This link: "Effective Communication"
Article IIb. Six Reasons Why A, B, & C
Are Not Always the Same
by Reuben E. Gross, PhD, ABP, ABPP, LMFT
Article IIb is a continuation of article IIa, please click here for article IIa (The A, B,& C of Communication). Briefly stated, the complex enterwining of feelings and thoughts that lie within the speaker's mind and heart some of which dominate his conscious mind as he talks as well as some of which lie below the level of awareness (as he speaks) and are in his unconscious, constitute what is referred to as the "A."
The Words, tone of voice, and body language conveyed by the speaker is referred to as the "B."
Now for the "C": when the listener pays careful attention and is astute and correctly interprets what is conveyed (the "B"), and also when he misinterprets what is being conveyed we call that the "C." In short, the listener's interpretation of what he hears is the "C." When A, B, and C are exactly the same, we experience a perfect communication but many of us fall short of that ideal.
Often, the speaker does not say what is on his mind, or, if he does, he fails to get his point across. In both cases there is a breakdown in the communication and a resultant gap in the relationship. Let's consider some of the reasons why "A," "B," and "C" might not be equal to each other.
If you wish to go directly to any of the reasons listed below, please click on it.
I. Poor Communicators Do Not Reveal The Complexity of Their Emotional State; They Reveal Only Part of What is Going On Inside of Them, Hence Their "B" is Not The Same as Their "A" Click Here
II. Communication Breaks Down When "C" is Not The Same as "B" Due to: 1. Inattention,
2. Selective Hearing, 3. Misinterpreting, or Mind Reading on the part of the listener. Click Here
III. People Miscommunicate Under The Influence of Anger; Their "B" is Not The Same as Their True "A"
1. Using the "Never" word, 2. Using the "Always" word, 3. Making a blanket statement, and 4. Name calling. Click Here
IV. It is Poor Communication When The Speaker Knowingly Distorts What He Truly Believes or
Feels in His Heart. His "B" is Not The Same as His "A." Click Here
V. It is Poor Communication When "B" is Not The Same as "A" due to an Honest Mistake on the Part of the Speaker. Click Here
VI. Other Reasons Why Misinterpretation Takes Place: 1. The Role of the Listener 2. The Role of the Speaker Click Here
Detailed Illustrations With Case History
Examples of the VI Points Listed Above
Reason I. Poor Communicators Do Not Reveal The Complexity of Their Emotional State; They Reveal Only Part of What is Going On Inside of Them, Hence Their "B" is Not The Same as Their "A"
Case History One:
Annette, a 32 year old housewife with two young children complained to me that her husband, Jack, a 39 year old successful contractor, always criticized her when she was on the phone.
He was especially harsh when he would come home from work and see her on the phone at which time he would invariably yell angrily "Why are you always on the phone?" The words that came out of his mouth were his "B." His words constituted a loud, angry outburst, and clearly a criticism in spite of the fact that they were phrased as a question.
In exploring the matter during counseling, Jack discovered that in addition to his anger he was also experiencing disappointment and hurt, his "A". And so, shouting angrily at Annette when he came home did not convey to her all of his thoughts and feelings, his "A." He admitted to me that his unexpressed "A" included such sentiments as, "I missed you, and now that I am home, I would like to spend some time with you, but I can't because you are on the phone," and this is what he should have said. However, those tender thoughts were unconscious. The only conscious thoughts he had were the angry ones. At other times, he was unconsciously thinking and should have said: "When I come home and you ignore me, I feel rejected and unimportant to you, I don't feel that I am your first priority." At still other times, a more accurate expression of his "A" would have been "When I come home and you ignore me by continuing to talk on the phone, it hurts me and angers me because I believe that I should be your first priority rather than the person you are talking to." As noted, Jack came nowhere near expressing all of his true feelings and thoughts on this matter...in fact, he had never gone deeper into his psyche to discover the emotions that lay beneath the veneer of his anger. Jack's "A" and "B" were not only not the same, they were, in fact, miles apart. By not expressing his tender feelings towards Annette, he miscommunicated.
Understandably, no one would have expected Jack to express all of his feelings so elegantly while he was taking off his coat, fuming, and Annette was still on the phone. However, in an ideal situation, later that evening or at a relaxed time over the weekend, if Jack had been more introspective, more attuned to his emotions and a better communicator, he might have sat down with Annette to discuss his anger, explore its underpinnings and reveal the rest of his feelings which included his emotions of rejection and hurt, the real "A." But this did not happen because although Jack was aware of his anger when he came home, he was not attuned to other emotions and the complexity of his emotional state. Since his feelings of rejection and hurt had barely surfaced to his conscious mind—if at all—how could he have possibly expressed them to Annette?
After meeting alone with Jack to explore not only his anger, but also his underlying feelings of being ignored and hurt, I encouraged him to share them with Annette at our next meeting which was going to be a joint session. When Jack revealed his real "A," there was a dramatic change in Annette's attitude towards her husband. His revelation of his softer feelings were in stark contrast to the tough, independent, self-sufficient image he had been presenting to her all along. The fact that he made himself vulnerable to his wife by revealing this side of his personality opened a wonderful channel of communication between them that had never before existed.
