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Article III. Six Important Benefits of Good Communication
by Reuben E. Gross, PhD, ABP, ABPP, FAACP, LMFT
Good communication will help you Enhance Positive and Decrease Negative interactions with your partner by enabling both of you to succeed in the six areas enumerated below. To go directly to any of the benefits listed below
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1. Good Communicators Avoid Misunderstandings, Fights, And Emotional Separation
One of the goals of marriage counseling is to reduce the number and intensity of hurtful verbal and behavioral interactions. When tensions are high between two people because of internal problems in the relationship such as unmet expectations, unresolved differences, insensitive, controlling, insulting, or other negative behaviors, there tends to be a corollary increase in misunderstandings, friction, fights, and emotional withdrawal. Additionally, when tensions are high in the lives of one or both members of the couple for reasons external to their relationship, e.g., problems with a family member or career, many people tend to "let it all out" at home and discharge their irritated feelings onto their spouse. In such circumstances, when nerves are "shot," tensions rise, misunderstandings increase in frequency and many individuals become short-tempered and get angry at each other with very little provocation.
Effective Communicators Avoid Problems With Their Mates
When effective communicators experience problems in their personal lives, they may become anxious, worried, edgy, or even irritable but they will avoid deterioration of their relationship with their partner or mate. This is so because it is normal for effective communicators to discuss their personal problems with their spouse and enlist his/her emotional support. Instead of seeing their partner as one more irritant or problem to be dealt with, they look upon him/her as a source of comfort and strength. Effective communicators see their spouse as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem. Such a positive attitude towards one's mate reduces the chances of misunderstandings and friction.
Poor Communicators Create Problems With Their Mates
When tensions rise among poor communicators, there is a tendency to "press each other's buttons" or "rub each other the wrong way," thereby creating friction and even more tension. Consequently, even when there is no problem, misunderstandings take place and problems arise out of nowhere. And even when they try to solve their conflicts, not only do poor communicators fail to solve the original conflict or complaint, but they alienate each other early in the discussion/argument, turn it into a fight and end up angrier and worse off than they were before the discussion began. This alienation has a ripple effect and leads to the next problem which is avoiding the discussion of problems altogether.
Poor Communicators Let Problems Grow
Poor communicators either blow up at each other when a problem arises or have come to a point of exhaustion and have stopped fighting. In this scenario, they simply do not talk to each other about substantive matters. Consequently, neither will approach the other to forestall an anticipated problem. Additionally, they will shun discussions of existing problems as well as avoid bringing a new complaint to their partner's attention. They have little hope that discussing the matter will help, and worse, they fear that a fight will evolve Once a couple reaches such a point of resignation, they let problems grow and fester thus bringing about more frustration, hurt and anger —which is sometimes submerged until it reaches explosive force-- as both individuals grow farther and farther apart. This alienation between spouses promotes a vicious cycle since it is now even harder for each person to discuss his unhappiness in the relationship with his growing distant and apparently uncaring partner.
The vicious cycle is maintained because such couples have little hope and even less motivation to seek a solution to their problems to the satisfaction of both; so they don't even try. I have met many couples who have not only given up fighting but who have also given up talking about anything important for years before coming for therapy. Clearly, couples are not going to solve their problems by adopting a policy of not talking about them.
I have also seen many couples in this type of situation make dramatic changes in their relationship during the course of marriage counseling. Understandably, these changes do not come about by an easy wave of the counselor's magic wand. It takes hard work, focus, conscientious efforts, and goodwill on the part of both parties to bring about substantial change in a relationship. But it can be done!
2. Good Communicators Can Disagree, Yet Argue Respectfully And Constructively
Since each person is a unique individual, no two people are going to agree on everything. When disagreements arise, it is common for each person to be convinced of the merit of his position and to try to convince his partner that his/her version of the truth, or solution to the problem, is the appropriate one to follow. And so, an argument ensues; but is an argument necessarily bad? I don't think so. Arguments are good as long as both parties argue respectfully and in good faith. Such an argument does not degrade to a power struggle or fight.
