One of the saddest things I see time and time again in my work as a Clinical Psychologist is partners who both love each other and try their best to show this to each other, and yet neither of them feel loved and appreciated. The same thing also happens frequently within families, either between parents and their children or between siblings. In the excellent book, ‘Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well’ by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, they highlight nicely why this often occurs:
Firstly, we are aware of our thoughts, feelings and intentions behind whatever actions we do. The other person is not. All they can see is what we say, how we say it, and our behaviour or body language. Our body language has been shown to influence approximately 55% of how others interpret and find meaning in what we are saying to them, with 38% being how we say it, and only 7% what we actually say (Mehrabian,1971). Worse still, these non-verbal cues are generally out of our awareness, meaning we don’t see what they see either.
Secondly, we are not able to fully control how our message will be taken in and interpreted by the other person, no matter how precisely we choose our words or actions. This is because how someone understands what we say is based on their past experiences, core beliefs about others or our role (partner, sibling, parent or child), and their expectations and assumptions of what we are like or how we should be. This creates particular biases before we have even opened our mouth, and affects how they are impacted by what we do and say.
Lastly, if we make a mistake or an error or upset someone, we will usually attribute it to the context or situational factors rather than seeing it as something to do with our character (e.g. “I didn’t wash the dishes because I was running late for work”). Conversely, When others make a mistake or upset us, we often attribute it to a personality characteristic or an unchangeable flaw (e.g. “you didn’t wash the dishes because you are lazy and disrespectful”). What happens next is that we usually criticise their character, which they rightly become defensive over, and they try to explain the context, which we tell them is just an excuse. When our character is being criticised, the opposite happens, and we wonder how they can be so cruel and unforgiving (making further judgments about their character and personality). It’s no wonder that relationships are so tricky.
What can we do?
1. Develop Active Listening Skills
Rather than assume the intent of others based on how they made us feel, it is much better to try and understand their perspective first and show this understanding through the skills of active listening, including:
• clarifying: asking for more information on what they were talking about
• paraphrasing: repeating back what was said to you in another way
• reflecting: showing that you understand how they felt
• summarising: especially if someone has been speaking for a few minutes on a topic
Some people will get annoyed if you don’t fully understand them or what they are feeling in the moment, but even this is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the other person and to get better attuned with how they think and feel going forward. Most people will appreciate the effort.
2. Practice Effective Communication
As part of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), Marsha Linehan teaches interpersonal effectiveness skills. She says that if we want to get an objective met when communicating, try the following four steps:
You might be sceptical, but it really can work, and it does become more comfortable with practice.
3. Avoid the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse
John Gottman, the legendary relationship researcher, claims that he can successfully predict with a 91% accuracy which couples will get divorced in the future after observing them for only five minutes. He says that if you want to avoid a later break-up (the apocalypse), it is essential to prevent the following four things (the four horsemen) that can significantly erode the goodwill of a relationship over time. These are:
*To see the full article by Dr Damon Ashworth, please click here.