Communication—the blessing and the curse of most relationships. Words like “those pants are stunning on you” can bring peace and joy into your life; words like “we need to talk” can feel like a death sentence. Because it’s so foundational to relationships, and because it’s so complicated to get it right, communication is among the most common of marital problems. It’s also the problem that couples highlight when they first come into couples therapy. And while couples therapy offers lots of specific strategies to tweak communication, one simple idea will help you improve communication with your partner.
Here’s the concept: Conversations can generally be distilled into two different categories—discussions and problem-solving. The goals of these two different kinds of conversations are unique.
- The goal of a discussion is to share feelings, perspective, or experiences.
- The goal of a problem-solving is to generate a solution to an identified problem.
Without understanding that there are two distinct conversation types, couples often think they are talking to one another when, in fact, they are engaged in two totally different conversations—they just happen to be happening simultaneously. In the process of having two different conversations, partners end up talking right past each other and miss out on an opportunity to support, understand, and connect with one another.
Take the example of David, who often comes home from work frustrated by a boss who likes to tease and ends up undercutting him in front of other colleagues. Jennifer listens and nods with as much empathy as she can muster. But after venting for a while, David gets frustrated with Jennifer. He can’t understand why she just sits there, nodding away instead of offering to help him figure out what to do. For her part, Jennifer can’t figure out why her efforts to be compassionate would anger David. She eventually becomes resentful about how unappreciative David is for her sincere efforts to listen.
Unlike David, Jennifer works from home. She also takes on the majority of the childcare for their child. She struggles with the complicated juggling act of finding a way to balance her professional aspirations with her caregiving responsibilities. When Jennifer shares her daily woes with David, he troubleshoots by suggesting she drop some of the things on her to-do list; he figures she would be less frustrated if she stopped worrying so much. As David makes suggestions, Jennifer becomes increasingly frustrated thinking that he doesn’t understand how hard her days are. She tells him that he is an insensitive and unsupportive partner. In turn, David gets angry with Jennifer for dismissing his earnest efforts to be there for her.
Over time, Jennifer and David find themselves having these same arguments over and over again. They start believing that they are a terrible fit for one another and it becomes increasingly hard for them to recall having felt supported and appreciated in their relationship.
Of course, there are plenty of therapist-approved tips and tricks to healing this kind of fractured communication. But the simplest and most powerful first step is to address the issue of their entering into a conversation together, but having entirely different communication agendas.
Jennifer and David naturally default into different conversation types: David feels more comfortable problem-solving and Jennifer prefers to share thoughts and feelings. It’s quite common for two partners to have complementary communication comfort zones and in many cases complementary styles are helpful. But when these different preferences bump into each other, communication fractures can emerge.
By recognizing and appreciating their different tendencies, Jennifer and David are empowered to do something about it. They can reflect and clarify what they want from one another before they start a conversation. Or if they notice a conversation becoming heated, they can pause and explain what they each want from the other.
Of course, communication is complicated and there is no single silver bullet. But by understanding these two different types of conversations, partner communication preferences, and learning to clarifying goals with one another, you can get more effective in communicating.
Put this idea into action by considering the following:
- What kind of communication do you most naturally fall into; what kind of communication does your partner naturally fall into?
- When your partner initiates a conversation, wonder to yourself, “what kind of conversation is my partner likely to be wanting?”
- Make an effort to clearly and explicitly establish your communication goal at the start of the conversation. For example, you can say, “I had a hard day and I need to vent. What I really want is for someone to just hear me out.” Or, alternatively, “I had a hard day and I need help problem-solving how to handle it. I’m really looking for is some help figuring out how to deal with this issue.”
- When you notice conversations going off track or getting heated, take the opportunity to pause and ask your partner: “what kind of conversation were you looking to have?”
Your bonus for reading to the end of this article? You have authorization to apply this idea to communication within all sorts of relationships, including with your friends, colleagues, and even your prickliest family members.
Give it a try and feel free to comment or email me with specific challenges that arise.