In a respectful argument, the couple gains much from the exchange of ideas because each partner is open to learning from the other, wants to work as a team member, and considers solving the problem the primary goal. In a healthy relationship, the individuals are motivated towards the goal of solving the problem because each person is sensitive to the other's needs, wants to please his partner as well as him/herself, and understands the importance of resolving the problem and the danger of letting it fester. Further, such a couple also understands that if the suggested solution is the result of a joint effort, it is more likely that both parties will do their best to cooperate in bringing about the agreed-upon solution.
Training a Couple to Argue Respectfully
One part of my communication program exposes you and your spouse to nineteen positive arguing behaviors.
Utilizing these modes of behavior will ensure a constructive argument and greatly increase your chances of successfully resolving the problem when either of you presents a new complaint to your partner, or when you are discussing or arguing about a problem that is already known to you.
You will also be taught to avoid the (opposite) nineteen negative arguing behaviors. The negative behaviors on this list are virtually guaranteed to antagonize your partner, place a barrier between the two of you, degrade what could be a constructive argument into a fight, and push the solution and satisfaction that you both seek farther away. Most of these negative behaviors are employed regularly by distressed couples and may be familiar to you and your spouse. As I review each item on this list with couples in therapy with me, there is universal agreement that each of these negative behaviors is a barrier to good communication, problem- resolution, and relationship-building. Examples of negative behaviors during an argument include: not listening, raising one's voice angrily, interrupting, putting the other person down, not admitting the truth, and avoiding one's partner.
When training you and your spouse to argue respectfully I have the following three goals in mind:
- Teach you the nineteen positive behaviors that will keep an argument on track, and elaborate on the nineteen negative behaviors that are destructive to successful arguing.
- Get both of you to formally commit to strive for a standard of zero tolerance for the nineteen negative behaviors when arguing with each other. Understandably, nobody is perfect and we all slip from time to time. Nevertheless, to the extent that you will adhere to this disciplined approach, you will greatly enhance your efforts to argue in a friendly fashion and change the emotional climate of your home.
- Encourage both of you to accept the role of "coach" or "instructor" so that each of you will monitor yourself as well as your partner for breaches of the accepted "rules of engagement" that you both agree to follow.
Instructions to coach: If the coach catches himself raising his voice or violating any other rule during the course of an argument, he is required to "blow the whistle" on himself, acknowledge his error and apologize for what he did wrong. Only then may he continue to elaborate on the points he wishes to make. If the coach catches his partner violating one of the rules, he is to tactfully tell his partner that he is "blowing the whistle" on her or that she "just broke one of the rules." The etiquette then requires the violator to graciously accept the coach's corrections, apologize for her antagonistic behavior, and thank her referee for his help in getting the discussion/argument back on track. Both partners are asked to play the role of a coach every time the couple gets into an argument.
Since spouses do not take easily to criticism from their partners, especially when in the midst of an argument, I try to make the coach's correction of his partner's violation palatable. I do this by suggesting to my clients that they place their spouse's corrective comments in the same category as getting feedback from their hypothetical tennis or golf instructor, or from their hypothetical personal trainer while they are exercising under his supervision at their favorite gym. If their instructor or trainer corrects them, would they get angry? Or would they say "Thank you. It works better this way." Accordingly, they should understand that in the present situation, their spouse's corrective coaching helps them become a more friendly arguer and therefore a more effective communicator. The "coach" is doing his partner a favor and deserves to be thanked for his service.
3. Good Communicators Know When and How to Talk; and When and How to Listen
The Talk/Listen Technique
As part of your training in communication, you will learn the "Talk/Listen Technique" and you will practice it with your partner under my supervision. One of you will choose a new --or an old-- but unsolved personal complaint or problem, and you and your partner will discuss it calmly and thoroughly within the structure of your newly learned "Talk/Listen Technique." In this mode of discussion, disagreements and arguments are processed within a safe and secure structure. The technique also guarantees each person an equal opportunity to participate since both partners take turns at talking and listening. This effective mode of arguing gives each partner an opportunity to express himself in full detail while also making sure that his partner listened and understood everything that he said.