Case History Two:
In a situation similar to that of Annette and Jack's "homecoming experience," Jeff, a 42 year old regional sales manager, complained that instead of consistently getting a warm greeting from his wife when he came home from work, he would be attacked by his wife, Allison, 45 years old, mother of their children and full time homemaker. The Attack was her "B."
Both had married later in life and now had three young children at home. In discussing the matter with the couple, Jeff admitted that Allison's outbursts were not the norm. He then sheepishly admitted that they only occurred when he came home later than usual without having called home to advise Allison of his delay. It was only on those occasions that Allison would get mad and either shout "Damn it, you're late again!" or she would just ignore him.
During an individual session with Allison she reported that she took no enjoyment in shouting at her husband or ignoring him. She was always happier when she greeted him with warmth and affection. She explained that her angry outbursts were due to the fact that Jeff did not do enough to help with the children, and that the children did not have enough opportunities to spend time with their father. Often, what she had in mind was (her "A") "The kids are already asleep, it's such a shame that they didn't see their daddy before they went to bed." On other occasions she was thinking "I married you because I love you, but you seem to be married to your job, you don't seem to be eager to come home and this hurts me." And on still other occasions she was thinking "I am disappointed and angry that you are hardly around to assume your responsibilities with the kids, and that you see it as 100% my burden." In addition to the above reasons for her displeasure, she was especially angry on those evenings when he had specifically promised to be home at a certain time, but came home an hour or two later, without even alerting her, thereby messing up her schedule.
Allison was certainly successful in conveying her frustration and anger at Jeff's tardiness. Unfortunately however, her short angry outbursts as well as her cold shoulder later in the evening did very little to convey her other thoughts and feelings on Jeff's late homecomings. In this situation too, Allison's communication, her "B," came nowhere near expressing her true feelings and thoughts, her "A."
During another individual session with Allison, we discussed her unexpressed emotions towards her husband, and I encouraged her to communicate them to him in a loving, rather than angry, fashion. She followed my advice; this approach made a very different impression on Jeff. It inspired him to rethink his priorities and make some adjustments in his schedule which allowed him to spend more time with his family and participate more actively in satisfying the needs of his wife and children.
Reason II. Communication Breaks Down
When "C" is Not The Same as "B"
In some cases the speaker is quite good at saying exactly what is on her mind, but the listener does not get the message that was transmitted. The "C" that he hears, i.e. his interpretation of what was said is quite different from the "B" that she actually said.
This type of communication breakdown could occur for a variety of reasons including:
(b) Selective hearing, that is, he only hears what he wants to hear, and blocks out the rest
(c) Misinterpreting, or mind reading. In misinterpreting, the speaker may make an innocent statement; in mind reading, the speaker hasn't even said a word. In both cases their partner "hears" a criticism or "senses" an imminent attack and reacts accordingly
Reason II. (a). Illustrating When "C" is Not the Same as "B" Due to Inattention
There are occasions when the speaker does a great job in translating her thoughts into clear language, "A" = "B," but fails to get her targeted listener's attention. Perhaps she shouted something from another room thinking that he heard, but he was doing something while she was talking and since he did not give her his full attention, he misheard her. In a similar situation the "listener" didn't even know that someone was talking to him and therefore didn't hear anything. In such a case, "C," "what the listener hears" is not the same as "B," "what the speaker said" and the communication fails.
Reason II. (b). Illustrating When "C" is Not The Same as "B" Due to Selective Hearing
In the case of "selective hearing," the man may have heard the part wherein his wife/partner described a problem but he "didn't hear" the part where she asked him to do something about it. Or she may have asked him to do something now, or today, and he only heard what had to be done, but "didn't hear" when she wanted it done. His "C" is not the same as the "B." The "selective hearing" type of miscommunication can range from a communication informing him about something he should know, requesting him to take the children somewhere, do something for one of them, make a phone call, pay a bill, bring something home from a store, consolidate a family plan, be at a certain place at a certain time, or attend to virtually anything.
Sometimes it is the husband who complains about his wife's failure to discharge her responsibilities, and expresses his disappointment that she ignores him no matter how many times he reminds her. At other times it's the wife who complains about her husband's failure to discharge his responsibilities. Conveniently, neither of them "hears" what their spouse tells them.
In a cartoon by Reynolds, a wife gives the following orders to her husband:
"Go to the store; lay down the mulch; wash and wax the car; get the kids at school; rent some videos; and finish the rest of the dishes."
BUT DUE TO SELECTIVE HEARING, HE HEARS ONLY THE WORDS IN RED:
"GO to the store; LAY DOWN the mulch; wash AND wax the car; GET the kids at school; rent SOME videos; and finish the REST of the dishes."
Reason II. (c). Illustrating When "C" is Not The Same as "B" Due to Misinterpreting or Mind-Reading
The difference between "misinterpreting" and "mind reading":
In "misinterpreting" a person says something and the other person puts his own meaning into the statement because he assumes that he knows what his partner "really meant."
In "mind reading," a person does not say anything, but the mind reader reacts to his partner based on his assumption that he knows what she is going to say before she says it.
