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The Importance of an Effective Communication Style

How we communicate is as important as the content of our communication.

In previous posts we wrote about the importance of effective ways of communicating, especially when it comes to dealing with problems. Many issues that could be resolved won’t if our communication style prevent us from having a meaningful dialogue.

Effective styles allow couples to find solutions, but they can also have other benefits. We believe our partners are approachable and care about our issues, and we don’t have to avoid conflicts because we believe they’re constructive. When a disagreement ends, emotions de-escalate and partners come to an understanding they both can live with. Negative styles do not yield solutions. Instead, they often cause an argument to escalate and get out of control. Both partners usually feel less satisfied after an argument because they haven’t made any progress.

A major distinction between positive and negative styles is the kinds of emotions each produces. Along with our words, we send out a lot of emotional information non-verbally, through our posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact, and various gestures. When we use a negative style, we convey negative emotions along with information. Additionally, we may inadvertently communicate more than our feelings about the problem we’re talking about. We may also convey how we feel about our partner.

That’s why ineffective styles tend to escalate into bigger fights. The negative emotions that we send out provoke negative emotions as a response from our partner. The bad things we say are remembered by our partner, and that’s long after we’ve forgotten what was originally argued about. These memories can then carry over into other parts of the relationship.

The words we use when we argue are one way to determine whether our communication styles are positive or negative. Words are a measurable quantity, and so it is possible to evaluate a communication style by counting the number of positive and negative messages. Couples with good styles have as many as five times more positive to negative comments passed back and forth, or negative comments will usually be counter-balanced by jokes, laughter, and other forms of positive interaction. In contrast, the ratio of negative to positive messages may be as high as three to one in favor of the negative for ineffective styles. Of course, each of us will express some aggression or hostility during a fight because we can’t always control our emotions. However, if there are consistently much fewer positives to offset the negatives, and if negative feelings persist afterwards, we probably have communication problems.

Sometimes our expectations regarding the direction an argument will take can lead to misinterpretation. When someone is speaking to us, we don’t just receive information, we process it. We transform the information we receive so that it conforms to our experiences, motives, and expectations. In other words, we often see what we expect or want to see.

If we’re anticipating negativity, comments made by our partner can be taken as worse than they were intended. In fact, we can be so predisposed to negativity that we can be the ones who initiate it, and we do so for no reason that is apparent to our partner. We’re focused only on receiving hostility and we’re only thinking about our counter-attack, so even the slightest provocation may be enough to get us going. We’re also not really listening to our partner’s message and consequently we’re not thinking about solutions.

Along with words and expectations, the attitude we bring to a confrontation is part of our communication style. One is accommodation, the willingness to bend and negotiate. When we adopt an accommodating style, we approach conflicts with a mind toward reconciliation. From that perspective, we’re willing to make sacrifices and negotiate trade-offs so that both partner’s needs are met. Typically, those who are accommodating treat their partner’s issues seriously, are more empathetic and try to understand their concerns, and more willing to admit when they’re at fault. They also approach conversations with an open mind. When we approach disagreements with an open mind, we’re not limited in our expectations as to the outcomes. We’re able to consider alternatives, and that includes our partner’s way of thinking, so we’re not as likely to launch into a counter-attack when our partner tells us they have a problem.

With a non-accommodating style, we focus on our personal needs and interests rather than those of the partnership, and compromise is not first and foremost in our minds. We might try to browbeat our partner until they give in to our demands or accept our point of view. However, we should point out that getting our partner to scream uncle typically comes with a price. Partners on the receiving end of such intimidation tactics walk away feeling humiliated by their partner and negative about their relationship, not to mention that they don’t get their own needs considered or satisfied.

It’s certainly possible to develop better styles — communication styles are behaviors, and it is possible to change how we behave. You likely to find you’re having fewer arguments that get out of control, have faster paths to solutions, and feel more connected and supported by each other.

We might even find it’s not that difficult to change bad patterns. That’s because we already possess what we need for effective communication. We have a variety of styles in our arsenal, and we use different ones depending on with whom we’re speaking. When we interact with those outside our marriage, we pay more attention to how we communicate. We’re prone to think before we speak because we understand there are consequences to our words. If we apply the rules we use with others, that is, more controlled and thoughtful, we will have made an important step toward more effective communication with our partner.

That’s not to say that changing how we communicate is without its challenges. A negative style often develops into a habit that can be hard to break. Additionally, because styles feed on themselves, if one partner moves to the dark side, the overwhelming urge will be for the other to do the same.

So, the real struggle comes down to fighting your urges. Focus your attention on the issue at hand, keep your cool, and avoid escalation. In other words, don’t use a specific issue as a staging point to go through every other thing that you dislike about your partner or your relationship. Try to avoid ongoing expectations about how your partner will react to something you say. Just as negative styles provoke negative reactions, positive ones can produce positive reactions. If one partner can break the cycle of negativity, the other is likely to adopt a more positive style.

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