It Takes Both Parties to Solve an Interpersonal Problem
Successful collaboration on a solution to any problem cannot take place until both parties have had their full say on the matter, and each person is confident that the other person understands his position. The "Talk/Listen Technique" is structured in such a way that there is simply no room for not listening, interrupting, yelling, insulting, or any other negative behavior during the discussion. After both of you present your arguments on the issue that was chosen for discussion, you will go into Phase Two of the technique which is the problem-resolution stage.
To reinforce what you and your spouse will have just learned, I may lend you a tape of a professionally prepared script of two actors playing the roles of husband and wife arguing respectfully with each other about a certain problem using the "Talk/Listen Technique." The tape can be played in the car on your way home following your counseling session. Or, you can listen to it at another time when both of you are relaxed and have time to analyze and discuss the taped "argument."
The "Talk/Listen Technique" is Especially Valuable For Argumentative Couples
Both you and your partner will be encouraged to use the "Talk/Listen Technique" as preventive medicine when you are about to discuss a potentially explosive topic. You will also be encouraged to use this technique when you find yourselves in the midst of a heated argument and you recognize that you are at the brink of a shouting match. Further, even if a fight has already started and one of you realizes that the argument is off track, it is never too late for that person to stop the fight, gain their partner's agreement to access this technique and start the argument all over again using this highly effective approach.
4. Good Communicators Resolve Problems Through Discussion And Constructive Arguing
As Long as The Discussants Deal With Each Other Respectfully, Arguing is a Good Thing.
Many people avoid bringing a problem to their partner's attention because they fear that an argument will evolve. As noted above, there is nothing wrong with arguing. An argument is simply a verbal exchange between two people with differing views of a situation or different solutions to a problem. When one person suggests "A" as the correct view or best solution, and the other presents "B", each tries to convince his partner that he is right. Think of a formal debate where each team does its best to present its own point of view and to demolish its opponent's arguments. At the end of the debate, not only are there no hard feelings, but the members of each team might even complement their former opponents on how well they debated.
Something similar takes place in a couple relationship when both partners are effective communicators. The argument ends in a friendly manner, and often each person respects the other more than they did at the beginning of their argument. This is so because when a couple argues reasonably and constructively, each person will admire how his partner handled himself "under fire," and more importantly, each person will have learned something, for example, the strengths of his partner's point of view and the weaknesses of his own. In a friendly argument, there might come a time when one person is willing to relinquish his original position because he is convinced that his partner's assessment of the situation is more accurate or that his partner's solution is really better. At other times, both partners might relinquish their original position because of what they learned during the argument. At this point, they will join hands in forming a thir d assessment or solution which incorporates the best of both partner's original positions.
Agreeing That They Agree, or Agreeing That They Disagree
If two people argue constructively, when the argument is over, the chances are good that they will have resolved their conflict to each person's satisfaction. And in those situations where they did not find a solution, they will at least have come closer to an understanding of what is mutually acceptable. In such a scenario even if each person has not achieved his original goal, since both now have a good understanding of their partner's needs in the situation, both will be in an excellent position to work out a reasonable compromise. Therefore, the end result will be an approach they can both live with. In a worst-case scenario, when there is no agreement or compromise insight, good communicators will "agree to disagree" and plan to approach the problem at a future date with goodwill on both parts.
With Poor Communicators Arguments Become Fights
And Problems Are Not Solved
With poor communicators, the arguers often fail to show respect for their partner or his/her position. They alienate each other by employing many of the nineteen negative behaviors referred to above. Furthermore, they lose sight of the original goal of addressing a particular problem and descend into personal attacks as they slug it out for control. At this point, they are no longer arguing, they are fighting. Unfortunately, the goal of finding a solution to the original problem has been lost in the scuffle and is now the farthest thing from each person's mind. The progression from argument to fight plunges both parties into a muddy pit which may include interrupting, shouting, not listening and name calling, among other insulting behaviors. Now, it is true that one person may correctly charge that the other person started the fight and that he was only reacting to his partner's provocative behavior. Does that make him guiltless? Not in my book. The sad fact is that once the slug fest begins, and both individuals are guilty of insulting and antagonistic behavior, neither can claim "clean hands." I frequently tell my clients, "Two wrongs don't make a right" and even if your partner did start the fight, how does it help the situation if you add fuel to the flame?