In both misinterpreting and mind-reading, the "listener" often reacts angrily because he mistakenly reads a criticism or attack in the other person's intent when, in fact, a criticism or attack may have been the farthest thing from the other person's mind.
Case History Three:
Lisa, 41, an articulate assistant manager at a bank, complained to me that her husband Fred, 49, an actuary with a responsible position at a large insurance company, didn't share the events of the day or his thoughts and feelings with her. She would have liked him to discuss his day, ask her about her day, give his opinion on people that they both knew, or on matters that they both experienced. Fred was a highly educated man, but rather quiet, and not as articulate or assertive as his wife. When asked about Lisa's complaint, Fred replied that whenever he disagreed with her, "she took it as an attack and it was no pleasure talking to her since sooner or later I am going to disagree and then be confronted with her defensiveness."
For some reason, Lisa, generally a friendly person, could not handle disagreement with her husband without seeing it as a threat. It became clear that Lisa was misinterpreting her husband, i.e., reading into his words something he did not have in his mind, in this case, an attack. What she "heard" was not what he actually said—or intended.
In exploring the matter, it emerged that Fred rarely complimented or praised his wife for her professional—or even domestic—accomplishments, and she had a mild but chronic feeling that he did not appreciate her or respect her opinion. Since Fred was a lot less articulate than Lisa, and talking was not his "thing," his rare positive comments to her were not made with much enthusiasm, and were generally lost in the shuffle of other things about which they may have been conversing at the time. Lisa thirsted for regular conversations and discussions with Fred with full expression of his thoughts and feelings, but rarely got them. On those few occasions, when he did comment, if he differed from her, she felt even more isolated than usual and took it as an attack, or at least that he was distancing himself from her. This reaction discouraged him from engaging in conversation.
I explained to Lisa that she and Fred were in a vicious cycle. Lisa soon realized her contribution to this cycle and that in order to break the cycle, she would have to give up her defensive posture when her husband disagreed with her. I encouraged her to compliment Fred when he expressed his true opinions on a subject, to thank him for his forthrightness, and to express her appreciation for his honest involvement in the discussion. She was to let him know that she enjoyed talking to him and hearing his ideas and opinions even when he did not agree with her. She took my suggestion. Her new approach made him less afraid of her sensitivity, and defensiveness. Although Fred was still apprehensive, he found that Lisa's greater acceptance of his disagreements gradually altered his apprehensive attitude towards her. Accordingly, he began to "open up" to his wife; this resulted in a noticeably increased level of communication in their lives.
I also encouraged Fred to show more appreciation and give more praise to Lisa. This helped build a safety cushion between them. Lisa, gradually became less sensitive to Fred's disagreements, and did not jump to negative conclusions about them. The resulting changes altered the nature of their interactions and Lisa and Fred were both gratified by their improved and increased interactions.
Case History Four:
In another case of misinterpretation, a 57 year old wife, Nannette, complained that her husband, Victor, 62, was fearful of her criticism even after 31 years of marriage and three grown children, two of whom were married. She lamented that it was virtually impossible for her to remind Victor to do anything without provoking a fight. For example, if she told him "don't forget to lock the door" he would take it as an accusation that he never locked the door. In this case too, Victor was reading an accusation into Nannette's kindly reminder. His "C" was a misinterpretation of the innocent "B" that she stated.
Unfortunately, with many couples, there is good reason for the "remindee" to be upset. Usually there is a long history of forgetfulness on the "remindee's" part, and the reminders do come with an annoyed voice. In these situations, the sensitized "remindee" sees all reminders as a criticism.
Case History Five:
Sometimes, misinterpretation takes place over a single major decision and the consequences last for years. In one couple that I saw, both members had had a successful career when they first met and married. Bob, 43, was a computer engineer and very knowledgeable about setting up networks for large corporations. His wife, Frances, now 43, had been an account executive in an advertising agency until she gave birth to her first child at which time she gave up her career to build a family. In later years, every time Frances referred to having given up her career to raise the children, her husband felt uncomfortable and annoyed because he would "hear" her say "you forced me to give up my career." Frances denied having the accusation in mind.
Misinterpretations are quite common between spouses who have a history of being at odds with each other. Over the months and years, they have both suffered a lot because of the numerous attacks and counterattacks that they have experienced with each other. Sadly, an air of hostility and distrust of their partner's intentions now pervades their relationship. Under these circumstances, both are quick to see an attack in just about anything their spouse says. The fact that many of these defensive individuals are also poor listeners makes the situation worse because they don't give their partner a chance to complete what he is saying. This makes it easy for each person to jump to a hasty conclusion, and to attribute negative attitudes to their partner even when none exist.
Reason III. People Miscommunicate Under the Influence of Anger
"One Word Can Start a War." Author Unknown
Reason III (a). Using the "Never" Word
Reason III (b). Using the "Always" Word
Reason III (c). Making a Blanket Statement
Reason III (d). Name Calling
Reason III (a). Using The "Never" Word:
Sometimes, under the influence of an intense emotion, e.g, anger, hurt, disappointment, a person will blurt out an exaggerated description of the probleme.g., "We never go out," when in fact, in a calm moment, the person will admit that they do go out, but not often enough. Or the person might say, "you never kiss me when I come home," "we never have sex," "you never pick up after yourself," "you're never around when I need you," "you never let me finish what I am saying," "you never talk to me," "you never say you love me," "you're never satisfied, no matter what I do," "you're never happy," or a myriad of other "nevers."
