“We Don’t Communicate,” So They Typically Say

I think the #1 problem presented to me by a couple coming for marriage counseling is the complaint that they just don’t know how to communicate.  That’s an interesting comment, especially in light of what I remember one of my profs saying during my training.  He believed that it is impossible to not communicate.  In  face, he added, all behavior is communicative.


What the couple is really saying is that they don’t know how to connect with each other.  Or, they don’t know how to listen to each other.  Here’s an example of a typical “non-communicative” argument.  The wife says her piece, but while she is talking, the husband stops listening because he thinks he knows what she’s going to say.  After all, she must have said it a hundred times already, and he knows what’s coming next.


As soon as she finally takes a breath, the husband jumps in and starts his monologue.  The wife listens for a short time, then stops listening and begins to prepare her counter-argument.  Back and forth they go, neither one really listening.  Their conclusion is that they can’t communicate.


It’s really a “listening” problem.  We don’t know how to listen much anymore.  We have short “people magazine” attention spans, and so we listen for a moment, and then we are ready to counter with our point of view.  One of the things I try to get couples to do is slow down the whole process.  I tell them they can’t respond to their spouse unless they can tell the other person what had just been said to that person’s satisfaction.


Two other things are typically taking place.  One is that sometimes our words don’t match our behavior.  I can say “I love you” but at the same time I am rolling my eyes.  Which message is the other person going to believe?  My behavior, for behavior always overrules my words.


The other thing that takes place is that there are two different communication styles and that style is part of each person’s DNA.  The two styles are the ‘literal style” and the “inferential style.”  The person who by nature uses the literal style says what they mean typically and speaks with complete thoughts. The inferential style person says less than what they mean, and assumes the listener can fill in the gaps.


It gets more complicated for we listen with the same style we use when talking.  The literal person is always trying to hold the inferential person to what they said.  But what the inferential person said is only part of what they meant.  And to complete it even further, the inferential person is always listening to the literal person and adding their own meaning to what has been said.  So you can see the potential problems.


Again, this can be overcome if the couple will slow down, and state what they heard.  The inferential person will usually say, “yes, but I also meant ….”  and they will add to their story.  And the literal person will typically say, “No I didn’t mean all that.  I meant exactly what I said.  We’ll look in the next posting how this affects a marriage, and how it affects our relationship with out kids.


What do you think your communication style is–literal or inferential?


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