“We just need to learn how to communicate effectively.” That’s nearly how every initial conversation begins when clients contact me for help. Does that ring a bell with you?
Most are surprised when after discussing the broad areas in which we communicate, they actually are pretty good at it. Unless, of course, it comes to our close intimate relationships, then it seems as though we not only didn’t learn, but it’s impossible to learn.
Here’s the good and the bad news.
First the good news. You are more than capable and know more than you think you do. Next, the bad news. You are making a choice — either conscious or unconsciously — on using dysfunctional and bad communication habits.
Most of us, when the chips are down and we’re in the thick of a disagreement, respond in an unconscious way. Perhaps it’s what we learned growing up in our family system. Or perhaps we’ve been doing the same thing for so long and no one ever told us it was damaging.
The alternative applies to those who believe they know better and are better than their partner and therefore can communicate however they bloody well please. After all…they know best.
When you think of dysfunctional communication, where do your thoughts go? I believe most people think of volatility or defensiveness as being the most toxic, but there are more barriers to communication, such as avoidance, contempt, blaming, and the need to be right.
These might not seem as egregious as a blatant verbal smackdown but are certainly detrimental to one’s relational health.
Think about where you might sit on the communication spectrum of healthy versus unhealthy. What are the areas you would like to improve? Maybe you lean towards blatant anger. Or perhaps you avoid conversations that are necessary to move through an issue.
You may need some guidance and tools to get you to more loving, understanding, and productive communications, but you CAN and SHOULD work on it.
4 Communication Barriers That Destroy Even The Best Relationships
1. You burst into anger.
Anger is an emotion, right? We all experience anger. But, it’s what we do with the anger that makes it a barrier to healthy communication.
When we’re trying to communicate, it’s typically to resolve an issue. Let me ask you. When was the last time someone yelled at you and you came away feeling loved, motivated, and wanting to change? You probably don’t.
Remember that your goal is to understand and then to be understood. Hopefully, with that, a change will come about.
I don’t care that you never learned how not to yell or be intimidating. You learned well enough to get through other areas of your life and you can learn this too.
2. You treat your partner with contempt.
According to John Gottman, “When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean.”
Treating others with disrespect and mocking them with sarcasm are forms of contempt. So are hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling and sneering.
In whatever form, contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with them.
Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner, in the form of an attack from a position of relative superiority. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than to reconciliation.
3. You avoid your partner.
While avoidance is not listed as an emotion, it’s still fear-based and, therefore, is driven by emotion. Is the fear real or imagined? The answer is perhaps both.
The imagined fear of the outcome if you speak up or tackle something can be based on our family history. Perhaps you had a raging family, perhaps you witnessed your mother being verbally abused if she spoke up so you learned at an early age it’s not safe.
Perhaps you don’t feel worthy or that it’s not your place. You do have feelings and you do have a right to have a voice. It’s not easy to exercise that muscle, but it is one that needs to be developed. If your fear is real because it’s not a safe place to speak your mind, please, seek help from a professional.
4. You play the blame game.
This stance keeps us stuck. Yes, that’s right stuck — it prevents us from taking our own inventory and focuses the sole problem on someone else. You say things like, “We wouldn’t be arguing if you didn’t _________ (fill in the blank).”
For example, you’re constantly late, yet you tell your partner they are too demanding of your time. Instead, acknowledge it by saying, “You know, you’re right, I am always late. I think I need to reevaluate my schedule. I’m sorry I was late again.” Can you see how much softer and more meaningful it is?
To improve your communication, here’s a challenge for you: First, identify where your edge(s) might be. If you can’t find one, I can tell you that’s the one you need to work on.
We all have something we bring to our relationships, so look a little deeper. Once you have it, commit to trying something different for one week. If you have the need to be right, step back and perhaps offer, You know, I’m not sure about that” or “You might be right.”
If you are an avoider, dip your toe in to ask for time to discuss something that’s on your mind. If you are quick to blow, take a breath. And then maybe another breath. Wait until the moment(s) pass before you respond in aggressive anger.
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