When using "never" the speaker does not deliberately say something dishonest, but because of his anger, hurt, disappointment or other painful emotion, he exaggerates his thoughts. Whatever the reason, the listener finds the accusation offensive; this leads him to focus on and dispute the "never" component of the statement because he feels righteously indignant at the unfair accusation. When a person says "never," the listener is apt to ignore any elements of truth in the original statement, and what could have been the beginning of constructive discussion about a problem turns into a heated argument and often turns into a fight.
Reason III (b). Using the "Always" word.
Other complaints which use the "always" word are of the same genre. For example: "you always criticize me," "you always nag," "you always shout at the kids," "you're always late," "you're always complaining," "you always think of yourself first," "you always get angry," "you're always on the phone with your mother...your friends...somebody," "you always get emotional," "you're always screaming." The person really believes "often" but says "always." His "B" is not equal to his "A" and this sloppiness of language can easily become a springboard for an unnecessary heated argument or fight.
Reason III (c). Making a blanket statement.
Blanket statements, often made in anger or hurt, are generally untrue and constitute another form of exaggeration, and therefore a miscommunication. For example, even when "always" or "never" is not used, if a wife makes a categorical statement such as "you don't respect my opinion," which is her "B" it is generally an error in communication. In fact, it may be that her husband does respect her opinion in numerous areas of their life. Furthermore, she may be making many decisions without even consulting him, and maybe even more unilateral decisions than he makes. What she really believes, her "A, " is that "in certain situations you don't respect my opinion." Another wife might say, "you don't take my feelings into consideration" when in fact, her husband sometimes does, but sometimes doesn't. If a wife says "I can't depend on you," when, in fact, she knows that she can depend on him in some ways, e.g., supporting the family financially, but not in other areas, e.g., getting the children to bed on time, she is not factually correct. If she doesn't qualify her words, she is not saying what she knows to be true. In all of these cases, the person is making a blanket statement which is exaggerated and, therefore, miscommunicating.
A husband would be incorrect, and miscommunicating, if he says to his wife "you are irresponsible with money," when, deep in his heart, he knows that she is an excellent shopper for the household but has a problem when buying clothing or jewelry for herself. He is similarly off track if he says, "you don't appreciate me," when, in fact he might have believed and correctly stated to her "I know that deep down you appreciate me, but I would like you to express it more often." Or he might believe and correctly say: "Sometimes I question whether you really appreciate everything I do for you and the kids." When a person makes a blanket statement, he is guilty of miscommunicating because he does not say what he actually believes and unfortunately makes things worse by exaggerating.
The Goal is to Say What You Mean, But Say it Diplomatically
Now, even if a husband truly believes that his wife doesn't appreciate him, he still shouldn't say: "You don't appreciate me," since he would then be guilty of "mind reading," one of the forbidden nineteen negative interactions. The most he could legitimately say is, "I don't believe that you appreciate me," or, "Based on how you treat me, I don't feel appreciated." And expressing his true feelings on the subject, in this manner, is seen as a positive event since it opens the door for a problem-solving discussion on the matter.
Reason III (d). Name calling.
This behavior takes place when a person is angry. Name calling, or putting down is one of the more hurtful and offensive infractions of the "Nineteen Rules." A man may scream an epithet at his partner; but if asked to reflect on what he said, he will often deny that he believes what he called her. If so, when he said it, he was uttering an untruth; and is miscommunicating because he did not truly believe what he said.
Now, even if he had a legitimate complaint, it would be destructive for him to lodge it in an offensive manner, and/or turn it into a personal attack. Unfortunately, once the words are out of his mouth, the damage has been done, and if his partner takes the epithet to heart, and counterattacks with her own choice words, they are deep into a fight, and at this point, they are both wrong since they are both adding fuel to the flame.
Reason IV.(a). Some Communicators Knowingly Distort What They Truly Believe or Feel in Their Heart. Their "B" is Not The Same as Their "A."
Reason IV.(b). A Person May do This to Protect Partner's Feelings or Not Ruffle Feathers
Case History Six:
Harvey, 29, a newlywed computer analyst, came to my office with his wife Susan, 33, an accountant, because of marital problems. Harvey was so sensitive to the possibility that Susan's feelings might be hurt if he told her an unflattering truth about herself that he would not give an honest answer even when she asked him if he liked the dress she was wearing. He admitted to his misleading replies, but justified them by saying that he thought she was beautiful no matter what she wore. Susan, however, recognized this reply as a rationalization and saw his evasiveness as a problem which she tried to highlight for Harvey by saying to him in a disappointed voice: "If I wanted to wear a yellow polka dot dress and hot pink shoes to a funeral, you wouldn't say anything...I want you to state your honest opinion. I don't want a 'yes-man'." But Harvey's "yes-man" approach permeated their marriage. He did not express disagreement with Susan even on minor issues let alone stand up to her on important issues. Harvey was all-too-aware that he wasn't saying what he meant.
