- Brain imaging shows that people make judgments about what a person is saying based on emotional tone.
- Communication techniques learned in therapy could be ineffective if used with contradictory non-verbal language.
- To ensure communication techniques work with one's partner, it's best to examine the integrity of one's goal for the interaction first.
It’s not that communication techniques are inherently bad. The better ones are like the better diet tips (eat less, move more) — speak respectfully, listen attentively. But they’re unhelpful because people communicate primarily by emotional states, not words.
Brain imaging shows that we make judgments about what a person is saying based on emotional tone — body language, facial expressions, eye contact, level of distractedness, tone of voice — before the part of the brain that interprets the meaning of words is active.
If you feel that something your communication partner does is “stupid,” describing the behavior in the kindest language will not hide your true feelings, although it may well make you seem disingenuous or manipulative. Think of your gut reaction when someone uses "communication techniques" on you. Do you feel respected and valued or manipulated and patronized?
If It's Important, Know Your Goal
Be clear on your goal in speaking with your partner.
Do you want to:
- Get your partner to do something or stop doing something?
- Express yourself and be heard?
- Justify your negative feelings?
- Feel connected?
In intimate relationships, most people identify number 4 as the ultimate goal of communication. Yet their body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and eye contact almost always indicate that their goals are numbers 1-3. What seems to them as failures to communicate are really failures to manipulate, broadcast, and justify.
The problem with goal number 1 is that it requires submission, and human beings hate to submit. People will almost invariably resist what seem like attempts to control them. When they do submit, they do it resentfully. Accumulative resentment destroys relationships.
You don’t want submission in a love relationship; you want cooperation, which means you must show value. (It’s a simple formula: The valued self cooperates; the devalued self resists.) But you can’t just express value in words. Unless you feel it, the expression will be hollow and do more harm than good.
The trouble with goal number 2 is that strictly speaking, we can never express feelings without changing them. Mental focus amplifies and magnifies, creating a psychological equivalent to the observer effect in physics. Moreover, the brain loads into implicit memory other times you’ve experienced the feeling you’re trying to express. This gives historical meaning to your feelings that go beyond the current situation. Your communication partner will be focused on the situation (loaded with their own personal history) and will be unlikely to give the same meaning to the feelings you’re trying to express.
In intimate relationships, feeling heard is never enough. At those times when you felt heard in your relationship — when your communication skills worked — did you then feel closer, more connected, more valued? Did you feel more loving, caring, kind, and compassionate? If not, your partner probably felt on some level that your “communication” was part of an attempt to manipulate or control.
Goal number 3 falters because it’s difficult to justify negative feelings in a relationship without sounding accusatory, regardless of what communication techniques you employ. Justifying feelings is subject to confirmation bias — you will only consider evidence that supports the emotional state while overlooking everything else. Your focus will amplify and magnify the negative, making everything and everyone else less important, which is why you almost always get a reactive rather than validating response.
Connection is basically the attunement of emotional states. Though it doesn’t have to be positive (you can be attuned to your spouse at the funeral of a loved one), attunement cannot exist in a state of emotional reactivity, when a negative feeling in one causes chaos or shut down in the other. It is extremely difficult to regulate emotional reactivity with words. Even when there is no hidden motivation to convey how the other is failing or defective, merely attempting to translate the emotional experience into words runs a high risk of sounding artificial or, worse, manipulative or dishonest.
Positive attunement occurs through interest and caring, that is, one has to be interested in and show sympathy for the other. Interest and caring, like all emotional states, are conveyed primarily by facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, not by words or communication techniques.
Bottom line: Change your emotional state and the words will follow, but it won't work the other way around.
How Communication Techniques Can Make Intimate Relationships Worse
When people are emotionally disconnected, the use of communication techniques makes them feel manipulated, and not just because the most popular ones are patently unnatural, more suited for a therapist’s office than a living room, kitchen, or bathroom. There is almost always a hidden agenda in the use of communication techniques — goals 1-3 above.
Many marital fights begin with one accusing the other of misusing the communication techniques they learned in therapy:
- “You’re purposely not doing it right."
- "Anyone with common sense could get this."
- “I’m validating you more than you’re validating me!”
I’ve often heard survivors of communication therapy take great care to use “I-statements” when addressing a partner: “I feel blamed right now,” which is, of course, blaming the partner for blaming. These are not communication problems. The partners communicate exactly what they mean: “You are failing or defective.”
I strongly suspect that the disparity between the text and subtext in the use of communication techniques explains the findings of Schilling and associates in 2003 and Baucom and associates in 2006: The better many participants become at communication skills, the more likely they are to experience marital distress. That is bound to happen when the execution of communication techniques is the goal rather than connection.
Communication Results From Connection but Not Vice Versa
Problems in love relationships do not occur because people are too stupid to figure out common sense methods of communication, like "listen better" and "speak respectfully." In fact, it’s misleading to say that people in intimate relationships have communication problems at all, though it can feel that way to them in their frustration and sadness. It is more accurate to say that lovers in distressed and unhappy relationships have connection problems.
Communication in love relationships is a function of emotional connection. When people feel connected, they communicate fine, and when they feel disconnected they communicate poorly, regardless of their choice of words and communication techniques.
Before You Try to Communicate
Don’t think of getting your partner to do what you want or expressing yourself or justifying your negative feelings. Rather, ask yourself:
- Do I want to feel emotionally connected to my partner?
- Do I want to understand my partner’s perspective?
- Do I care how my partner feels right now?
- What do I love and value about my partner?
To be successful, you must adopt the attitude that you will love and value your partner whether you agree or not. Anything short of this devalues the connection (it’s not as important as what you want to talk about) and virtually guarantees emotional reactivity.
You Know How to Do It
Think of times when you felt emotionally connected to your partner. Communication was not a chore that required techniques, maneuvers, precision timing, or careful word choice. You were interested in talking to him or her. You put things awkwardly all the time, but it didn’t matter, because you cared. Emotional connection is a mental state that begins with a resolve to show compassion and love. Early in your relationship, you chose to feel connected, just as now, if you’re thinking about communication techniques, you’re choosing to feel disconnected.
If your relationship has not been too damaged by confusing communication with goals 1-3 above, try this. Forget about communication techniques and choose to feel connected right now. Try to get in touch with that longing in your heart that runs deeper than talking about issues. If you do, you’ll have a reasonable chance of your partner reciprocating. You will then communicate better about any issue. More importantly, you'll move closer to recreating a love beyond words. You'll actually experience intimacy rather than just talk about it.
Baucom, D. H., Hahlweg, K., Atkins, D. C., Engl, J., & Thurmaier, F. (2006). Long-term prediction of marital quality following a relationship education program: Being positive in a constructive way. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(3), 448-455.
Lavener, J. A., Karney, B.R., & Bradbury, T.N. (2017). Does couples’ communication predict marital satisfaction, or does marital satisfaction predict communication? Journal of Marriage and Family. 2016 Jun 1; 78(3): 680–694.
Schilling, E. A., Baucom, D. H., Burnett, C., Allen, E. S., & Ragland, L. (2003). Altering the course of marriage: The effect of PREP communication skills acquisition on couples' risk of becoming maritally distressed. Journal of Family Psychology, 17(1), 41-53.