Chapter II: Communication
In this installment of “Tools for Healthy, Loving Relationships” I will break down communication into its component parts, with an eye to making this complex subject more understandable for those of us who are interested in improving the quality of our intimate relationships. I hope to show how we can learn to become better communicators and better listeners in all aspects of our lives, but particularly in the context of the relationships that we value most highly. My ultimate goal for this chapter is to point us all in the direction of greater emotional intelligence and literacy, the cornerstones of healthy intimate relationship and loving, effective communication.
“To him who in the love of nature holds communion with her visible forms, she speaks a various language.” William Cullen Bryant in “Thanatopsis”
These opening lines of Bryant’s beautiful ode to Death point to the true nature of real communication. Communication, at its best, is an experience of loving communion, whether with Nature or another person. The question is how we attain the level of openness and receptivity that allows us to hear that “various language.” Communicating openly and intimately is a major challenge for most of us. In order to do so, I have to make contact with my interior self. A dear friend of mine sent me a simple text message as I was awakening. “How are you?” he asked. Its two hours later and I don’t remember my reply. What I am likely to have texted back is “Hey Buddy, fine, good to hear from you.” It’s not that this reply isn’t true. It just isn’t intimate. Perhaps the most intimate thing I could have said in that moment would have been, “I’m missing my Mother.” I was not aware of that feeling when I received his text, but because I am writing this article, I asked myself what I was really feeling in that moment, and that’s what came to me. “I miss my Mother.” The feeling of missing the woman I loved more than anyone has lived inside me for years without being spoken. So if I am going to commune with someone intimately, I need to speak those words, or whatever words match my deepest feelings in a given moment. Now, of course, I’m not going to text those words to my friend who just contacted me because he’s in town and is thinking of me, but the truth is I could have been more real. I could have replied with what was really going on with me, which was that I was thinking about this article and how it lacked something. I felt troubled because I wasn’t sure what was missing. After our exchange I realized what it was. It was me. I was missing. I wasn’t writing personally enough about the most personal subject of all, loving, and intimate communication.
When I visited the Berkeley Radical Psychiatry Collective in 1969, I learned from Claude Steiner, Hoagie Wyckoff, Joy Marcus, and Carmen Kerr how important they thought cooperation was to learning to communicate well. Their teaching suggested that good communication was a function of working together to share our thoughts and feelings in a cooperative way that included mutual respect for one another and an equal distribution of power between partners. This was a very important insight at that time and remains equally important forty years later. But the truth of the matter, I believe, is that we need to start the conversation in a different place if we hope to understand the full nature of loving communication.
So here’s my dilemma. Do I start with the most basic fundamentals of communication or not? If I do, I will feel like I am teaching the ABC’s to college graduates. On the other hand, from my work as a couples’ therapist, I know that it’s best not to assume anything when it comes to how much each of us knows about communicating well. So I am choosing to start at the beginning of communication theory, giving full permission to those of you who know this stuff cold to speed through the preliminaries. However, in these times, it may very well be that we need to review the essential fundamentals of healthy communication more than ever. Although it is now much easier to maintain contact and communication with our partners, families, and friends, than it was prior to the advent of the personal computer, I fear that we may have lost the pleasures of face to face, intimate conversation to a great degree. So what follows is a review of the basic elements of healthy communication presented as stepping stones to strengthening our loving connections to one another.
Let’s start with the four irreducible elements that are found in every attempt to communicate. There is a Sender, a Receiver, a Message, and a Context. This, of course, is elementary, but it must not be forgotten. If two people talk at the same time, or talk over one another, there is no receiver and the message of each will be lost. If the sender does not make who his receiver or audience is clear enough, some people will tune out. If the sender’s message is confusing, overly reactive, uncertain, or poorly formed; meaning will be lost or misinterpreted. Finally, if the context of the communication is unclear, confusion and misunderstanding will result.
This last element is the most easily misunderstood of the four, because many communicators do not adequately identify the situation they are addressing. In order to be understood, I must take notice of the context that circumscribes what I am saying. If I whisper something to my girlfriend behind closed doors, it is a very different communication than if I say exactly the same thing to a gathering of extended family. The point here is that in order for a communication to be fully understandable, we need to make each element of the communication clear: who the sender is; who the receiver is; what the message is; and finally, what are the circumstances that inform this communication. All these ingredients need to be present for the communication to be well formed, articulate, and meaningful.
A second group of essential elements of good communication is what we therapists call the Contact Functions. The human organism is capable of making contact in a variety of different ways, most of which have to do with three of the five senses. In order to communicate well we need to be seeing, hearing, and feeling well. By this I mean that we are seeing whom we are communicating with clearly and are looking at them directly. We need to be listening receptively and accurately, taking the time to clarify anything that is unclear or that we don’t understand. And we need to be attuned emotionally and energetically both to ourselves and to the other person we are communicating with, so that we can sense how our conversation affects both of us. Simple enough, but much more easily said than done.
The reality is that often in close relationships we are communicating on the fly, and perhaps while we are multi-tasking as well. I’m walking up the stairs while talking to my partner, who is three or four steps behind me. I am not facing her, so I can’t see how she is responding to my words, nor can I be sure that she understands me. I have not taken in how she is feeling or where her attention and energy are focused, and yet I will be surprised when I learn that she doesn’t remember what I told her a day later. Does this seem familiar?