Sadly, Harvey was using the communication process for defensive purposes rather than to convey truth and bring about a better understanding between himself and his wife. Harvey knew, and eventually Susan began to realize, that Harvey's "B" was not always consistent with the "A" that he thought. To her great disappointment and utter frustration, his habit grew to a point where she never knew when to believe him.
In working with this couple, it became clear that Harvey was so insecure in his relationship with Susan that not only did he tell lies concerning inconsequential matters to protect himself, but he was also handicapped in expressing his true thoughts and feelings even on matters that concerned them both for fear that her love of him might diminish. . There were even times when he told her inconsequential lies to "protect himself." Through therapy Harvey learned that by being Susan's "yes-man" he was not only not strengthening their relationship, but in fact weakening it. By failing to express and stand up for his honest opinions, he was losing the respect and interest of his wife. His newly-learned awareness of the seriousness of this growing problem served as a stimulus for him to change. Further, he began to realize that instead of protecting his marriage to Susan, quite the contrary, his small lies were undermining one of the fundamental bases of a relationship: trust.
His embarrassment at appearing untrustworthy and immature, his fear that he would lose the respect of his wife, and the possible threat to his marriage motivated Harvey to work on his problems. However, changing the self perception of low self-esteem that he had endured for many years and ridding himself of his fairly well entrenched habit of "convenience lying" was not easy. To help him achieve these goals, I met with Harvey for a number of individual psychotherapy sessions. Harvey wisely threw himself into this therapeutic endeavor and with encouragement from Susan progressed by small incremental steps. He gradually put his relationship with Susan on a more mature footing.
Case History Seven:
Another example of a breakdown of communication, due to the speaker's failure to say what she thinks, a problem that I have seen time and time again, occurred with Marjorie, 29, who one evening wanted to go out for dinner with her live-in boy friend Frank, 31. Partly because of her insecurity with Frank arising from his ambivalence about a commitment to marriage (after four years of living together), Marjorie was afraid to tell Frank her wish to go out for dinner (her "A"). When he walked in that evening, she should have said, "Honey, I feel like eating out, how about us going out tonight?" Instead, she went about it in a roundabout way by asking him "Honey, would you like to go out for dinner tonight?" Her "B" was not equal to her "A" since it gave no indication of her own wishes on the matter.
When Frank gave her an honest "no," Marjorie felt rejected, hurt, angry, and sulked for the rest of the evening. She brought up this incident during counseling as an example of Frank's insensitivity to her feelings. Frank remembered the incident, but had a different slant on the matter. As he reported it, he had come home in a great mood from his construction job, but said "no" in reply to her question because he was tired and wanted to spend a quiet evening at home. We reviewed the events of the evening and I helped him explore the progression of his thoughts and feelings for the next few hours. It emerged that he was baffled by Marjorie's increasing distance and moodiness, and in turn, found himself distancing himself from her as the evening progressed and his own mood worsened.
Marjorie's failure to communicate her wishes in this situation was part of a pattern wherein she would barely hint at her wishes. In another situation, while watching TV with Frank, she asked "Isn't it cold in here?" when she really meant, "Why don't you come over here on the couch and cuddle with me a bit?" Marjorie's round-about approach constituted a breakdown in communication and the relationship suffered accordingly.
In my dual role as marriage counselor/psychologist, I spent individual time working with each member of this couple. I helped Marjorie understand why she was afraid to express her wishes directly and I encouraged her to speak up for what she wanted as the situation required. I explained that, whereas, in some cases a wife might be intimidated by a demanding or dictatorial spouse, and fears to express her wishes directly, this was not the case here. Frank was not intimidating in any way, if fact, he loved her, respected her and was open to her input. The origin off Marjorie's problem with Frank began long before Frank came on the scene. Marjorie had been brought up by a close-minded, angry, alcoholic father whom she feared. I explained that it was natural, but unfortunate that she would bring this learned fear into her adult relationship with Frank. It was part of her hidden agenda. For further explanation, please see my article titled, "The Hidden Agenda in Relationships."
After exploring Marjorie's childhood, I explained to her that whereas it had been a wise and adaptive (appropriate) behavior on her part to "walk around on eggshells" in a previous setting (her childhood home) when her father came home drunk because it served the valuable purpose of sparing her from abuse. However, her timid behavior was not adaptive in her present situation with Frank since it was not only not necessary, but worse, it restricted her freedom to express herself normally and interact healthfully with her boyfriend. Accordingly, her miscommunications interrupted the healthy flow of their relationship.
I then trained both of them in the A-B-C's of good communication. My focus with Marjorie was to be open in revealing her wishes and to be more self assertive in asking that they be fulfilled. My focus with Frank was to be more sensitive to Marjorie's early experiences as a child and her consequent "beating around the bush" type of communication. To help her compensate for her fear of self assertion, he was asked to encourage her to express her wishes directly, and say her true thoughts in any given situation. I helped them understand how a breakdown in communication, such as the one that occurred with the hoped-for dinner date and the desire for cuddling—neither of which (unexpressed) wishes was fulfilled—can initiate unintended and totally unnecessary feelings of rejection, hurt, confusion, and an unnecessary distance between them.