5. Good Communicators Engage in Frank Discussions That Reveal Each Person's Needs/Desires/Agenda and Develop a Clear Understanding of How to Fulfill Each Other's Expectations
One part of my counseling program with couples involves setting a goal for both spouses to revive their love relationship. I do this, in part, by encouraging both parties to increase the alone-time that they spend with each other. More time together affords the couple a framework within which they can talk to each other in a relaxed setting on a regular basis so as to express their needs to each other, work on outstanding problems, head off future problems, express their feelings on a variety of subjects, and fine-tune the relationship. Further, more time together affords the couple an opportunity to plan and engage in mutually enjoyable activities.
Couples Are Introduced to Techniques Which Promote Self Knowledge and Reciprocal Understanding of Each Other's Needs, Desires, and Agenda
Spouses in a happy marriage seek pleasurable joint activities with each other as well as personal validation and satisfaction of their psychological needs. People marry to increase their happiness, not their misery. A person who marries hopes to attain, in marriage, satisfaction of those needs, desires, and expectations that cannot be satisfied as a single. What are those needs? Neither spouse can read the other person's mind, hence the need for constant communication and feedback on this subject.
Exploration of Your Partner's Needs Should be Followed by Frank Revelation of Your Own Needs
This phase of the counseling program begins with honest self-exploration of each person's needs and what they desire from the relationship. Both members of the couple are asked to make a list of their expectations from each other. Having completed this task, they then engage in an interactive exercise in which each person reads one item at a time from his list of expectations. He will then ask his partner whether he/she considers this expectation reasonable and appropriate and whether the partner is capable and willing to fulfill this particular request. This exercise will be elaborated upon later in this article.
Although both spouses may overlap greatly in their needs, e.g., to talk to each other and share their experiences and feelings, to have fun together, to get affection and sex, or to be told that they are loved or appreciated, they may have different priorities for these expectations and differing need-fulfillment frequencies or intensities. Further, since many of these expectations are taken for granted, they are rarely spelled out in advance by engaged couples; this is part of the hidden agenda. The hidden agenda in a relationship consists of expectations that have not been specified, discussed, or spelled out in advance to the other party. The hidden agenda merits an elaborate explanation and will be discussed later in this article.
As noted in Benefit 3. above, good communicators know how to play two roles: when to talk and when to listen. Good "talkers" express their needs, and how they would like to have them fulfilled. Good "listeners" pay careful attention when their partners talk and do their best to remember what is said to them. The next step, of course, is for both spouses to take appropriate steps to satisfy their partner's appropriate needs and expectations.
Spouses Need to Know How to Fulfill Their Partner's Needs
As noted earlier, I give each person an exercise in which they express their needs to their partner. During this friendly exchange, I will ask the person who is expressing the need to spell out for their partner exactly how that need can best be fulfilled to her satisfaction and how often she wants it fulfilled. People differ in their needs as well as in the form or frequency with which those needs are to be fulfilled. For example, one woman might want her husband to tell her that he loves her every day, and another might say, "I know how you feel about me, so you could save it for a special occasion." Or, one wife may request that her husband tell her that she's beautiful one or more times a week, and another might say, "Tell it to me when I get dressed up."
One husband may ask for words of appreciation from his wife on a regular basis and may even make a list of his accomplishments or contributions for which he would like recognition and appreciation. Another husband might say he knows that he is appreciated or admired and doesn't have to hear it from his spouse. One husband may ask his wife to offer overt words and deeds to demonstrate her affection on a regular basis while another husband may not have that need at all.
