Disclaimer: Explicit communication is not socially appropriate in a number of cultures, so out of respect to those cultures, this piece applies only to cultures in which direct communication is acceptable. Also, please note that this piece applies only to dynamics in healthy relationships.
In the cartoon strip ”Pickles,” by Brian Crane, Earl lovingly compliments his wife, Opal, telling her:
“In the moonlight, your teeth look just like pearls.”
And in response, Opal indignantly huffs:
“Who’s Pearl, and what were you doing in the moonlight with her?!”
This scene aptly reflects out how easily communication can flop. And it’s no wonder we flounder at times. Human communication, in my humble view, borders on miraculous.
Just consider the feats you achieve in a seemingly simple conversation. You take the thoughts in your head and, while sifting through the intricacies of the language you’re using, manage to translate those ideas into an understandable message. Then, assuming your message reaches the person you’re taking to (despite any background distractions that could be present), you have no idea what’s going on in their head. Did they make out what you said? And even if they did, there’s no guarantee they’ll interpret your comments as you intended. For example, let’s say that Miguel and Rowe have a date scheduled for 7pm. Miguel arrives at the restaurant at 7:05pm, and Rowe smiles and tells him, “You’re always on time; I admire that.” Rowe may actually appreciate his punctuality, believing that arriving within five minutes of their scheduled date counts as being on time. Miguel, on the other hand, might be puzzled and guess that Rowe is telling a little lie. (e.g., “I’m obviously not on time, so why is she saying that? It’s probably just to make me feel better.”)
Then the cycle repeats in the other direction as the other person replies and their words disappear into your mind and you digest them.
To add to the complexity, let’s throw in elements that virtually always come along for the ride in some form, such as fears, insecurities, anger, love, cares, happiness, sadness, hopes, expectations, and assumptions. Now you’ve got interactions that are not only ripe for stumbles and misinterpretation, they’re brimming with emotion as well. And let’s not even get into the abundant prospects for miscommunication when it comes to emails and texts.
Amid these countless back-and-forth exchanges with a partner, relatives, friends, and colleagues, the window of opportunity to communicate in a clearer, more straightforward way is shrouded in obscurity at times. This happens in various circumstances, and it has the potential to impact our relationships in assorted ways. Let’s look at a few.
Confidence in Our Own Clarity
Have you ever made a comment to someone, convinced your words were unmistakable, and then felt a bit dumbfounded when they didn’t grasp your meaning? Join the club; most of us have been there. To illustrate, how many times have you and your partner, a friend, or a relative had moments like these?
- “You thought the party was happening next week? I thought I told you two weeks ago that it was scheduled for this week.”
- “No, I didn’t mean that I wanted to go to dinner there tonight. I meant that I wanted to try it out sometime.”
If we’re convinced that we couldn’t have spelled out the point any better than we did, we may just chalk it up to a misunderstanding on the other person’s part. But we might make other inferences instead, such as concluding that the person wasn’t listening or doesn’t care about what we were saying. And even if that assumption is untrue, our perception will become our reality, as the saying goes, setting the stage for possible hurt, anger, and resentment.
In the world of communication, there are plenty of times when we couch a message in subtle hints rather than state it directly. We might do this to spare someone’s feelings, to avoid conflict, to shield ourselves from hurt, to evade awkwardness, or to refrain from appearing rude, to name a few reasons. But regardless of why we do it, it’s entirely understandable that we do. Let’s be real, at times it can be pretty scary to come out and say how we feel, the things we yearn for, or what we truly think or want. And when we do this, we’re operating under the notion that if we just send enough signals, the other person will pick up on our cues and get the point. The thorny part is that if they don’t understand our meaning, here again we could draw other conclusions that may very well be inaccurate. To get a feel for this, consider these examples and think about some of your own.
- Ella tells Jasmine, “The restaurant was okay,” when she really means, “I didn’t like the food and would prefer not to come back.”
A month later, when Jasmine suggests they go back to the same restaurant, Ella feels perplexed and saddened that Jasmine would recommend a restaurant she didn’t like.
- William tells John, “Since you’re going to be back in a couple of days, do you want to leave a change of clothes here?” But in this case he actually means, “I really like you and am wondering if you’d want to stay overnight again with me at my place.”
John, who really likes William but doesn’t want to impose on him or scare him off says, “Thanks, but that’s okay. I’ll go ahead and take my stuff with me.” William then feels dejected, thinking that John isn’t really into him.
- Camille tells her husband, Allan, “I don’t know why, but I just love Grumpy Cat socks,” when she’s really trying to say, “I’m hoping you’ll get me Grumpy Cat socks for my birthday.”
Allan, thinking that Camille is referring to the socks she already has and not realizing she wants more, decides he doesn’t want to give her more of the same thing and gets her other gifts instead. When Camille doesn’t get the socks she wanted, she feels disappointed and hurt, thinking Allan didn’t care or wasn’t paying attention.
The Unopened Door
In a number of situations, we don’t ask a direct question because we don’t realize we could. For instance, there’s a clip depicting male-female friendships I show in my class on close relationships. The individuals in the segment are aware of their own needs, but when they’re asked what their friend’s needs are in the relationship, they draw a blank and realize they’ve never thought about it, which means they also hadn’t thought to ask their friend about this either. And their situation isn’t unusual by any means. For virtually all of us, there are times when we don’t see that we could pause and ask direct questions that carry the potential to help us navigate relationships more deeply and effectively. For instance:
- “How are we doing?“
- “What do you appreciate about our relationship?”
- “What do you wish we had more of in our relationship?”
- “How could I help you to feel more loved or valued?”
- “What’s one thing I could do to show you my ________?” (Fill in the blank. It could be commitment, love, desire, appreciation, etc.)
Trying Something on for Size
Fortunately, in relationships we usually have the chance to embark on a fresh path and try something new. When we allow ourselves to slow down and consider the possibility that someone may not have the same understanding in mind that we do, options unfold in front of us, including the following:
- We could summarize someone’s point in our own words, making sure we’re correctly picking up on what they’re saying.
- When we realize someone didn’t grasp what we said, we can ask what they heard. As a follow-up to this, we can also ask how we could have phrased the message in a more understandable manner. Arguably, this can be a way of honing our ability to make our communication clearer.
- We can remember that being direct isn’t the same as being unkind. Openness and gentleness can go together quite well. For instance, if someone felt hurt when their partner canceled date plans, they can talk with their partner about this in a sincere, candid way that’s also tactful.
- Before making a comment, especially one that feels significant in some way, we can give ourselves permission to pause and mentally reverse the roles. For instance, we might ask ourselves, “How would I interpret this if my (partner/friend/relative/colleague) said the same thing to me?”
- When we’re weighing whether to use a more straightforward approach or not, we might ask ourselves, “If I decide not to be direct with_________ about _________, why would I make that choice? What about if I decide to be direct?” In the end, we may wind up concluding that it’s actually not a good idea to be more frank with someone in a particular situation at a certain time, but we’ll have greater self-awareness on our side as we make a more conscious choice.
- We can ask questions of the people we care about. And as we do so, we can hold in mind the intention of lighting our way toward being a better partner, friend, or loved one and elevating our relationships in ways we might not have considered.
Although communication will likely always involve a certain degree of fumbling around, the willingness to slow down and consider how we can reach greater clarity with others can aid us in illuminating some of the murkiness and, hopefully, come to a deeper and more fulfilling connection.