Assuming we know everything there is to know about our parter, a particular situation, or even ourselves sets us up to miss out on a crucial aspect of effective communication ~ curiosity. Adopting a stance of authentic curiosity opens us up to a wider array of information and options. The opposite of curiosity is certainty, which narrows the possibility of taking in new information. There is something about talking to someone who thinks they have it all figured out or that they know everything that is so off-putting. Is this how we want to be experienced by others? When coaching couples in effective communication, I stress the importance of “listening to understand” instead of “listening to respond. ” In order to understand our partner’s world, we must be curious about it. It also pays to be curious about ourselves: our motives, agendas, thoughts, feelings, etc. Elegant dialogue between couples both rests on and cultivates curiosity in both self and other.
Another important aspect of good communication is the capacity for both parters to feel safe enough to express their truth. If one person does not trust that another can manage their own reactivity in response to hearing something they may deeply dislike, then it invites the other to lie. Ellyn Bader, a master couples therapist, refers to “lie inviting behavior” as the “verbal and nonverbal things a partner might communicate to let the other know that the truth may not be welcome”. This can seem paradoxical. No one blatantly says “yes, please, lie to me”. However, if I have conditioned my partner to know that if they tell me their truth, I will not be able to handle it or will punish them in some way, then the odds of them being fully truthful with me are diminished. This deserves a lot more attention and I will give it that in a later blog post.
The other side of lie inviting behavior (conveying that we can not tolerate hearing our partners reality) is “shut my partner down behavior.” We need to speak our truth in such a way that our partner can hear it. In previous posts, we looked at the toxicity created by criticism, contempt, blaming and shaming. Effective communication does not stand a chance if we speak to our partner in such a way that they feel they have no other option but to withdraw or shut down as a means of protecting themselves from our onslaught.
Pulling this all together, we need to maintain curiosity, cultivate safety, have a willingness to hear things we may not want to hear and to speak to one another in respectful ways, being mindful that it is not just our words that matter; our voice tone and body language matter a lot too. Effective communication is thwarted otherwise.
In the next blog post, I will introduce a structured way of dialoguing that, when combined with the attributes shared in this post, will give communication it’s very best shot at success. Until then, peace.