In this example with Marjorie, as in the case cited above with Harvey who was also afraid to tell the truth, both of these individuals were aware that they were not saying what they meant. In my work with more than a thousand couples over the past 35 years, I have found that a failure to express one's feelings can happen to either gender, due to a fear of loss of love, fear of starting a fight, or for other reasons. This crippling reticence can go on for years. Not saying what you really mean in any situation that involves your partner is a psychological problem for the "quiet" party, shortchanges the partner, and creates an interpersonal problem for the couple. Keeping silent when something should be said hurts both persons and diminishes the relationship.
For a more elaborate discussion on people's failures to say what is on their mind, click here for my article "Thirteen Reasons Why Spouses Fail to Communicate".
Reason IV. People Misrepresent (lie) or Withhold Information to
Paint Themselves in a Better Light or
Defend Themselves Against Blame or Attack.
In other situations, a person may deliberately withhold information, mislead, or lie, to keep something hidden from his partner. People lie to their partners to paint themselves in a better light, e.g., by boasting about an accomplishment that never happened, or by not mentioning a failure that did happen, or to hide some experience or activity that their partner would have disapproved of had they known about it. Withholding information might involve past or present problems with alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling or other unflattering behaviors; or it may involve an erratic employment history, or large debts to credit cards, or personal loans. At still other times, a person may withhold information about medical or psychological problems in oneself or one's family.
The most serious form of lie involves contact or liaison with a third party. This may include an Internet-initiated relationship that begins with "innocent" chat room interchanges, moves into instant messaging and "graduates" to personal emails. Eventually the "sound barrier" is broken and the couple start talking to each other, usually on a cell phone, and sometimes on a newly purchased secret cell phone. In many of these extra-marital relationships, the individuals never meet, but might talk to each other at great length, sometimes quite explicitly about their fantasies, and might call or text message each other numerous times a day. They might exchange pictures, sometimes very personal ones. These liaisons have been variously called "friendships," "harmless flirtations," and "blatant acts of infidelity," depending on who does the calling. However, no matter what the clandestine relationship is called, and no matter what the couple does or doesn't do (something the hurt spouse will often wonder whether he/she will ever really know), the mere fact that a secret relationship exists would evoke many very painful emotions in the hurt party.
At times the hidden relationship involves face-to-face involvement with clandestine meetings taking place when the offending spouse is supposed to be working late, out with some friends, or out of town on a business conference. Very often these extra-marital relationships occur with a coworker, an "ex" who has reappeared on the scene, or with the spouse's best "friend." Too many sad examples come to mind.
The discovery of the secret relationship by the offended spouse generally evokes a very strong reaction and many painful and sometimes overwhelming emotions. These emotions cover a wide range and may differ in intensity from person to person. One of the most common reactions is a feeling of betrayal. Other emotions include anger, disillusionment, great pain, anguish, depression, feelings of self-doubt, a feeling of great loss and devastation. Often there are feelings of disgust and alienation. Constant preoccupation with the affair, sleeplessness, loss of appetite inability to concentrate or function effectively on the job and in other situations usually follow the discovery. Present in every situation is a feeling of distrust. Clearly, an act of infidelity can do incalculable damage to the marriage.
Obviously, the "B" of the liar is intentionally not equal to his "A." Once trust is broken, it is impossible to ever go back to the original feeling. Activities of the nature described here can be compared to a house (the marriage) going through an earthquake. Clearly, this is very bad news.
The good news, however, is that third party liaisons do not automatically destroy a marriage. The damage may range from minor damage to the structure, to devastation However, this measure is subjective. Each couple assesses for themselves how much damage was done, can we repair the old structure, can we clear up the rubble and build an even more beautiful structure? The answer to the question "What happens now?" depends on a variety of factors.
Another piece of good news is that every cloud has a silver lining. In your despair, you may not see it now, but it is there. Not only is there hope, but in many cases, the couple emerges from counseling with a much better marriage than they had had in years, and sometimes better than they ever had from the very beginning.
I have seen many "offenders" (technical term for the unfaithful partner) not only guilty and shaken by the enormity of the hurt and pain they inflicted on their spouse, but also frightened by the damage done, and by the prospect of losing the love of their partner and the possible death of their marriage. In such situations they take serious stock of the situation and come face to face with the vital importance of the marriage to them and their underlying love for their spouse. They then throw themselves into the hard work that is required for the healing process.
In many cases the marriage counseling process opens their eyes to the possibility of a good marriage. Sadness and regret over the numerous lost opportunities for growth and love over the preceding years mobilizes the couple to grow their relationship from routine and humdrum to dynamic and fulfilling. The sensitive interaction required by both spouses for the promotion of healing and reconciliation often brings about a closer, more caring and intimate relationship than the couple ever thought possible.
Unfortunately, it often takes a crisis for the marriage to get the attention it should have gotten all along. Click here for "Can There Be a Silver Lining Around The Cloud of Infidelity?"
