The 3 Dimensions of Communication
Plus 6 tips to help you get the most out of them
Posted Sep 29, 2015
Good communication has vast implications. For couples who enjoy it, they are able to take their potential to the limit. And those without it? Many couples fail to connect erotically because of poor communication. Others, like those who argue constantly about money, would see their savings--in terms of stress—skyrocket if they were able to generate emotional safety as part of the way they talked to one another. A good first step in that direction would be to understand how that can be done.
Despite almost universally wanting improvement in communication, partners--when asked to define how it works—tend to stumble, mumble and bumble, though not always in that order. That’s because, for too many, communication resides in-between the far side of mystery and the near end of bewilderment. When asked whether communication has a structure, the most common response is a quizzical look. Some hold that good communication requires talent--like being able to sing on key. These believe that if you can’t hit the right notes in conversation you are doomed to a life of isolation, insecurity and loneliness. How do we overcome these misleading notions?
What do you think about this? Would it make sense for anyone to say that being able to derive sustenance from food is a talent that only a gifted few possess? I don’t think I could find anyone to make that argument. Yet deriving the qualities that go into making us truly human, integrating the capacities that allow us to form our sense of self results from, and depends on, communication. As surely as we utilize food to form the foundation—skin, teeth, bones, internal organs and so on--that sustains our physical existence; so we utilize meanings derived from experiences with others to form the neural networks that become the core of our individual identities and of our connection to humanity at large. In short, without participating in effective human communication throughout our life span, our capacity to love and cherish others, as well as ourselves, cannot thrive.
The structure of communication involves three interconnected, yet separate, dimensions. The first is the most superficial. It involves the literal dialogue that partners say to one another. Think of a script, just words written out on a page and then spoken blandly. The reading of the words would be akin to the first dimension. Communication in the first dimension takes into account considerations like: is the message clear and complete enough to convey all pertinent information?
Jack: I get out of work at 5 today. Can you meet me at 14th Street at 5:30 pm?
Val: Sure. See you then.
At 5:30 pm Jack is waiting at 14th Street and Fifth Avenue. Val is waiting at 14th and Seventh Avenue. Each is angry. They are both sure they have done the right thing and each is indignant with the other.
Their communication was clearly insufficient to make the meeting possible. But at the time Jack assumed that Val knew that he meant 14th Street and Fifth
Avenue because the last time they had met in that area, it was there. Val, on the other hand, was confident that Jack was aware that she’d be waiting for him at 14th and Seventh Avenue because she assumed he knew she would be taking the Seventh Avenue subway. Leaving out important details in a message, mishearing, misspeaking---these flaws in the messages that partners share with one another can cause resentment and damage to trust. Miscommunication—in the first dimension—is highly correctible if partners commit to articulating the details of what they are planning to do, and to learning from mistakes rather than focusing on assigning blame.
In the second dimension, deeper than the first, we identify attitudes--like contempt, idealization, distrust, frustration as well as affection, admiration, appreciation—that color the meaning of the spoken words. The second dimension refers to the emotional subtext of the message. If Jack were to say, “I am glad to see you,” with a warm tone and a smile he would likely be credited with having sent a warm, sincere message. Using the same words, if his lips were pursed in a sneer, the meaning of that same phrase would be understood quite differently—as sarcastic and cold. The meaning of words spoken (first dimension) are colored by their emotional undertone (second dimension) and if lack of clarity exists as to what is going on in the second dimension the likelihood is that the message will be difficult to understand.
Despite the importance of the first two dimensions, it is the third that is most profound. It is the dimension in which mindfulness, reflection and emotional safety are generated. Let’s say Jack says, as mentioned above says, “It’s good to see you,” with a sneer on his lips. Val's immediate reflex would be to snap at him, to respond with sarcasm or an insult. However, were she to reflect on how and why he is saying what he is saying she might consider a number of reasons--having little to do with her-- that might have prompted him to greet her in this ambiguous and seemingly unfriendly manner.
Instead of lashing out she might, respond with a question like, “What’s going on with you? I just got here and I feel like you are pushing me away.” This response is self-expressive, self-respecting and, at the same time, does not accuse, inflame or blame. Let's say her response, as it sometimes does, prompts Jack to reflect on what he said and how he said it. He could then say, “Hey, I’m sorry. I guess I’m in a kind of a bad mood. I had this run in with my co-worker and to tell you the truth, I’m not feeling too good about myself right now.” Instead of having the conversation turn into an escalating battle based on Jack’s less than welcoming remark, the couple find themselves communicating, making themselves vulnerable to the each other. Val’s dip into the third-dimension here helped her to buy a moment—to slow down the interaction—rather than respond with knee-jerk reactivity.
Learning to practice responding in this kind of three-dimensional rhythm helped this couple avoid a lot of unnecessary and unproductive misunderstandings. By the way,Val’s first impulse, on experiencing Jack’s greeting was to assume that he was either feeling angry at her or wanted her to feel devalued or both. Giving herself a few additional moments to take in what else might be going on between them gave them both a chance to regain their composure and reconnect. That’s because the third dimension makes it possible for you, moment by moment, experience by experience, to track direction and movement in your relationship.
In the third dimension we exercise intentionality. We ask ourselves: is the communication resulting from the first and second dimensions of whatever message is spoken creating greater or less emotional safety in the here and now.That question is a key function of the third dimension. It acts as a ground to slow down emotional reactivity.
Here are a six quick tips for accomplishing this in your life situation:
1) Listen to yourself as you listen to your partner (or friend). Use the three-dimensional schema to evaluate whether your conversation is or is not generating emotional safety.
2) Commit yourself to doing this regularly—three-dimensional communication is not an isolated event, it is an on-going practice that will make a huge difference in your communication satisfaction. Try to enlist your partner’s commitment to do this as well.
3) Commit yourself to exhibiting curiosity about how your partner understands or misunderstands what you are saying.
4) Work hard at leaving behind whatever preoccupation you have with who is right and who is wrong in a conversation. Instead focus on whether or not emotional safety is being generated by how and what you and your partner say to one another.
5) Focus on helping your partner feel heard; and ask your partner to do the same for you.
6) Become familiar with your knee-jerk responses and make a conscious effort to substitute thoughtful responses for automatic responses—except in situations in which danger is posed.
My new book, I’m Not a Mind Reader: Using Three-Dimensional Communication to Make a Better Relationship offers an in-depth exploration of the dimensions introduced here. For further discussion of emotional safety click here. Questions and comments are welcomed, encouraged and appreciated.. Thanks for reading!