The Trouble About Troubled Relations
Each person has had a unstable relationship. We understand the signs-- poor communication, icy silence, blow-ups, cold shoulders, fights (verbal or physical), and so one. Subtler elements of the above problem-behaviors intrude into our everyday interactions, even if we are relatively contented with our partner. In these relationships, the connection we have with one another is probably not great.
As an outpatient marriage and family therapist who deals a lot with couples struggling with these issues, I have found a few common themes that seem to make the difference between the "haves and the have nots" when it comes to compatible and satisfying relationships. We all know communication is fundamental, but what is not well know are what "elements" of communication make for a great relationship. It is one thing to say what we feel or ask for what we want. But there is one crucial dynamic and two crucial areas that need to be addressed. These three aspects of communication separate the effective from the ineffective communicators.
The first subject is the dynamic of the communication itself. What people do not realize is that there are actually two levels of communication. I call these "content" and "process." Content refers to the most superficial aspects of what is being communicated. It is the "issue" or concern or topic. If I complain about my wife leaving the cap off of the toothpaste tube, this is the content--the cap, the toothpaste tube and her leaving the cap off. Only about ten percent of what is communicated is actually communicated at the level of content.
The more important dynamic is what I call process. This includes all the non-verbal aspects that accompany the actual verbal description of the issue (content). Non-verbal cues are things like intensity of the spoken word, alacrity of the words, word choice, word timing and body language (which is actually quite full and complex). Process comprises about ninety percent of what is actually communicated between folks when speaking face-to-face. It still comprises up to fifty percent of what is communicated even in telephone conversations, because of the subtleties and richness of the voice mouthing the spoken words.
A significant aspect of the content-process dimension is congruence or incongruence. Congruence is when the speaker's non-verbal signals agree with or say the same thing as the words themselves. For example, if I am angry I should be frowning. Incongruence is when the non-verbal cues are different or possibly just contradict the verbal ones. For example, when I am angry I am smiling.
The two elements that most people omit when communicating are articulating the process and validating. Articulating the process is putting the non-verbal or process aspects of communication into words; that is, actually describing what is normally non-verbal with actual words. For example, if I were angry, normally I would show that feeling by my non-verbal cues (frowning, speaking more loudly...). If I articulate my process, I just say I am angry, using just the right word to capture the degree of anger (frustration, irritation, miffed, and so on). In other words, I don't leave anything to chance. I spell out exactly what I want to express at a feeling level, which it turns out, is about seventy-five percent of process communication.
The second area of communication is validation. This is when I paraphrase or put into my words the communication of my partner BEFORE I respond. And, I re-iterate the communication at both levels, content and process. (It also is helpful if my partner "checks" my paraphrasing to insure I don't miss anything.) This is the most rudimentary and bare presentation of these very important and often overlook or worse, omitted dynamics and crucial areas of communication. For a very detailed description, see my ebook, Why Relationships Fail.
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