Before I got married I took a class at Brigham Young University called “Marriage Preparation”. I also read books about marriage and had previously had received some personal counseling in relationships. So when I got married, I felt I truly understood what good communication was, and I knew (in my naivety) that as long as I communicated well in my marriage, I could work out any problem. I was right in a sense, but it turned out to be much more complicated than I had thought.
I had learned that good communication meant listening, confirming what you heard, and then sharing how you feel. This is a good way of learning how to communicate well, and it works in a variety of situations. I’ll give an example. Say you’re a teenager fighting with your mom or dad about going to a late-night movie with some friends. The good thing about this communication method is that it is effective whether the other party also uses this method or not. The conversation may go something like this:
You: “Mom, some friends and I are going to the midnight showing of Iron Man 3 tonight.”
Mom: “Oh, really? I don’t think so. That’s past your curfew, and I don’t trust those friends of yours.”
Already, communication is off to a bad start. You started with telling your mom what you were going to do, well knowing that it was against the rules, and your mom responded by immediately attacking your idea and your friends. She feels bad because you don’t respect her authority and the guidelines and rules she set up to protect you, and you feel bad because she doesn’t trust you or your friends. Let’s try to salvage what we can. The first step is to make sure you understand your mom. Her words may not really reflect what she’s feeling, so you need to find out what she’s feeling.
You: “Oh, right, that’s past my curfew. So you don’t want us to go out to the movie because it’s past my curfew and you think my friends will do something bad?”
Mom: “I don’t think they’ll do something bad, I just know that bad things often happen past midnight. And we set up your curfew to protect you.”
You: “So you don’t want me to go because you want to protect me? Thanks mom for caring about me so much.”
Can you imagine any teenager talking like that? No? I can’t either really; at least, no teenager I know has had enough training to show that much self control and prowess. But I believe it can be taught, and adults can definitely learn it.
Think about how the mom must have felt if the teenager responded that way. “Holy cow, this kid is listening to me?!?! Who are you and what happened to my daughter?” The mom would be totally taken off guard, and may even be inclined to let there be an exception to the curfew rule, just this one time. Note that good communication does not mean you always get the outcome you wanted from the onset, but it does foster good relationships, and it will build trust that you can use later. Some call this the trust bank, and each time you do something that encourages trust, you’re adding to the bank so that the next time you need that person to trust you, you’ve already deposited enough that you can withdraw a bit here and there when needed (like when you want to go to a midnight showing of a movie with friends).
We could go the other way around, too, from the mom’s perspective. Here’s how this might go:
Teenager: “What? You don’t trust my friends? I hate you. You never let me do anything fun!”
You (mom): “Hold on, let’s take a step back. Did saying that I don’t trust your friends hurt your feelings?”
Teenager: “Yes! My friends are good kids!”
You: “All right, I’m sorry for saying that. You said I never let you do anything fun. Do you really feel that way?”
Teenager: “Yeah! Whenever I want to go out with friends late at night, you never let me!”
You: “Maybe that’s true. I haven’t let you in the past. Maybe we can make an exception to the curfew rule tonight, but there are a few stipulations.”
It’s a little bit harder to talk to an unhappy teenager. If both mom and teenager are trained well, though, the conversation would have been amazing.
I hope my examples illustrated the point of what real, active listening entails: repeating what the person said and confirming that you got it right. When the person you are talking with knows that you understood them, they start to feel safe and can trust you more. This is solid communication. If you haven’t tried it, do so. Make sure you understand the other person 100% before moving on and expressing your own feelings. And when you express your own feelings, do so in a non-agressive manner, using words like “I feel”. Don’t use accusatory language like “You always…” or “You never…” or “You make me feel…”.
The above represents the most basics of good communication. Learning it gave me a good foundation to start with, but there was a lot more to communication than I thought. I’ll share more advanced communication tools in my next post.
UPDATE: Part 2 is now available!