Relationships 201: A Common Pitfall and How to Avoid It
Why is so hard to communicate with your partner? It’s hard to understand her, difficult for him to understand you, and even harder to get her to listen to what you have to say. Sometimes I think I am talking to the wall! And I know that my wife feels the same way.
The number one complaint in couples is poor communication! Not so hard to figure out why. The need to communicate underlies all human intercourse. Furthermore, the more “business” we have with a person, the more we need to communicate effectively.
Communication in any relationship can be a challenge too. Sharing a difficult message with co-workers, friends, staff, or your boss can just feel like beating your head against the wall.
Despite the absolute importance of communication in human life, most of us are poorly prepared for adult relationships. In all of my 25 years of education, even as a graduate student in psychology, I received no personal training in how to communicate effectively. I did take one class in graduate school on couples therapy called “Fair Fight Training”. I am still using what I learned in that class today! I’ve picked up a lot along the way—but mostly from all of my mistakes.
Below is a common communication pitfall and it’s antidote:
Jumping to the wrong conclusion aka “mind reading”. Mary likes a hug and a kiss from her husband when he comes home from work. After a couple of days of Joe walking in the door and heading straight to the computer, she blows up—“You always ignore me when you come home!”— She yells, bursting into tears. She did observe correctly that Joe seemed preoccupied, and didn’t greet her. But her conclusion that he was ignoring her was incorrect. In fact, he was preoccupied by a work crisis that he couldn’t get off his mind. His lack of greeting had nothing to do with her.
Frequently partners make astute observations about their loved one, generate a theory as to why they are behaving the way they are, but then assume their theory (“She’s mad at me”), is a conclusive fact, without checking it out. You might be right, but you also might be wrong.
If you’re right, your partner thinks you’re a genius. But if you are wrong, which you probably will be most of the time (human beings are crummy mind readers) you’re in trouble—sometimes big trouble. In the scientific method, which is a pretty darn good system, observations lead to hypotheses (possible explanations for your observations), which must be tested, before making conclusions.
So what can you do, to avoid falling off of this interpersonal cliff?
- Take a fearless inventory of your communication weaknesses. Wait a minute here; shouldn’t I be taking an inventory of my partner’s problems? No. You probably have already done that. Now look at yourself. Do you tend to engage in mind reading? Do you jump to conclusions about your partner’s intentions?
- Check out your perceptions. Ask yourself-- what are you observing? Ask your partner why he or she is behaving the way that you are observing. Make it an open-ended question. Don’t lead the witness. If she looks preoccupied—state, “You look preoccupied. What’s going on?” Your observation is likely to be correct, but be open to finding out whether your theory is right or wrong.
- Ask for what you want. Do you want a hug? Ask for one, but not when he is brushing his teeth, or is doing something. Do you want a moment of her attention? Ask for it, but not when she is in the middle of washing the dishes.
Does jumping to conclusions get you in trouble?