partner does not understand the meaning behind the words, the speaker is likely to feel unaccepted, unappreciated, alone and non-partnered.

The early stage of courtship is so intoxicating to lovers, in part because of the feeling of being accepted and valued. People often talk about the ease of their early conversations: “It flows”, “I feel so comfortable talking to him/her”, “We talk for hours”, “I feel like we have known each other for years”, “I can be myself”.

Compare this experience of feeling so accepted and loved to the feeling you may have when your partner reads the paper while you talk. How important and significant do you feel when your teenage child only grunts in response to your questions? Starting a conversation is an invitation to exchange warmth, solve a problem and strengthen a connection. When it encounters non-responsiveness, it may actually hurt.

In work situations, ask yourself how comfortable and honored you feel when your superior talks AT YOU, rather than WITH YOU? How valued do you feel when you are not consulted but rather TOLD what to do? What emotions are evoked in you when your ideas are dismissed, denigrated or ignored? “I just did not succeed in getting my ideas across to management.” What do you feel when your business partner interrupts you when you talk, because she knows what you are about to say and it won’t matter anyway?

People converse for only two reasons: for Information and/or Validation. Information is factual data that is required to achieve a goal and validation is the emotional aspects of affirming one’s worth. We need information to execute a task and validation to be assured that we are respected and liked. Communication is so essential because it provides both practical and emotional needs for all beings. The alternative is the pain of isolation.

Human beings are social animals who need to belong to one or more groups. It starts with multiples of two. As children, most commonly, we first establish a connection with one best friend and later expanded to added dyads, (sets of two people). Like an electric connection, we need two parts to transmit energy. Unless the prongs are connected to the outlet, no electricity can be transferred. People need to be plugged to one another to keep our physical and emotional energy flowing. Otherwise, each person is a single prong seeking its match. Communication starts the energy flow between people for survival and health.

To do your part in enhancing communication you may consider that:

• Communication is essential for human interaction and personal validation.
• Unsuccessful verbal exchanges defeat the task and emotionally destabilize both individuals.
• Everyone can learn to communicate well. It is not an innate gift but a learned skill that is based on respect of the other.
• You can learn to see, acknowledge, understand, accept and value others. Their reciprocal behavior will follow.
• Poor communication may be a failure of transmission, reception or both. Check with yourself how kindly you present your ideas and how well you listen.
• Good communication is a basic necessary ingredient of a good personal, intimate or work relationship.
• Treat yourself to the delight of being well connected to others.

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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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