Among other wishes, individuals frequently ask that their spouse to make them their number one priority, make time for more time and conversation, have more fun together, have more closeness and affection, give more support and reassurance, respect each other's feelings and opinions, engage in more frequent sex, and show more appreciation and admiration. Sometimes a spouse will ask for more freedom to engage in outside activities without their partner. Wives may ask for more participation by their husband in running the house and caring for the children.
After this exchange of information about the wishes and needs of each partner, I then encourage a commitment from each person to fulfill their spouse's reasonable and appropriate emotional and physical needs as a top priority in the relationship. Understandably, fulfillment of some needs requires sensitive negotiations between spouses. This is because of different need levels of each partner, different skill levels, different timetables of the partners as well as the necessity to consider family schedules and other events.
Promoting Recognition and Appreciation
To further promote the strength of the marital relationship, I engage the couple in exercises that stimulate recognition and respect for each other's values, contributions, and behaviors. For example, I ask each person to make a list of all of the things they like, admire, or appreciate about their spouse. I then ask each person to make a list of their own personal qualities, the values that they stand for, and the contributions that they make to their partner, or to the nuclear or extended family for which they would like to get recognition and appreciation from their spouse. I then encourage each person to draw upon these lists and give their partner the appreciation and recognition as often as is appropriate, needed, and wanted by his spouse.
Unexpressed Needs: The Hidden Agenda
The phrase "hidden agenda" refers to those needs, desires or expectations that each person wishes to have fulfilled in a relationship, but which are not explicitly expressed, much less discussed with his partner. Often, the individual does not relate these expectations to his/her partner because he/she simply doesn't know what they are. Living apart is not the same as living together; living together is not the same as marriage; and marriage without children is not the same as marriage with children. Consequently, it is virtually impossible for an engaged individual to imagine every possible future scenario between spouses, and/or between the couple, their future children together, their children from previous marriages, their respective in-laws and friends. How then can a future bride or groom know exactly how they would want their spouse to behave in each situation, none of which has taken place yet? Since so many of these situations and expectations are yet to be born, they are hidden from each person's conscious mind and are, therefore, part of the hidden agenda.
At other times, the husband or bride-to-be may be very well aware of what he/she is looking for in a loving relationship but takes it for granted that his/her future spouse will fulfill those expectations without special mention or urging. For example, people generally assume that their future partner will always behave towards them with kindness and consideration. Clearly, these two highly desirable behaviors from one's spouse are an integral part of the normal healthy expectations that people take for granted when they marry. Accordingly, these expectations are not mentioned in advance and would constitute part of the unspoken marriage contract i.e., the hidden agenda. And yet, there are many marriages where kindness and consideration are sorely lacking. When such an unfortunate situation arises, it becomes incumbent upon each person to spell out exactly what he had in mind when he married, and help "shape" their partner thus bringing out the best behavior in him/her as per the unspoken marriage contract.
Since individuals do not spell out all of their expectations in advance, everybody comes into a relationship with a hidden agenda. Not only are many of these expectations not mentioned to their partner in advance, but as noted above, a good part of these expectations might even be hidden from the person himself. Hence, the great need for each person to explore him/herself so that he may uncover his/her desires, hopes, and expectations from the marriage. Sometimes, it takes years before a person clarifies for himself exactly what he wants in the marriage.
Following this exercise in self-exploration, there is a need for self-revelation so that each individual may reveal that specific agenda to their spouse. One aspect of my communication training program involves written assignments that help each person accomplish both of these goals: uncover as much as possible of his hidden agenda, and convert it to an open agenda so that his spouse will be in a position to help him find fulfillment.
"The Hidden Agenda in Relationships" is the title of a separate article on this website; if you wish to access this article, please click here.
6. Good Communication Promotes Sharing, Companionship, and Bonding
Sharing and Companionship
When individuals marry, they hope to grow together as they age, not grow apart. Their goal is to enjoy their lives with each other. For many people, it is hoped that this will take place within the context of sharing their hopes, thoughts, feelings, and experiences (both happy and sad) with their lifelong partner/ companion/ friend/ spouse.
