Avoid communication failures
and improve your relationships
by Cheryl Dizon-Reynante
Are you unhappy with any of the relationships in your life? It can be a scary question to ask ourselves because connections with people are so important. When we can’t seem to get along with someone in our family, friend circle, or the workplace, it can cause us to feel frustrated, angry, and resentful. The state of our personal relationships can have a big impact on physical health, mental, emotional, and even spiritual well-being. Relationship problems can affect mood and sleep and cause us to be distracted from other important things.
One message that I often hear from clients is, “It’s their fault! They don’t understand how hard I try, and don’t see all the sacrifices that I make.” It is always easier to identify the mistakes and faults of other people. But often, the key to improving relationships is to focus on what we have control of – our own actions, and not the other person!
According to Williams (2012), in most cases, each person in a relationship is responsible for at least 30 per cent of the problem. And a lot of the time, the difficulty lies in how we communicate with each other. If we make a strong commitment to change our communication style, chances are, the other person will follow and respond in a positive way. As the famous expression goes, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!”
John Gottman, a psychologist specializing in relationships, first conceptualized the four horsemen of communication failures. Although he focused on romantic couples, his ideas can be used to improve all relationships.
He identified four major mistakes that couples make, which should be avoided at all costs. Engaging in these communication pitfalls could mean the end of a relationship. It would be worthwhile to ask yourself if you do any of the following:
Criticism is different from complaining. While complaining addresses a behaviour that you don’t like, criticizing says that it is the other person that you do not like. Although criticism may feel good for the moment because you are angry and want to feel better, the long-term effects of considering the other person’s feelings will be much more beneficial. Change will be more likely to happen if you address the behaviour, not criticize the person.
Example of complaining: I noticed that the dishes are still on the counter, and you told me that you would load the dishwasher after dinner. It bothers me because this might interfere with our plans later. Could you have it done within the hour please?
Example of criticizing: The dishes are still on the counter after you told me that you would load the dishwasher after dinner. You always let me down. You’re so lazy!
You’ll notice that criticizing often involves name-calling and labelling the other. Words like “always” and “never” are dangerous because you imply that they are not capable.
Contempt is the most destructive to a relationship, as it means having resentment, disrespect, and even hostility towards another. It can take the form of saying direct, hurtful statements. However, contempt can also be subtle, when jokes and humour are used that are condescending and insulting. Often, when a person has facial expressions that include sneers and rolling their eyes, it is an indication of contempt.
Often, when one has contempt for another person, they discount the positive and only focus on and remember the negatives. This can lead to the conclusion that the other person is the cause of all their misery. This is hardly ever accurate.
Contempt should be eliminated at all costs. This takes time and a lot of effort by both people in the relationship. One way to do this is to create an atmosphere of gratitude. Count and list all the things, no matter how small, that you appreciate the other doing or saying. Tell them when you notice something positive that they are doing and say thank you.
Many people engage in this common communication pitfall. When another person expresses a complaint (or worse, a criticism) about us, we can feel attacked and then need to defend ourselves. We explain what we are doing, why we are doing it, and why the other person is wrong. Often this involves repeating the same thing over and over again. In the end, you do not hear what the other is saying.
A way to stop this cycle is to resist the urge to defend yourself and simply say, “I understand. What can I do to make this better?” You will then be more likely to look at your own actions and words and see how this contributes to conflict within the relationship. If you make positive changes, it will change your relationship for the better.
Stonewalling occurs when one person refuses to respond to an issue or walks away. This can leave the other feeling angry and ignored. Although it can be good to leave for a quick time out when things get heated, it should not be left unaddressed for very long. Stonewalling may start out with good intentions (i.e. “I won’t say anything because I don’t want to argue,”) but what tends to happen is that you don’t let it go. Resentment starts to build up until a later time when there is an explosion of emotions, complaints, and criticism.
To avoid stonewalling, the issue should be addressed shortly after the issue comes up, in a respectful way. Emotions should be part of the dialogue, which has the effect of softening the impact of words. For instance, “I felt hurt when you didn’t ask me if I wanted to help plan the birthday party,” rather than, “You never ask me to be a part of your life. You’re so insensitive!”
Addressing the other person’s behaviour in a calm, respectful manner can have a positive effect on relationships. Making the effort to change the way you speak to others in your life can go a long way towards improving your own wellness.
After all, do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?
Cheryl Dizon-Reynante is a licensed therapist with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association.