Communication — 03 January 2006
Why is healthy communication so challenging?

As freely as speech comes to most people, clear communication may be a challenge. It would seem that speaking the same language and articulating one’s thoughts and feelings carefully will create meaningful connection with others. Regrettably, this is not always the case. As couples know, even love, caring, compassion and attention are sometimes insufficient ingredients for clear understanding between mates.

There are several reasons why communication is so difficult.

First, each individual has his or her own stream of thoughts, needs, wants and mind-set at any given moment. When another person interjects his idea, the listener has to free himself from his current preoccupations and really listen. This process is not easy to accomplish, particularly on a short notice. Some people are aware of this and preface their conversation with a request for attention. “Do you have a minute to discuss something with me?” This allows the listener to clear his slate and move from thinking to listening more freely.

Even with a focused attention, the listener can only process information from her point of view. To connect with another person, one needs to not only hear the words but also understand the meaning of the message. Every communication exchange originates from a need. Unless that need is heard, understanding will not occur. To appropriately respond, the listener has to identify the hidden request and address it with support.

Once all this is accomplished, the listener has to phrase his response carefully so that his response will resonate well with his partner. Most conversations require a series of exchanges with focused attention and cue reading for both people to feel heard and understood.

It is thus easy to see how any variance from this process is likely to feel disconnected and leave both people frustrated and their needs unmet.

As children we were taught how to speak the language correctly, write about our thoughts and feelings, but we were not taught about the interactive complexities of meaningful communication.

In addition we must add our need for safety as an element in communication. We want to be liked, approved of and appreciated to feel emotionally secure. Even a hint of criticism, lack of support, or even divergent views may leave us feeling unsupported and hurt. We then resort to defensiveness in which we try to restore the other person’s positive view of us in order to regain our emotional balance. Defensiveness is often responded to by justification, attack or withdrawal, which lead to an unproductive cycle of self-concern and frustrated communication.

There are three major categories of unsuccessful communication: Ineffective Communication, Hurtful Communication and Disruptive Communication.

Ineffective Communication involves good intentions by both parties, but failures of skills or personal confidence such as: defensiveness, inattentiveness, interruptions, non-responsiveness, misinterpretation or partial information delivery.

Hurtful Communication is the exchange of messages after one or both parties have been hurt, such as: attacking, ascribing ill intent to the other, analyzing motives, sarcasm, mistrust or accusations.

Disruptive Communication entails harsh angry reactions such as: fighting, name calling, threatening, shaming, demeaning, destruction of objects in anger, verbal or physical abuse.

None of these methods of communication styles lead to understanding and closeness. Healthy communication is the only option for successful delivery of content and emotional exchanges whereby both people feel heard, appreciated and closer to each other after the exchange than they were before it.

If you wish to engage in healthy communication you need to:

• Accept that there are almost always two different points of view, both of which are equally valid.
• Be able to switch your attention from your internal thoughts and be present to respectfully listen to the other person.
• Dispense with judgment of the speaker, even if you do not agree with his or her perspective.
• Repeat what you heard and confirm that you understood the speaker’s words and meaning.
• Listen for the need behind the words.

• Express empathy for the emotions you imagine the speaker has about the topic.
• Be kind, compassionate and caring for the individual, regardless of he nature of the message.

When the speaker seems heard and appreciative, you have most likely been a good listener and friend. When you feel understood and affirmed
your self-esteem and sense of wellbeing has been increased.

Good communication leaves both parties feeling heard, understood, appreciated and closer to each other. It is the first step in deepening intimacy.

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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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