“We want to work on our communication.” That’s the first thing most people say when they come for couple’s counseling. It makes sense, most issues turn into arguments because we as people really struggle to say what we mean and mean what we say.
Do you speak toddler?
Apparently that was the right sipy cup
Picture this, a two-year-old walks up to his mothers and says something. What she hears is “whah wadder!” What she hears is: “I want some water.”
What the toddler thinks he is saying: “Hey mommy, could you please hand me some water in the blue cup. That one is my favorite, and could you make sure it is cold.”
But mom proceeds to pour some water in the nearest cup (a red one) from the faucet. The child now repeats, “Whah water!” with a slightly more insistent and annoyed tone meaning, “excuse me, I said I would like my water in the blue cup. The red cup will not do, it doesn’t taste right. And you gave me tap water, room temp tap water, I want my water cold! I think I am being clear here!”
Mom, oblivious but proud that she and baby are communicating say with a smile: “Yes honey, here is your water, in your cup, see waaa-TER!”
What happens next is a consequence of faulty communication: the toddler starts to scream, repeating “whah wadderrrrrrr” in ever more insistent and distressed tones. He throws himself on the ground and the cup of water at his mother. Now she’s irritated and the battle begins…
Say What You Mean!
Too often adults’ communication follows similar patterns. We speak at one another, so convinced that we are clear in what we are communicating to others, that we rarely check to see if they understand what we’re talking about.
Communication is a combination of several things: the words we use, our tone, our body language, our intended message, our inferences, and our assumptions (think of assumptions as the mental filters and historical biases we all have). We are often aware of the first two, sometimes even the third element, but people often forget the latter three. Truth be told, in most cases it is not much of an issue, but it does become paramount when trying to convey serious or complex thoughts.
Let me provide a real life example from yours truly!
I walked into the house after work and was cold, so I went to check the thermostat and noticed it was set to 62. My kid was going upstairs and I mentioned this and he told me that he had messed with it. So I walk into the living room and say (in what I thought was a calm and casual tone): “No wonder I was cold, someone messed with the thermostat.”
Immediately, my husband busts out in an annoyed tone, “it’s annoying to hear it go on and off, if you have an issue just change it back!” Taken aback and now slightly pissed, I calmly respond “I did change it, I was just saying that it made sense I was cold, because someone messed with it.” My husband comes back at me, now more irritatedly, “well it’s annoying to have it go on an off and if it bothers you so much just change it!”
I am starting to gather that he is the one who changed the thermostat, not my kid, which I don’t care about, it was simply a casual observation that for once I was cold with good reason, as opposed to being the one female in the house who is always cold when the boys are fine. On a less than calm tone I come back at him: “I DID change it back. I WASN’T complaining! I was just MENTIONING it!!” The argument went on for a few more volleys, something about nagging him, something about him being in a pissy mood – it was all charming. Unwilling to calmly resolve this anymore and frustrated, I walked out of the room to go joke around with the wee ones. Later, when we were both a touch calmer I explained the misunderstanding, and the fact that he was jumping to conclusions! The “nagging filter” a favorite of most men to describe requests their female counterparts repeat was clearly on and thick that night.
This type of argument is ridiculously common, and not just in my household. Assumptions/inferences/biases distort both how we communicate to other and how we hear what others say to us. In other words, you come to a conversation with your own personal filters, which impact what you say, but also how you interpret incoming speech.
These universal filters and the complexity of proper communication are one of the reasons why some forms of written communication, especially brief forms such as texting and social media comments, are awful when trying to convey complex thoughts.
5 steps to saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
The solution when you actually care to communicate clearly with someone else is:
- Think of what you meant to say – what is the point you ultimately want your listener to leave with?
- Watch your mood, your mental state, and how they may color your speech.
- Check in with yourself, what assumptions are you walking into the conversation with? Are you assuming you are going to be dismissed? If so you are probably going to feel that way regardless of whether you are heard or not (see this older post on perception and reality for more details on how this happens).
- Ask questions often, especially questions in which you allow the listener to explain what they understand. Note that having them repeat your words doesn’t guarantee they understand your specific meaning.
- Give others the opportunity to respond and before you jump all over them for not getting your point, work on clarifying what you meant.