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How to Improve Communication – Dealing with Misunderstandings

One of the most common sources of misunderstandings and fights in the couples I see comes from an assumption that our partner is understanding what we communicate the way we intend them to understand it. You may be familiar with a game called “telephone”, in which a message gets passed orally from one person to another – often, the message has been completely transformed by the time it reaches the last person.

In a couple, even though there are only two people, the result is often similar to the “telephone” game. The message has to move through the following stages:

  • whatever we are feeling and thinking, internally
  • the words, tone and expressions we use to communicate those feelings and thoughts
  • what the other person perceives (which may be different from the words, tone, and expressions we think we were using)
  • whatever inferences, assumptions, feelings this triggers in the other person

These steps can happen in seconds, and can derail a discussion just as quickly. Especially when the stakes are high, such as when we are discussing a topic one or both partners might be sensitive to, it makes sense that the message received won’t always be the one intended, and that this will trigger a reaction we might not be expecting. Of course each reaction has to follow a similar path, potentially leading to additional misunderstandings and escalation.

  • Realize that just because you feel that you are being very clear, your partner may be understanding something quite different from what you were intending to communicate. This could come from any combination of how you are communicating and what it triggers in your partner.
  • Instead of arguing about whose “fault” it is that there was a misunderstanding, fix the misunderstanding.
  • When your partner’s response seems to indicate that her or she understood something quite different than what you intended (e.g. they are acting as though you are angry, but you don’t feel angry, they are defending themselves even though you don’t feel like you were attacking them), see if you can back up and check with your partner what he or she is reacting to and try to clarify what you were intending to communicate.
  • Check internally, to see if your partner might have picked up on something you were actually feeling, but weren’t aware of – maybe there is a part of you that feels a little angry, jealous, disappointed, etc. and maybe some of that seeped out into the words you used, your tone, or your expression. It’s not unusual for feelings that we are either unaware of, or that we are trying not to feel, to seep out as little jabs, sarcasm, etc.
  • When you are the listener, check to see if your assumptions are correct –for example, your partner may look angry to you, but the look you see as anger could really be something quite different.
  • Catching yourself in real-time while discussing a sensitive topic can be extremely difficult. Sometimes, it’s possible to realize after the discussion, when things have cooled down, where the misunderstandings occurred and to discuss that. Even if it is after the discussion, if handled properly, it can be useful to explore when and how the discussion got derailed.

Sometimes, it’s just too difficult to catch these patterns as they occur without help. If that’s the case, a good therapist can help you to slow things down so that you can see where and why these misunderstandings occur and to learn new ways to communicate more effectively.


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