Why Your Communication Problem Isn’t the Problem


Like most couples, my wife and I sometimes rehearse the same disagreements over and over again.

If your relationship is anything like ours, you know there’s a familiar rhythm to these episodes. The conversation could be about money, the kid(s), or whose turn it is to take the dog out.

The content of the disagreement is interchangeable.
Often you can feel yourselves gearing up for a ride on this tired, old merry-go-round.

On one occasion, we were having a very familiar disagreement on the topic of walking our dog. It was something about me not walking the dog often enough, early enough in the day, or something like that. As we stood facing each other in the kitchen, I was trying very hard to breathe, stay present, and not let my frustration take over. It can be really hard to remain curious about what your partner has to say when you’ve had the same discussion umpteen times. I don’t always do this well. However, on this particular day, I was really, really trying. After going back and forth for a while, she said, “You’re not hearing me.” Now, in fairness, my sweetheart sometimes (or even often) needs to remind me to not jump ahead of her when she’s speaking because I assume I know what she’s going to say. She’s usually bang on when she reminds me to listen to her story instead of for a story.**

However, on this particular day, something extraordinary happened when I took in those words, “You’re not listening to me!”. Poof! I had a flash of insight. Maybe it’s because I was really working to stay present. Maybe focusing partially on my breathing helped. Maybe it was a lightening bolt of assistance from what Rob Brezsny calls, “the Divine Wow”. Whatever the case, I looked into my partner’s eyes – her beautiful, warm brown eyes – and said from my heart:

“Honey, it isn’t that I’m not hearing you. It isn’t that I’m not listening to you. The thing is that, I just don’t agree with you. That’s different from not listening to you. And it’s not my job to agree with you in order to prove to you that I have heard you”.

In that moment, recognizing the distinction between not listening vs. not being in agreement over a particular issue felt like an enormous revelation! Our conversation took a different trajectory and we began to find our way to accepting each other’s perspective without feeling compelled to force a false consensus. Even better, we’ve been able to apply this insight to avoid a lot of conflict since!

To put it another way, what we’d been unconsciously doing as we went back and forth on this issue was using words and sentences in order to coerce the other person into agreeing with a particular position.

We had infused our communication with emotion, repetition, baggage, rhetoric, and other tactics – assuming the moral high ground, digging in heels, withdrawing from the discussion, etc. I don’t have to tell you that none of these fosters connection. Taking up a position about which we feel morally certain and brow-beating someone into agreement doesn’t make the space of the relationship feel safe – it makes it feel unsafe. And this doesn’t inspire us to lean into the space or move towards our loved one.

But we had been so locked in the back and forth that we didn’t notice that we were communicating clearly. Information was being transmitted and received. Yet, even though this predictable ritual got us nowhere… we repeated it until that day. We finally recognized that this was not a communication problem. It was a connection problem!

Like many couples, we lost sight of the fact that communication is supposed to be a means by which we – not the goal itself. Let me say it again: the purpose of communication is connection. And here’s the thing: so many issues in relationship get labeled ‘miscommunication’ when, in fact, communication isn’t really the problem.

What if, instead of polishing our rhetoric, massaging our message, or repeating our entrenched position one more time…what if we paused and asked:

  • Do I feel connected to my partner right now?
  • Do I feel connected to myself?
  • Do I feel connected to my love for this person? My admiration? My respect?
  • Do I feel connected to my highest vision of myself, my values, how I want to experience myself in relation to this other human being?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then the very next question could be, “How can I get reconnected to x, y, z”?

In a nutshell, what I began to discover on that day was that – when we prioritize ‘being right’ over resolution, closeness, or how our connection with another feels – everyone feels more alone in the relationship.

I believe that ‘being right’ is about the loneliest place you can be in relation to another human being.

It’s a hollow victory – and the costs are high, too high: insecurity, distance, resentment, mistrust. I could go on. I see it often in my private coaching work with couples. So now, I try to think of it this way when I’m tempted to run for that moral high ground: there’s only room for ONE person up there. And I’d rather spread out a blanket at the base of that high ground and have a picnic with my sweetheart – together.

And do you know what?

I don’t miss the view from up there. No matter how sweet I think the lofty heights of that moral high ground will feel…the truth is that there’s no one up there with me to share the view.

And that’s everything.

PS – I have a lot more to say on this subject (and I will) at my January 28 the workshop, Why Your Communication Problem Isn’t the Problem – 3 Keys to Total Relationship. Just click the workshop title for details!

I hope I get to see you there!

** This distinction between listening to a story vs. for a story is one I am grateful to have learned from the amazing, feminist social scientist, Karen Norum in her article, “Black (w)Holes: A Researcher’s Place in Her Research (2000)”.

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