Here’s the problem with all of our relationships – with our spouses or significant others, with family, with friends, and with co-workers: None of us are born knowing how to communicate. In fact, we all kinda stink at it.
As most of us have heard, we all view the world through a different lens. The problem is, we hear everything through different filters too. That means, for example, when your better half says the house is a mess and needs to be cleaned up, he or she may not necessarily be griping at you. Maybe they’re just thinking out loud. But, if you’re always expecting the worse from them, then you’re always going to expect them to be nagging on you, when it’s possibly not the case at all.
Another scenario we may all be familiar with is a conversation between Tom and Ann:
Tom: “Where’s the checkbook?”
Ann: “I don’t know. Why are you always blaming me for everything?
Tom: “Why are you getting so upset? I just asked a simple question.”
Probably sounds a lot like a conversation you’ve had, right? The thing is, it’s not really a “simple” question or conversation. Think about your own relationship. You know that if you’re being asked “Where’s the checkbook?”, or “Why are you acting angry?”, there’s always more to it than the simple question.
The problem is that you’re each reinforcing the other’s communication style
There are a lot of things that could be going on in Tom and Ann’s conversation that we don’t know about. Ann was responding to a number of cues that Tom gave her. She may have felt like Tom’s tone was harsh or blaming. Maybe they’ve had a long-standing argument about where the dang checkbook is. Her response to Tom’s question is fueled by her own interpretation of what she thinks the question means.
If Ann thinks Tom is always overly controlling or blaming, and then hears what she interprets to be a controlling tone, or sees a particular look on his face, she’ll assume he’s doing what he “always” does and treat her poorly.
But Ann’s not the only one to blame here. Maybe Tom also has some negative beliefs about Ann. He likely thinks she’s unorganized or too sensitive, or easily provoked. So, because he’s probably unaware of his tone, he’ll be surprised by Ann’s angry response. This is filtered through his beliefs about her, and he’ll respond accordingly.
Both are trapped in this negative cycle of reinforcing each other’s beliefs by the way they interact with each other. It doesn’t matter how many times Tom has asked Ann about the checkbook, every time she’s probably going to respond poorly. She’ll get upset. And then he’ll get upset.
What happens next? You can probably guess. They’ll either both shut down and refuse to even look at the other person, or one of them will get mad and stomp out.
Why do these simple questions have to be so hard?
And so starts another cycle of the same never-ending argument. If you’re anything like Tom and Ann, these arguments are probably on auto-pilot by now, and all it takes is one person to say the wrong thing, and we’re off to the races. You can probably, at this point, list everything that’s going to be said during the argument and how it’s ultimately going to end. And yet we still keep doing it.
Stopping the negative cycle
To put a stop to this negative cycle, you’ve got to first understand a really important point about the situation you’re in:
It really only takes one person to change a relationship.
That’s right – the other person could do absolutely nothing and you can still create positive, healthy change in the way you communicate in your relationship. Of course, it’s always nice when both people want to move the relationship forward, but even so, you have the ability and responsibility to make this change happen in your relationship.
Think back to Tom and Ann. What if Tom had reconsidered the way he asked that question? What if Ann had taken a moment to think about what Tom was really asking? Even a split-second of thought and consideration may have made that conversation turn out really differently.
Either Tom or Ann’s change in perception of the other person could’ve taken the conversation in a completely different direction.
How to put it into practice
Changing the negative cycle in your relationship isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Really, it’s a simple mindset change. Next time you and the person you care about begin to have a conversation that usually leads to an argument, simply consider what what you’re hearing versus what they’re really saying.
Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they are being a jerk, but just maybe they’re looking to move the conversation forward, rather than allowing it to continue getting stuck.
Dr. Zakk Gammon is a Licensed Clinical Pastoral Counselor at the Practice Administrator of Revive Christian Counseling.
Zakk works with couples who are tired of feeling stuck, and are ready to make a real, lasting change in their relationship.
Zakk can be reached at (270) 926-6957 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.