Nonetheless, some husbands and many wives complain that they feel lonely in the relationship. Clearly, people do not marry with the goal of feeling alone; they have already experienced this before marriage. Nor do they marry merely to get a roommate or coexist with somebody. Although the problem exists with both sexes, it is more likely that a wife will complain that her husband does not "open up," i.e., does not regularly share his daily experiences or inner life with her. On rare occasions, this occurs because of anger or a deliberate desire to be distant. Sometimes, the tendency not to share experiences or feelings takes place because the husbands are modeling behavior that they saw at home. But with many men, the failure to share, engage in long conversations with their spouse, and the reluctance or discomfort when asked to offer a detailed expression of feelings may be due to traits inherent in the male personality. Sadly, some wives misinterpret this withdrawal as a lack of love or caring. Not so.
On the other hand, many men are sensitive to their feelings and are quite capable of "opening up," but don't routinely do so because it was not a "man thing" to do as they went through the adolescent locker room experiences and post-adolescence activities with their male buddies. In their present involvement in a committed male-female bond, however, they are fortunate enough to experience a relationship where closeness and sharing are relished by their partner. Sadly, however, due to lack of experience, they are not comfortable interacting along these lines and do not actively search for this part of the relationship. In such situations, husbands can be encouraged to relate to their spouses on a more feeling level; this behavior can be reinforced by their wives so that eventually sharing will come more naturally to them. Although it is more usual for the man not to share his experiences and feelings, and it is the wife who feels left out and alone, the problem of not sharing can affect either gender. For more information on this subject, please see the next article "Thirteen Reasons Why Spouses Fail to Communicate"
Is Marriage For Better or For Worse?
Although studies show that the majority of married people live longer, healthier, and somewhat happier lives than singles, most people are sophisticated enough to realize that being in a committed relationship, or marriage, is not a bowl of cherries. And the mere act of commitment or getting married is not an insurance policy for happiness. Fulfilling your responsibilities to your spouse, showing patience with his/her deficiencies, and seeking fulfillment of your own agenda as well as your spouse's agenda are among the most challenging tasks that society has devised for all who have chosen marriage. It does not come naturally. It takes skill, but it can be done!
Personal Growth, Closeness, And Fulfillment
If you are like most people when you first married, you did not have a complete understanding of your role or responsibilities as a spouse. Your perception of your true role as a husband or wife, and your highest aspirations for yourself in this new role expanded as you grew and matured, and as you gained more experience with your spouse. This growth occurred because of the experience of living with another person who provided you with a rich opportunity to learn about the realities of the marital relationship. The interchange of ideas that took place between you and your partner, sometimes lovingly and sometimes angrily and the various forms of feedback that you gave each other in your attempts to fine-tune and improve the relationship contributed greatly to your understanding of your role as a husband or wife. Your role as a spouse will become even clearer to you over the years as you gain even more knowledge and understanding of what you are all about, what your partner is all about, and what a committed relationship is all about. But this greater knowledge and understanding will come about only if you have an open mind and if open channels of communication exist between you and your spouse.
As both of you improve in your capacity to share your life with each other, the distance that now exists between you and your spouse will be bridged. Eventually, both of you will recapture at a mature level the closeness and bonding that you felt during the heady days at the beginning of your relationship and which you were confident would continue for the rest of your life.
In the following paragraph, as in all previous paragraphs "he" and "she" are interchangeable.
If, in spite of a person's disillusionment, frustrations, and the pain that he has suffered in his marriage, if that person is still willing to invest time, effort and himself to meet the challenge of getting into marriage counseling and meeting his problems head-on, it may very well be because that individual believes with me that for all of its faults, the marital framework is still the best structure known to mankind within which people can grow in their ability to give and receive love, and develop selflessness, empathy, and compassion for others. Moreover, within this framework, men and women can both achieve an abundance of satisfaction, support, and personal fulfillment, as well as children, if they so desire—all of which adds meaning to their lives, and ultimately deep happiness.
End of Article III. "Six Important Benefits of Good Communication"
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