A big part of Cheryl Sexton’s work is helping clients talk to each other in clear, compassionate and connected ways. Because most of us are actually terrible communicators, and naturally that hinders our interactions, and chips away at our relationships.
We tend to be terrible communicators because we often get too anxious. We yearn to say the right things, and thereby worry incessantly about bringing up a sensitive topic. We replay worst-case scenarios about how the other person will respond. Sometimes, we get so anxious we totally shut down and stop speaking, said Sexton, LMFT, a psychotherapist in private practice who specializes in working with families and couples. Or we get angry or defensive.
We tend to misunderstand what the other person is saying or wants. One reason resides in our history with them, which colors our interpretation. If a person tends to be critical or to complain, we might interpret their neutral statement as negative.
Sexton shared this example: A wife tends to regularly complain about all sorts of things. She tells her husband: “Your office was not as big as I thought it would be from your description.” Her husband thinks she’s criticizing him and belittling his accomplishments, which can spark an argument. However, she meant that the building felt friendlier and less sterile than she pictured.
We also can say thoughtless things. Which is understandable. “Most people are not skilled at using words to describe what is happening on the inside of their bodies or in their minds,” Sexton said. Most of us have difficulty putting words to our emotions.
Plus, communication is complicated. “We might go into a situation with the very best intention possible, but our words do not convey our true feelings or sentiments.” Or we might simply avoid talking about feelings in general. Which makes it very hard when we’re in a situation where we feel pressure to connect to and articulate our feelings. We “might overthink the situation and say something that is abrupt or confusing,” Sexton said.
There’s a reason why we use the term “communication skills.” We aren’t born knowing how to communicate with others. We learn how. And it’s never too late to sharpen our skills and become more proficient. The below suggestions, from Sexton, can help.
Share your reaction—instead of reacting. It’s much more helpful to tell your loved one that you’re starting to feel defensive than to respond in a defensive way. For instance, your mom asks you, “Why don’t you ever call me when you’re running late?” Instead of replying—and getting angrier and angrier—you focus on the question.
According to Sexton, you might simply say: “I am having a hard time talking about this right now because I can feel myself getting defensive.” Your mom might ask why you’re feeling this way, and you respond with: “Your tone just seemed really critical and I could tell that I was going to start yelling.”
You can discuss and work through your feelings, and then move on to talking about what to do when you’re running late. Because, as Sexton said, until you “identify those anxious or triggered feelings, the communication will be really difficult.”
Get curious. Misunderstanding others “is inevitable in human interactions,” Sexton said. But one way we can navigate this obstacle is to stop assuming the meaning of a message or the intention of the speaker, and get curious instead.
“When we stay curious, we can usually stay open to the possibility that there is more than one possible explanation.” Sexton suggested asking questions to verify that we’re fully understanding the other person.
Keep practicing—and let it be imperfect. The only way to improve your communication is to keep trying. “Give yourself permission to make mistakes in the process and be overt with the other person about it right up front,” Sexton said.
For instance, you might say: “I do not even have the right words to say, but I wanted you to know that I care” or “I have never had a conversation like this before and I really want to do well for you. I care about you so much that I just want to be here with you while you tell me more.”
Apologize when you don’t get it right, Sexton said. The key is that you’re making the effort to connect, and, again, being honest.
Work on your own stuff. “Instead of focusing your energy on what the other person should be doing, work on your side of the equation,” Sexton said. Examine how you tend to navigate conflict and daily conversation. Examine what you do and what you say that is unhealthy or doesn’t represent your ideals, she said. “For example, if you tend to become critical as a defense strategy, focus on avoiding criticism in arguments.”
Sexton noted that psychologist John Gottman has found that criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stone-walling are the biggest communication-related predictors of divorce. “At some point, all of us can fall into one of these categories during conflict with a spouse.” What can you work on?
Turn to resources. Sexton suggested reading books such as The Relationship Cure by John Gottman and Love Sense by Sue Johnson, which help couples navigate common communication obstacles and challenges.
She also suggested Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. In it, Brown speaks to the power of vulnerability in connecting us to others. As Sexton noted, “If we can get comfortable with talking to the people we love in a more authentically vulnerable way, it is much easier to find connection on a deeper level.”
We often assume that communicating should come naturally to us. But it rarely does. Or we assume we’re good communicators. But, in reality, we’ve got some work to do. Thankfully, we can educate ourselves and practice. A lot. And in doing so, we are able to enhance our relationships and bolster our connection with our most important people.