I have met many women who have come in for therapy complaining that their husbands are terrible at communicating. The reality is, however, if your partner is terrible at communicating, there’s a good chance you’re not much better. That’s a fun idea isn’t it? Overall, I find if there’s a problem in a relationship, both sides are contributing to it. For instance, if my wife talks too much (not that any wife has ever been guilty of that), I’m part of the problem. If she doesn’t talk enough (it can happen), I’m part of the problem. Fortunately, the tool I will be teaching in this post will help address that.
Before I teach this tool, however, I want to first point out a common misconception: Good communication doesn’t mean talking a lot. There’s a reason the classic adage is “less is more.” In communication, sometimes less is best. We want to make sure we present our point in a clear and concise way in order to limit misunderstanding and boring people. At the same time, there’s a point where less is useless; we need to make sure we are talking enough in order for the other person to have a chance to understand us. This is a common complaint about men. Apparently, when we grunt and mumble, that’s not detailed enough – strange. In the TV show Brain Games the one episode has a game where the one person needs to give a clue for a book title to their partner with as few words as possible. The game was guys against girls and the guys dominated. Why? Because guys’ brains are designed for talking less while girls are better at sharing more (there are exceptions… they’re rare, but they exist). Neither gender is better; we’re just different. Most people seem to instinctively know this. For instance, if you heard there was a problem and the one partner wanted to talk about it, who do you assume wanted to talk about it? If you guessed male… you’re probably joking. Guys typically prefer to avoid conflict and talking. Even in social settings I find I want to avoid talking so I’ll often gravitate to women because I assume they’ll be better at keeping a conversation going. People who talk more can be very helpful, especially as a parent. As a talk-less person, I can keep things simple and I can avoid giving wrong facts; meanwhile my wife is amazing at talking with our 17 month old daughter about absolutely nothing, which is great for our daughter’s verbal skills development. This may not be the case for all men and women, but it is a common pattern. Either way, talking less and more both have their benefits.
Okay, so what is this amazing communication tool I was supposed to write about? (I can sometimes talk too much; you’re welcome). Like most great things, this is incredibly simple. All it involves is saying yes (or a form of it). One of the most common problems for struggling couples is we forget to affirm the other person. When we first start dating, we’re great at it, but then something changes and we get defensive and/or attack the other side. This is typically to try to shut them down because subconsciously we believe if the other person isn’t talking they’re fine. This method, unfortunately, leads to hurt and resentment. Communication isn’t an us versus them. There is no opponent. When communicating, the stronger one doesn’t win; there is no “winner.” Communication isn’t like boxing. It’s not about trying to block the other person’s shots while trying to get in a couple good hits ourselves. When you help the other person feel understood, they are more likely going to be open to understanding you, and the best way to do this is by saying some type of yes to them.
In Improv there is a game called Yes And. The game starts with a scene between two people and every sentence needs to start with “No, and…”: (person1) “No, and we should go to the store.” (person2) “No, and we should get a drink.” (person1) “No, and we should go for a snack.” (person2) “No, and I will have fun.” Even though both people are ultimately agreeing, by saying “No, and…” you end up wanting to scream at the other person. The second part of the game is to do a scene with saying “Yes and…”: (person1) “Yes, and we should go to the store.” (person2) “Yes, and we should get a drink.” (person1) “Yes, and we should get a snack.” (person2) “Yes, and I will have fun.” Can you feel the difference? The “Yes, and…” feels so much better. This is what we want to do in our normal conversations. We want to say yes (or a form of it). For instance, if my wife came in the room and yelled, “You’re Stupid!” I would ideally respond in a calm voice, “I’m guessing I’ve done something to upset you.” Notice there’s no defensiveness? In this situation, a possible reply will be, “Ya think? I’ve told you not to leave dishes in the sink!” Again, I will want to say yes to her, “Yes, you have. I should have listened to you. I’m sorry and will try harder next time.” How’s she going to react? “Well… okay… you get it (leaves room).” By saying yes, you help the other person feel heard. The same thing happens with bullies: (bully) “You’re stupid.” (me) “I’m the stupidest.” (bully) “You’re like soooo stupid.” (me) “I know. That’s why I failed the math test.” (bully) “Yeah… why aren’t you getting angry? This isn’t fun.” Saying yes, defuses the situation.
So what about correcting a misinterpretation? Well, in the hypothetical case of my wife saying I’m stupid, I would agree/apologize in the moment and approach her later when she’s calm (anger makes us dumb, so don’t engage with an angry person). At that time I would kind-but-firm tell her that how she spoke to me was hurtful and address it in a calm and simple manner in order to help her know how to better share her anger with me in the future. And yes, I’m well aware this sounds a lot easier than it is to do, but it’s something for which to strive.
This week may we focus on saying yes to help the other person feel understood before we switch to our own agenda.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people