When I see couples or families in therapy, improving communication is often the first goal. Most people, convinced that they are already good communicators, quickly discover that many of their skills need honing. Effective communication can be far more difficult than any of us first imagined. I am constantly shocked and reminded just how easy it is to hurt or be hurt by our loved ones due to correctable misunderstandings. What are some of the most common mistakes all of us make?
One of the most universal communication errors in our relationships with our parents, partners, and children is that we are tempted to speak without thinking first. This is understandable because we are typically less guarded with people we feel close to. The downside of having this increased freedom of expression is that we often blurt things that we would never even dream of saying out loud to a friend or colleague.
Hence, Tip #1: Engage your brain before you open your mouth, and ask yourself if anyone will really be served by what you are about to say. The old adage “some things are better left unsaid” happens to be true. Healthy families are lavish when it comes to sharing positive words and more restrained and deliberate when it comes to delivering negative feedback.
The second most common error is that we assume that the other person actually understands precisely what we have communicated. Unfortunately, this is very often not the case. Tip #2: The more important the information being communicated, the more we need to slow down, taking ample time to make sure that the message we are sending is the same one that our loved one is receiving. The best remedy for this (besides making your communications short and to the point) is to learn how to paraphrase and make a habit of asking the listener what they heard. I know that this may sound incredibly tedious, boring, and unnatural–which it will be until you get better at it. Difficult as this may be at first, the great news is that it really works.
Tip #3 is to listen without countering and to stop planning what you are going to say next. Another common mistake we often make when talking things over with our loved ones occurs when we believe that we are right and they are wrong. We get sucked into a debate model where we begin to think more about our responses than we do about trying to listen and have empathy for the other person’s point of view. We become defensive and get locked into our position rather than trying to find common ground.
Tip #4 is to stop making assumptions. As the old adage goes, to assume is to make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. Many avoidable misunderstandings stem from the fact that we too quickly assume we know what the other person means. When speaking with your partner or your child, ask as many questions as you need to in order to understand where the other person is coming from. Don’t do all the talking yourself—ask questions and listen with an open heart and mind.
Tip #5 is to remember to be loving and respectful in your choice of words, body language and tone of voice. Even if you are having a disagreement, you can show love and respect by not raising your voice and by listening and acknowledging the other person’s feelings. It also makes others feel seen and heard when you remember to make eye contact.
Tip #6 is to speak for yourself. Don’t try to make a point by bringing in the fact that your mother, Aunt Tilly, and all your women friends agree with you. Make “I” statements about what you feel, and need. Try to stick to the subject. Make your point without making accusations.
Tip #7 is that it is essential to be able to agree to disagree sometimes. Practice respectful acceptance of the inevitable differences you have around preferences, beliefs, history and style. Remember that some issues will not go away simply by communicating about them. Often compromise or mutual acceptance is necessary.
Tip #8 is to remember the power of apology and to practice it often. Since none of us will ever be perfect, we all need to know how to say we are sorry when we hurt someone’s feelings–whether we intended to or not. The whole point of communication is to strengthen our relationships with others and with ourselves. Keep the goal in mind and remember that mastery only comes with practice.