We hear it everywhere—from talk shows and books, during relationship seminars, in discussions with friends: “Communication is the key to a happy relationship.” The belief is that if we will simply invest more time in communicating our thoughts, concerns, and needs to each other, we can overcome disagreements, reduce irritation, and eliminate hurting one another.
I think the idea is utter non-sense.
Certainly effective communication is a critical part of any loving relationship. Sharing thoughts and feelings and knowing you are each heard and understood can set the stage for emotional intimacy and enable problem solving. But there are limits to the benefits of communication.
When a partner communicates criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or withdrawal, does that strengthen a relationship?
It is communication! But it communicates judgment and rejection which harms relationships. When a couple continually talks about what is bothering them about each other, rehashing irritations and disappointments over and over, is that likely to make the relationship better? Or when someone uses the excuse of “communication” to heap needs and demands upon their partner in a self-centered way, is the other person going to feel it has been a healthy and helpful conversation? Of course not!
One of America’s most popular couples programs has the speaker-listener technique as its centerpiece.
In the speaker-listener technique, one person expresses a complaint. The partner must listen without saying anything except asking clarifying questions. This continues until the original person feels that he or she has been properly understood. Then they switch roles with the listener becoming the speaker. Same rules. This technique seems like an effective way for people to share with each other.
But there are significant problems with this technique. If either (or both) partner(s) is unfair or malicious, that person can say mean things and hold the floor indefinitely.
No communication technique in the world can compensate for meanness.
And the world’s leading scholar on relationships, John Gottman, agrees. He found that people could be trained endlessly in communication techniques but, when they feel attacked, all that training goes out the window.
There also is no guarantee that the person listening is taking in any information that will lead to greater understanding. Listening is more than being held hostage to a technique requiring you to remain silent until it is your turn to talk, especially if the technique doesn’t compel you to find higher truths than petty irritations. You know what happens when you listen to too much negativity. You begin to simmer with resentment, you shut down and stop listening, and you start mentally rehearsing your side of the argument which you plan on presenting as soon as it is your turn. While effective listening is one of the vital keys to relationships, without the right mindset, this technique does not work—without the right heart, it is unlikely to lead to greater understanding of or compassion for the other person’s perspective.
It is not really communication itself that strengthens relationships; it is kindness, thoughtfulness, and unselfishness.
The qualities of our soul matter vastly more than the quantity or quality of our “communication.” Even with our imperfect souls we can choose to think in certain ways—to give partners the benefit of the doubt, to see their point of view, etc. There are no magic words or processes that allow relationships to flourish in the absence of kindness.
Of course it is important to use communication to convey kindness. Research has discovered that the best single predictor that a relationship will thrive is when there are five positive communications for each negative one. We can express affection. We can ask about interests and needs. We can apologize sincerely. We can state our appreciation. All of these are vital types of positive expression and they are far more about character than communication.
Let me make a sad confession. Sometimes my dear wife, Nancy, tries to share an idea with me. Nancy is the kindest person I know—but she doesn’t study communication techniques. So occasionally she doesn’t express her idea or request in the way that communication books recommend. If my heart is cold and critical, I get irritated. And during those times of irritation I sometimes will accuse her of not expressing herself effectively, even though I know perfectly well what she is trying to say.
I love Nancy with all my heart. She is the dearest person on the planet to me. But when my heart is hard and critical, I refuse to hear her message. And I harm our relationship When my heart is right—when I resolve to be kind and compassionate—I skip the judgment, the annoyance, and the bristling. I seek to understand. I seek to focus on her needs, not just my own. And our relationship is strengthened.
How can you use this idea to strengthen your relationships?
Connecting with those we care about does not depend upon some magic formula of communication. It does not depend upon tidy rules for listening. It is far more important to work on our own hearts. We can choose to listen in order to better understand the thoughts and needs of the other person. We then care about those thoughts and needs rather than simply using them as a springboard for presenting our own. We can choose to focus on the other person’s positive characteristics instead of the negative. When we see faults and failing in our partners, we can be kind and generous instead of judgmental or condescending. We can choose to resolve issues by confronting the problem, not the person.
So, if it’s not communication, what IS the key to connecting?
1. We approach each other with openness and kindness.
We avoid that “hardening of the categories” that causes us to see our partners as irrational, selfish, or unreasonable. I bet that you can think of times when softness in your spirit has allowed you to hear your partner’s without becoming defensive or hostile. Think of such a time. Reflect on how it felt to bring that softness to the relationship.
2. We see ourselves on the same team.
“I want to help you get what you want.” The spirit of “we” is essential to solving problems and building togetherness. Companionship is at the heart of enduring relationships. Can you remember times when that spirit of “we-ness” has strengthened your relationship?
3. Rather than defend my pride or position, I help you advance your life.
This is one of the big challenges of relationships—to see the world through our partners’ eyes, to see their needs and preferences, and to make decisions that honor their hopes and dreams. This is the great act of love—to act in the best interest of your partner. Can you think of times when you have successfully done this in your relationship?
This choice—this tendency in our minds and hearts—to look for and dwell on the good is far more important than communication techniques.
You can use popular communication techniques. They can guide you toward a wonderfully amicable divorce—unless you bring a soft, kind heart to the relationship. Kindness leads to closeness. Rather than worry too much about the words on your lips, focus on the smile in your heart.