People sometimes contact me for help with “communication problems”.
They typically claim that their communication is being misunderstood by the people in their life, and they want to me to teach them to communicate more effectively.
Or they say their relationships are suffering from poor communication but they haven’t the foggiest idea how to communicate any differently than they already do.
The thing is, I don’t often agree that their problem is poor communication, or that it’s their communication style or strategy at all. While I typically assure them that I can help, I let them know that we won’t be engaging in your typical communication training. In fact, we may not talk about the act of communicating at all. They’ll never hear me mention their words choice, timing, negotiation, empathy, active listening, or any of the buzz words communication trainers use.
Communication is not really the issue—the issue is what they are communicating. The issue is the feelings they are passing along via the tool called communication.
In The Relationship Handbook (a book I’ve recommended before), George Pransky puts it this way:
“Suppose you have a pipe that brings water to your house. Dirty, polluted water passes through this pipe into your water tank. Is that pipe improving the quality of your life? Obviously, the issue is not the pipe, but the quality of the water that passes through it. Communication is a pipe through which feelings pass. If the feelings are positive, the relationship will be uplifted. If they are negative, the couple’s level of closeness will drop.”
Communication is neutral, like an empty pipe. What matters is what goes in it.
When your mental load is relatively light and you have a nice, easy feeling, you’re going to naturally communicate that feeling no matter what you say or how you say it.
And on the flipside, when your mind is full of stuff that doesn’t feel so good, that’s going into your pipe and will be promptly delivered to the target of your communication.
You can pull out every communication strategy around, but if what you feel is negativity, anger, resentment, that’s what you’re going to put out.
So, we look at the feelings. We look toward the fact that you’re always feeling your thinking, and thus you’re always communicating what you think and feel.
When you see that you’re naturally going to communicate what you feel, and when you see that your feelings are constantly changing along with your thinking, the only communication “strategy” is knowing when to speak up and when to wait until your current thinking settles down before you speak up.
When I’m frustrated with my husband for something insignificant, it’s to everyone’s benefit to lay low and put communication on the back burner. Without question, my state of mind will naturally shift and those frustrated thoughts will be replaced with new thought. In this way, I dodge inevitably communicating my frustrated feelings.
That doesn’t mean I’m silent forever, it just means I give the mental slate a chance to clear before giving him a piece of my (temporarily cluttered and frustrated) mind. With time, those emotional thoughts settle down. If the issue is still on my mind, I can communicate it more kindly then. Often, it’s not.
Even if you choose to communicate when you’re feeling less than stellar, as we all so often do, do so with the understanding that the thoughts and emotions you are feeling are temporary and slanted—you’re seeing it the way you’re seeing it, not the way it is—helps tremendously.
It’s like George says:
“The truth is, communication enhances a relationship that is on track. If a relationship is off track, communication is, at best, like brushing your teeth right before you eat candy. At worst, communication is tantamount to brushing your teeth with a toothbrush dipped in plaque.”
Don’t dip your toothbrush in plaque. Let your mind naturally settle a bit before you communicate, rather than acting as if communication is how your mind will settle.
And even then, know that what you’re communicating is always colored by your own temporary state of mind and so it is rarely as absolute as it feels.