Communication problems happen to everyone—casual work mates, friends, or family members. It’s inevitable since no two people wear the same interpretive lenses, and sometimes we fail to see the intention behind a communication.
Many times it’s a simple misunderstanding that can be cleared up with a brief conversation.
But too often in close, committed relationships communication problems become entrenched and habitual.
This is because the stakes are highest with those we are closest to–and we are drawn to people who will push our buttons. In intimate relationships, we are at higher risk of falling into chronic communication pitfalls.
For example, I often hear partners say things like:
- “No matter what, I just can’t get through to him.”
- “I feel totally misunderstood.”
- “Whenever I try to talk to her, it ends in an argument.”
- “I offer solutions but she rejects them all.”
These communication problems lead to serious resentment. Couples then up the ante and resort to blaming (which is essentially a way of scoring points at your partner’s expense in an attempt to position yourself more favorably). This of course triggers defensive reactions and blocks communication even further.
Over time, partners become less emotionally generous with each other and lower their baseline of goodwill. The result is less love and more frustration.
I look at it like this: In each relationship there is a joint emotional bank account of love, generosity and goodwill. It is like a pool of resources to draw on for fuel in the maintenance of relationships. Imagine that with every conflict, blame or attack there is a withdrawal from this account. If you only make withdrawals, eventually there is nothing left in it. With a zero balance, you just don’t have what it takes to handle even minor annoyances or misunderstandings.
The solution then is to make deposits into this account. With an abundance of goodwill in the bank, it is far easier to resolve a conflict, fix a problem, or forgive transgressions.
There are many ways to do this. But today, I want to share three specific communication techniques–my personal favorites from Dr. Jonathon Ross’s book Communication Miracles for Couples. This is a way to invest into your joint emotional bank account and eliminate communication problems following the 3 As.
How to Nix Communication Problems
Dr. Ross describes these steps in terms of The Three As, which are: Acknowledgment, Appreciation, and Acceptance.
Step 1. Acknowledgement
This is defined as “being willing to agree that your partner really is having the experience they say they are having.” This is not the same as agreeing with their premise. It simply means you validate their personal experience. You accept that what they say is the truth as they see it (even if you think it’s crazy!). You may want to ask yourself: What is the positive intent behind what they are saying? What do they ultimately want?
If this doesn’t come easy for you, follow this formula the next time your partner is upset:
- “It seems like you… ” (paraphrase in a sentence or two what your partner’s experience seems to be).
- “That must feel… ” (guess as to how such an experience must feel).
- “I’m sorry you feel… ” (guess as to what their emotions are).
Remember, people in pain want first to be validated before they can work on fixing or solving the situation.
Step 2. Appreciation
This is the art of telling your partner what you like about them. Use this frequently. Be specific and graphic. (As opposed to “I like how helpful you are,” say instead: “It was a pleasure coming home to a tidy house. It felt inviting and I enjoyed being able to start cooking in a clean kitchen. Thank you!”)
Step 3. Acceptance
This means you love your partner just as they are, warts and all. And they of course do the same for you. Acceptance is not something you do, but is rather a shift in your attitude. People are afraid of acceptance because they equate it with endorsing problematic behavior and will only lead to being walked all over. But the opposite is true.
- Remember: When people feel fully accepted, they do their very best to make their partners happy (unless you are dealing with certain personality disorders, but that is another topic).
- Tune into your partner’s positive intention at any given moment. You don’t have to like all their actions, but try to find the positive intent. Even blaming has a positive intent, ie. to boost your own self-esteem or feel better about yourself.
- Acceptance doesn’t mean you never get annoyed, it just means that you still maintain an overall sense of positive regard towards your partner.
If you do these three steps frequently and when things are good, you can bank the love and have more resources when upsets occur.
You will feel closer, see the positive intent behind communications, and have a far more positive outlook on the relationship.
Maintaining relationships is less about removing difficulties and more about increasing the frequency of positive interactions. Keeping a favorable ratio of positive to negative interactions is key (Dr. John Gottman recommends a 5:1 ratio, but I will cover this in another blog).
Good luck and please let me know how this goes for you in the comments below!