We’re constantly shocked by just how easy it is to hurt or be hurt by our loved ones due to problems with communication. Communication is supposed to consist of both talking and listening in somewhat equal measure. But regrettably, sometimes there is one but not the other.
In some families, everyone seems to be talking but no one is listening. In others, members of a couple or family feel alone, left in the dark, because there is so little discussion or sharing. The truth is –healthy communication is much more difficult than it seems at first glance.
This is why when couples or families start therapy, improving communication is often the first goal. Without it, no problem can ever get solved. Few people have been taught the necessary skills, and many have picked up some pretty bad habits along the way. Most people, in fact, enter therapy quite convinced that they’re good communicators, only to discover that many of their skills are problematic or lacking.
Since effective communication seems so elusive – what are some of the most common mistakes all of us make?
One of the most universal communication errors in our relationships with our parents, partners, and children is that we are tempted to speak without thinking first. This is understandable because we’re typically less guarded with people we feel close to. The downside of having this increased freedom is that we often blurt things that we would never even dream of saying out loud to a friend or colleague.
And then, to make matters worse, after having said something hurtful, tactless or even downright mean, we often make the further mistake of justifying what we’ve said rather than apologizing and owning up to the fact that we misspoke.
Hence, Tip #1: Engage your brain before you open your mouth, and ask yourself if anyone will really be served by what you are about to say. The old adage “some things are better left unsaid” happens to be true. Healthy families are lavish when it comes to sharing positive words and more restrained and deliberate when it comes to delivering negative feedback.
The second most common error is that we assume that others are understanding what we ‘ve communicated. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. The best remedy for this (besides making your communications short and to the point) is to learn how to paraphrase and make a habit of asking the listener what they heard.
This is especially useful when something important is being shared. If you are a parent and you want to make sure your child is listening, this is a helpful tool. (Or check out these songs for kids about talking and listening.) In our busy, multi-tasking complicated world, most adults also benefit from this practice when trying to talk to each other.
These suggestions may sound incredibly tedious, boring, and unnatural–which it will be until you get better at it. Difficult as this may be at first, the great news is that it really works. Paraphrasing or “active listening” is an amazing tool that can prevent misunderstandings from blowing up into big fights or painful exchanges.
If you are the speaker, and from the look on your partner’s face, you can tell something has gone wrong, you can simply ask her what she just heard you say. This gives you a chance to correct things. If you are the receiver of a message, you can check out what you have heard by starting with “In other words, what you just said is…. or what you are wanting is…”
Hence, Tip #2: The more important the information being communicated, the more we need to slow down, taking ample time to make sure that the message we are sending is the same one that our loved one is receiving.
Another common mistake we make when talking things over with our loved ones occurs when we believe that we’re right and they’re wrong. We get stuck in debate mode, and we begin to think more about our next response than about trying to listen and understand the other person’s point of view.
Both parties then become defensive and get locked into a position rather than trying to find common ground. Hence Tip #3: If you want to feel close and connected, stop and listen as long as it takes to have some empathy or understanding for the other’s point of view. Try saying, “Thank you. Tell me more.”
Hence Tip #4: When speaking with your partner or your child, ask as many questions as you need to in order to understand where the other person is coming from. Don’t do all the talking yourself—ask questions and listen with an open heart and mind.
Since none of us will ever be perfect, we all need to know how to say we are sorry when we hurt someone’s feelings–whether we intended to or not. The whole point of communication is to strengthen our relationships with others and with ourselves.
Keep the goal in mind and remember that mastery only comes with practice. Hence Tip #5 is to remember the power of apology and to practice it often. Try to remember to be loving and respectful in your choice of words, body language and tone of voice. And when you mess up which we all do, learn how to take responsibility. “I’m sorry—that came out wrong.” or “Forgive me—I wasn’t listening to you—tell me again.” Trust us, it’s a lifelong learning. Start by simply slowing down and paying more attention. Go gently with yourself and others.
Don MacMannis, Ph.D. and Debra Manchester MacMannis, M.S.W. are a team both at home and at the office. Married for more than thirty years and parents of two sons, they are psychotherapists who have simultaneously served as directors of the Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara. In addition to nationwide lectures on families, they have provided postgraduate training to hundreds of therapists.