Relational Communication 201
Updated: Sep 5, 2021
Quality relationships are built by communicating in ways that engender trust, build respect and encourage emotional generosity...read more to learn how!
The ability to communicate through both verbal and non-verbal language is central to our human experience. While there are many different communication models out there, the majority of them hold at their core the basic tenet that it is how we communicate with others that determines the quality of those interactions. If you're here, it's likely you've noticed patterns of interaction with others you’d like to change. Welcome…I honour your courage!
While speaking with people in our close circles might seem different than workplace interactions, in fact they share many similarities...
Each person walks into a given situation from a specific context shaped by a multitude of factors, both immediate and historical. If I’m in pain, slept poorly or had a fight with my kid, I’m likely going to react differently than if I’m feeling pretty good that day. As well, my own personal beliefs, values and sociocultural context can also have an effect on how I react to a person or situation, especially if I’ve learned to believe those differences are not safe.
Let's take the (actually quite common!) example of dishes being left on the counter. I come home from work, see my partner hasn’t cleaned up from the night before and immediately my body starts to tense up and I feel a rush of emotion. Now, if my partner grew up in a family where this was absolutely normal (they eventually got done!), then she has no idea why I get so irritated when she does this.
But if we take it one step further and look underneath this relatively benign action, what inevitably surfaces is not the dishes, but the story, or meaning that each of us makes of this action.
Our brains are designed to help us make meaning of things, and without checking any of this out, we can fly down the interpretation train pretty quickly!! Let’s break down the example above- my partner leaving dishes on the counter.
1) Observable fact: I see the dishes left there (we can both agree that we see them)
2) Story/meaning: Based on my own background and life experiences, or even on events that might have transpired just prior to this, I interpret that she doesn’t care about cleanliness at all. Not only that, but because she doesn’t wash them and she knows that cleanliness is important to me, that she doesn’t really care about me either
3) Feelings: Based on my interpretations, I may experience any combination of feelings including anger, sadness, and perhaps even a bit of fear that this story might be true, that she doesn’t really love me
4) Action: Based on these assumptions (which literally happen in our brains in seconds!), I then make choices: to lash out, to protest, to withdraw etc.
To her, they are simply dishes, while to me, it means she doesn’t love me. Phew!
While this may seem like a spider’s web of complexity to unravel, one of the simplest ways to begin shifting our usual communication patterns is simply to stop and notice what’s going on for us physically. Couples’ therapist Terry Real calls this reaction a ‘whoosh’, and it often feels just like that- starts at the bottom of our torso and rushes all the way up to our heads (and often out of our mouths unfortunately!)
In the example above, noticing my body tense up and that whoosh of emotion are clues for me to stop- take a breath (or 2 or 10), to try and breathe myself down from whatever emotional state I’m experiencing in that moment.
Once I have brought myself into a more neutral place (more on how to do that below), then I can talk to my partner in ways that are relationally constructive, and will ultimately get me more of what I want- connection, understanding, and perhaps even a cleaner counter!
Give it a try…when you notice yourself getting activated in your body, take a moment simply to notice that activation. What does it feel like (a storm, a folding in, a bubbling up sensation)? Where is it located? See if you can name one or two emotions you are experiencing. Now simply try to take a few slow breaths: breathe in through your nose, and make your exhale a little longer than your inhale by 2-4 counts. Keep breathing like this until the intensity of that emotional storm comes down, or you feel more present and relationally available. Once you are there, you'll be more ready to step back in and make choices that support your preferred relationship ecology.
So now what?
Continue on to the next post to better understand where some of these pesky assumptions we make come from, then in the following post, how to bring them forward in ways that will build your relationship up from the inside out.