Don’t Worry About What to Say

Focus on your goals and emotional state when trying to communicate.

Posted Apr 08, 2015

Many popular magazines and websites offer various bullet lists on how to improve your marriage through better “communication.” The same venues regularly feature weight loss bullet lists. You probably know the research findings about the latter—they range from unhelpful to damaging. Research would likely show similar effects for any communication techniques that can be expressed in bullet lists, if they were taken seriously enough to garner a research grant.

It’s not that communication tips are inherently bad. The better ones are like the better diet tips (eat less, move more): speak respectfully, listen attentively. They’re unhelpful because people do not communicate primarily by words but by emotional states. Brain imaging shows that we make judgments about what a person is saying before information reaches the part of the brain that interprets the meaning of words. These tacit judgments are most likely based on emotional demeanor—body language, facial expressions, eye contact, level of distractedness, tone of voice.

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

What is your primary goal in speaking with this person?

  1. Get your communication partner to do something
  2. Express yourself and feel heard
  3. Justify your negative feelings
  4. Communicate
  5. Feel connected.

In my clinical experience, people tend to identify number 3 in work contexts and 4 in intimate relationships. But their body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and eye contact almost always indicate that their goals are numbers 1-3.

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 and impairs teamwork and accomplishment not to mention making gainful communication almost impossible.

Most of the time, people don’t really want submission, they want cooperation. The cooperation formula is simple: The valued self cooperates; the devalued self resists. But you can’t just express value for the person from whom you want cooperation. 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 his/her own personal history) and is 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 usually goes with goal number 2. But 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 negative rather than validating response. People don't like feeling unimportant.

Goal number 4 can work if you honor the fact that communication is not broadcasting; it's an interchange of ideas or perspectives. The task, if you want to communicate successfully, is not merely to say what you want to say in a better way, it’s also to understand your partner’s perspective more fully, which you will certainly fail to do while thinking of your communication technique. It's never enough to say what you want to say; you must also understand what meaning your partner gives to what you say.

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, i.e., one has to be interested in and show sympathy for the other and vice versa. 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. Feel it before you say it!

Bottom line: Change your emotional state and the words will follow, but it won't work the other way around.

In the second part of this post, we’ll see why emphasizing communication techniques tends to make things worse.

How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It: Finding Love beyond Words