Is Lying the Same as Poor Communication?
It might be argued that lying is not an example of poor communication, but rather one of pure deception. This is true. Withal, I would like to also say that withholding information or lying is a very serious category of deliberate miscommunication or breakdown in communication. Communication means "to share" or "make known" and withholding information or lying does neither of these. A lie creates a separation between two individuals. The dangers that lying brings to a relationship are obvious and cannot be overemphasized. Lying is a recipe for disaster and is discussed in another article on this website. Click here for item number 12 in "Thirteen Reasons Why Spouses Fail to Communicate"
Reason V. It is Poor Communication When "B" is Not The Same as "A" due to an Honest Mistake on the Part of the Speaker
At times, the speaker does his best to honestly say what is on his mind, i.e., convey an accurate "A." However, the words that come out of his mouth, "B," is not what he has on his mind. In the following examples the person wants to say what is on his mind but unintentionally says something else:
Reason V. (a). Slip of the Tongue:
A man is driving a car and his partner says, "we have to make a left turn here." It soon emerges that she knew it was a right turn and wanted to say "right turn." Even though her instruction to go left was a slip of the tongue, an honest mistake, it was a miscommunication nevertheless. In another case, the husband might tell his wife "I'll be home at 8 p.m." when he means 9 p.m
Reason V.(b). Sloppy Thinking or Sloppy Articulation:
In another situation, a person might tell his partner to meet him/her at a certain place or time, but inadvertently gives inaccurate information, or gives vague directions to get somewhere.
Sometimes a person knows the location of something in their own house but mistakenly gives ambiguous or incorrect information thus causing frustration for the partner. There was never an intent to deceive in any of the examples cited here; however, neither of these individuals said what they really knew and truly wanted to say. Even though their words were innocent slips of the tongue, this type of miscommunication can start a battle with couples who are on edge with each other and virtually looking for something to fight about.
Reason VI. Other Reasons
Why Misinterpreting Takes Place
1) The Role of the Listener, 2) The Role of the Speaker
- If the listener misinterpreted what was said, the breakdown is the listener's fault.
- If the speaker did not say what he really thought either intentionally, or by accident, the breakdown is the speaker's fault.
But what if "B" is ambiguous or vague and his words can truly be interpreted in more than one way? In such a case, who is to blame for the breakdown of communication? Is it solely the speaker's fault because he was ambiguous? Or is the listener partly to blame for not sensing that the statement could be interpreted in more than one way and failing to ask for clarification? Let's explore both possibilities.
Reason VI. (a). The Listener's Role in Avoiding Misinterpretation
The listener should always be sensitive to the possibility that he is misinterpreting his partner. For example, when Roger thinks he hears "fighting words" from his wife, Sandra, rather than jumping down her throat with "righteous indignation" and counter accusations, ideally he would clarify what he thinks he heard by asking her "How did you mean that?" If Roger calmly alerts Sandra to the fact that her words were ambiguous, she now has an opportunity to clarify that she meant no ill will, and express regret that she was ambiguous and nearly started a fight. Roger's self control in not jumping to attack can thereby avoid an unnecessary fight with his spouse.
Of course, if Sandra shouts back "What do you think I meant, you idiot!" then Roger knows exactly how she meant her original statement.
By shouting "idiot" at Roger, Sandra has clearly violated two of the "Nineteen Rules of Communication" (raising voice in anger, name calling), and has set the stage for a shouting match. But even if she violates these or any other of the "Nineteen Rules" Roger doesn't have to follow suit by meeting her insult with one of his own. Such behavior on his part would only add fuel to the flame and make a bad situation worse. Although Sandra has already begun a fight with her name-calling, it is not too late for Roger to stop the fight in its tracks. What happens after Sandra's insulting name-calling depends on how Roger handles her insult. Many years ago, King Solomon of ancient Israel, wisely noted:
"A Soft Answer Turneth Away Wrath." Proverbs 15:1
If Sandra is lucky enough to have a husband who is sufficiently trained, disciplined, slow to anger by nature, tired of fighting with his wife, or just kindly disposed at that moment, he will not add fuel to the flame by shouting back at Sandra, but will step aside and let her anger pass. Such a mate will then calmly point out to his partner "calling me an idiot is no way to talk" and add that she is violating the rules that they both had agreed to follow. If Sandra has her act half-way together, she will appreciate his soft answer and will respond positively to his kind intervention, pull herself together, apologize, and start over in a different vein. Stopping a fight dead in its tracks is one of my goals in teaching healthy interaction via good communication skills.
I frequently tell the couples with whom I work that they should be honestly appreciative when their partner politely points out to them that they are violating one of the rules of friendly, constructive communication. I note that if their computer or golf instructor or their personal trainer at the gym corrected their stroke or their move, they would respond with a gracious "Thanks for saying that, it works better this way." They would never think of responding with an angry "Stop telling me what to do!" So why not treat your partner with the same courtesy when he/she blows the whistle on you and gets you back on track in your argument when you interrupt, raise your voice, or insult your partner in the middle of an argument. Your partner's corrective remarks are truly helpful to you in that situation and will stand you well in the future. "Blowing the whistle" on your partner (diplomatically) when he/she breaks one of the "Nineteen Rules," and your partner's gracious acceptance of this correction will not only benefit both of you in the ongoing situation, but will also serve as a confirmation that both of you are committed to follow the rules in the future.
