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Vera and Ben are sitting at the dinner table, just finishing their meal. Ben starts talking about his boss. He is upset about something that happened during the day. Vera is focused on finishing her meal and then piling the plates to carry them to the kitchen. She looks at the table and does not give Ben any non-verbal listening signals. Ben is in the middle of a sentence when she gets up and walks to the open-concept kitchen. He stops talking. He thinks, “She is not listening. She doesn’t care that I am upset. She is never interested when I talk about my work.”
Theresa and Carl are taking a break from riding their bikes; they sit down on a bench enjoying a warm summer’s evening. Theresa brings up a problem she has with one of their daughters. She asks Carl if he could talk to their daughter on her behalf. Carl does not respond instantly. Theresa thinks, “He doesn’t want to support me. He is never there for me when I need him.”
Christoph has been struggling with alcohol, but to save his marriage, he has been working on limiting his alcohol consumption to two glasses of wine two days a week. When he travels for business, he and his husband Peter stay in touch by phone or text. Tonight, Peter does not get a response to his phone call or his texts. Chris is ashamed that he drank more than his limit and avoids the conversation. Meanwhile, Peter worries that Christoph fell off the wagon and completely blacked out.
Communication is faulty at the best of times, not to mention when we are stressed and worried. “When we feel good, we are sailing along, still making lots of errors in communication, still creating mistuned moments—but largely unaware as our good feelings allow for larger margins for slip-ups. This margin lowers considerably with stress” (Tatkin, In Each Other’s Care, 48).
Most of the time, we are misunderstanding each other without realizing it. Stan Tatkin calls communication with your partner “murky” and “downright difficult.” The more familiar we feel with each other, the more communication shortcuts we take, and we think our partners should know how we feel or what we think.
When we first meet our partner, we put the most effort into communication. We want to ensure we are understood, and the other person is alright because we want to avoid losing them to a misunderstanding. Our brain always strives to conserve energy by automating processes. Many things we learn become automatic, for example, walking, riding a bike, writing, driving a car etc. “We automate everything, including our partners.” (Tatkin, In Each Other’s Care, 29) After a while, we imagine that we know them, and they know us. That usually means communication goes downhill.
Nobody is a mind-reader, even though we tend to behave as if we are and as if our partner should also be able to have this skill. Most of the time, our assumptions are at least partially or even completely wrong. One useful communication strategy is to check with a simple question whether we got it right: “Let me make sure I understand…” or “We may not be talking about the same thing. Are you saying…” In the beginning, reflecting back to your partner what you have heard feels strange, but once you get used to it, this habit helps to avoid faulty assumptions.
Another issue is what the human brain does with silences or gaps, as the examples above illustrate. Dr. Rick Hansen explains that our brain has a negativity bias: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. As the brain evolved, it was critically important to learn from negative experiences – if one survived them! … So the brain has specialized circuits that register negative experiences immediately in emotional memory.” (R. Hansen) Positive events do not stick in the brain in the same way. This negativity bias means that our left brain tends to fill in gaps with negative meaning over positive meaning. Evolution taught us to be pessimistic and cautious rather than optimistic and assume the best.
However, micro communication, like non-verbal signals, sounds, or a quick explanation, helps to fill in the gaps the other person’s negatively biased brain is otherwise filling in with negative assumptions. Filling in the gaps for our partner guarantees that we stay attuned and connected. The interactions above could have gone more smoothly. Vera could have avoided the misunderstanding by making eye contact with Ben, nodding, or making other sounds indicating she was listening. When getting up to go to the kitchen, she could have said, “I am still listening. I am just putting the plates in the kitchen and getting us coffee.” Carl could have explained his silence by replying to his wife, “Let me think about this. I am trying to decide whether that is the best strategy and how I could help you.” And Christoph could have texted Peter. “I had more to drink than I should have, but I am okay. I don’t want you to worry.”
Micro communications create bridges and avoid unnecessary upsets that cost time and are emotionally and mentally exhausting for everybody involved. Filling in the gaps for our partner is not just kind, thoughtful and considerate but smart. After all, we are in the same boat (Jayson Gaddis) or “in each other’s care” (Stan Tatkin) or—as Terry Real points out—we need to think relational. When we are focused on the unit, the “us,” we can train our brains to feel safe with each other, knowing our partners will put the relationship above their self-interests. Filling in the gaps to accommodate our brain’s negativity bias does not take much, just the willingness to see ourselves and our partner as closely interdependent. Our partnership and family are our biospheres that must be kept clean and disrupted-free. That guarantees feelings of safety, connection, relaxation and peace. As one of the longest studies on happiness shows, harmonious relationships keep us healthy and allow us to live longer and happier lives. To read more about that Harvard study, please go to What Makes a Happy Life?
To learn more about changing your relational stance and communication patterns,
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