When instructing my clients how to "blow the whistle" diplomatically, I ask the violator to acknowledge that he crosses a line, apologize, and thank his partner for her/his help in keeping him on track, and her self control in not letting his violation spur her onto a retaliatory statement which would only make things worse.
Now, going back to Sandra's original ambiguous statement to Roger, let's elaborate the two possibilities noted above: a) She sounded angry but was not angry, or (b) She both sounded and was truly angry when she uttered her words.
(a) If she was not angry, we noted above that Roger's self control and his request for clarification when he "heard" fighting words would avoid a fight with his spouse since she would clarify that she had no ill will towards him and had no intent to express anger.
(b) The second possibility is that in fact, Sandra was angry when she originally spoke, and did mean to attack him. In this case, Roger's gentle question for clarification "How did you mean that?" would afford her a moment to pause and reconsider her attack. She would now have two choices.
(1) She could continue her attack and call him "idiot," or:
(2) She could let her better judgment take over and permit his gentle question to stop her tirade. Roger's failure to attack affords Sandra a wonderful opportunity to admit that she did mean to be provocative with her ambiguous statement and that Roger was correct when he suspected hostile intent. Thus, Roger's refusal to respond in kind even when he correctly heard her fighting words, opens the door for Sandra to pull back, apologize and start over again in a constructive vein.
Reason VI.(b). The Speaker's Role in Avoiding Misinterpretation
Although, both speaker and listener are responsible for communication, I believe that miscommunication due to ambiguity or vagueness is primarily the fault of the speaker. Talking is not enough. In the final analysis, it is the speaker's responsibility to communicate. Whoever wishes to convey a message, is required to (a) make sure that the other person is listening, and (b) choose his words carefully, so that the thoughts are presented clearly and unambiguously, and (c) speak in a friendly tone of voice and display a friendly manner, thereby assuring that the message he wishes to convey will be transmitted without the interfering "noise" of anger and hostile intent.
After talking, the speaker should not assume that her message was transmitted, and that she was understood, unless she gets some sort of confirmation. She should wait for an appropriate facial expression, a nod of the head, or better still, a verbal response from the listener that is pertinent to what was just said.
If the speaker intended no anger or accusation and the "confirmation" comes back as an attack, the speaker should realize that there might have been a miscommunication; she should search her words. Was she ambiguous or unclear, or did she actually say something she had no intention of saying? There are three possibilities here:
(a) She actually said something hostile unintentionally. If so, she should apologize for causing distress to the listener and explain that although she said it, she had no intention that her words would come out the way that they did, and she simply did not mean what she said.
(b) She was ambiguous. If so, she should clarify her original remark, and apologize for being ambiguous and causing distress to the listener.
(c) There was neither hostile intent nor ambiguity. If so, the speaker can rightfully point out that the listener misinterpreted an innocent remark, and it would be the listener's responsibility to apologize for the uncalled-for attack.
The Role of Anger in Relationships
Anger is a destructive emotion. It has the power to ruin personal relationships. Anger can be compared to fire. When controlled, fire warms our homes and cooks our food. When out of control, fire wreaks havoc. Anger too, when controlled and directed to a good cause, e.g., to right an injustice, is a wonderful force. However, when unjustified, or unmonitored, like fire, it wreaks havoc. No wonder, King Solomon, the ancient monarch of Israel wrote so many aphorisms on the subject. Here is one of them:
"It is a Person's Choice to be Slow to Anger;
And it is to His Glory to Pass Over a Transgression."
King Solomon: Proverbs 19:11
Overview of the A-B-C's of Good Communication
"A" represents the exact thoughts or emotions of the speaker.
"B" represents the actual words that come out of the speaker's mouth.
"C" represents what the listener "hears" i.e. his understanding or interpretation of what was said.
In a Healthy Relationship,
Communication Flows in Both Directions
If both partners generally achieve situations where "A"="B"="C" they have the basis for excellent communication. Note, of course, that in a healthy two-way relationship, this is only one side of the coin. The process of communication demands a two-way flow of conversation. Thus the "A"="B"="C" should continue to bounce back and forth between both parties to the conversation.
If both partners understand the crucial necessity of—and actively promote—that "A," "B," and "C" should match perfectly when they talk to each other, they have achieved the first step in establishing a framework for good communication. If each partner expresses him/herself and encourages the other to express him/herself freely, and if they each listen attentively to what the other says, they have successfully created a loop which forms a healthy pathway for reciprocal understanding.
As noted at the beginning of this article, neither gender wins an Emmy for communication. In all of the communication errors cited here all of my points are relevant to both genders.
End of Article IIb " Six Reasons Why A, B, C, Are Not Always The Same" Back to Top of Page
For more articles on Effective Communication please click here.
For a discussion on the six benefits a couple reaps when they communicate effectively, please see the article "Six Important Benefits of Good Communication."