“You still don’t understand. Just look at me! I’m a wreck!” Copyright 2012 Toby Landesman
We live in a landscape that is suffused with sound much of the time. The television is on. I am reading my email and talking on the phone. I decide to say something important to my good friend as I am walking out of the room, while he is staring at his I-Pad. We shout instructions to our children as they are rushing off to school or going out with their friends. I use “sotto voce” to say something important that I am uncomfortable saying, conveniently choosing a moment when my partner’s attention is elsewhere. If we are distracted, disconnected from ourselves, anxious, unfocused, confused, or the entire above, guess what the likelihood is that we will be heard and understood. This is why paying attention to our and others contact functions is so important. In order for our communication to be successful, we need to be seeing clearly, listening closely, and attuning carefully. Anything less than this level of concentration and contact will frequently result in misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or total failure to communicate. Of course, if we are just passing time and don’t really care what we are saying or whether we are being heard, this level of attentiveness is unnecessary.
The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Good Communication
During the years that I was in school, 1947 to 1967, the term “Emotional Intelligence” had not yet been coined. The emphasis in writing and communicating was firmly on intellectual clarity and rationality. The emotions were seen for the most part as bothersome and to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. The pursuit of happiness was sanctioned, of course, as to some degree was anger in men and hurt and sadness in women. By the time I entered high school, I had only two emotions that I was aware of, happiness and anger. If everything was OK, I was happy, but if I were upset or distressed in any way, I communicated those experiences angrily. One major problem with the elimination of certain emotions from our personal experience is that what we cannot experience, we cannot understand or respond well to in others. One of my emotionally intelligent girlfriends nicknamed me “Mt. Rushmore.” She recognized that in some of our more intimate conversations my face would begin to change. If my experience left the realm of happiness or anger, my face would almost literally turn to stone. What I was actually experiencing was my inability to feel sadness, fear, anxiety, guilt, or grief. In the course of my therapy, I came to realize that I was afraid to experience any emotion other than the ones sanctioned by my family, anger or joy. It took some years of working on connecting to my feelings for me to recover my emotional life. Eventually I recognized that all of my emotions were human experiences that were not only OK, but necessary to talk about in close relationships. My personal experience here points to the reality that intimate communication requires of us that we be in touch with the whole spectrum of human feeling. In order to attune to my relationship partner or friends, I have to be able to connect to what they are feeling and thinking in myself. If I am going to be able to use my emotional experience to empathize with them, I need to have an inkling of what they are experiencing in my own body. Then I can begin to understand what they are expressing to me. If I cannot empathize with someone, I will not be able to respond with acceptance, understanding, and compassion. Often, when we are not able to empathize we become critical, and begin to suggest that the person we are listening to is doing something wrong. This is the opposite of being emotionally intelligent and literate. When I learn to be in touch with my own feeling sensations and emotions, I begin to acquire emotional intelligence and literacy. Now I can know what I am feeling. Now I can attune myself to what others are experiencing, and I can respond openly to what I am hearing and seeing in someone I am communicating with.
Two practitioners of psychotherapy who have contributed greatly to our collective emotional intelligence are psychologists Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt. Harville and Helen have spent years researching how to improve the communication of couples. Together they have developed a teachable method for communicating openly and meaningfully in an intimate relationship. Hendrix and Hunt have taught hundreds of therapists how to employ their “Imago Therapy” methods in their work with clients.
The basic tools of the Hendrix approach are derived from the elements of communication I have discussed above: listening closely to what is being said, reflecting clearly what you understand your partner to be saying, validating that they are making sense or asking for clarification if you’re not understanding them, and empathizing with their emotional experience. Hendrix and Hunt’s approach requires strict turn taking. One partner “sends” communication and the other person receives it, while reflecting, validating, and empathizing until the sender’s communication is complete. The receiver withholds their opinions and reactions to what is being said until the sender is satisfied that they have been heard and understood. Then the Sender/Receiver roles are reversed and the second partner communicates fully whatever they want to express. One very important element in this process is that the sender is asked to communicate as close to “charge neutral” as possible. In other words, emotional content is communicated in a factual way that the receiver will be able to handle without becoming defensive. Once a couple has learned this method, they can navigate highly charged topics much more easily. As their facility with the method increases, they can even begin to identify where their strong reactions to certain issues originate from, and receive nurturing and support from their partner. I highly recommend reading the latest edition of Hendricks and Hunts classic, “Getting the Love you Want” from cover to cover. They have also created a companion guide that is filled with exercises that will help couples increase their understanding and appreciation of one another.
The reality is that the more time we take to get to know ourselves and each other emotionally, and the more accepting we are of our personal history, character and personality traits, the less defensive, and the more accepting we will be of our intimate partners. In my next installment, I will take up the subject of the blocks to intimacy and good communication, and I will also attempt to explicate the role that compassion can play in increasing our tenderness toward and appreciation of ourselves, our intimate partners, and our family members.
Let me strike an additional note for further exploration before I conclude this column. One of my favorite philosophers expressed the belief that the most essential ingredient for intimate communication, paradoxically, is silence. Unfortunately, silence in our contemporary lives is in short supply. Writing after the Second World War, the Swiss philosopher Max Picard decried the “climate of noise” that had replaced “The World of Silence.” Television was in its infancy at the time of his writing, but he still found the existing social world to be little more than a din of unintelligible sound. He suggested that “Silence” is the origin and source of all things, and that for real communication to occur, “Silence” must be listening. His lyrical, poetic notions point to Silence with a capital S as the antithesis of the “sound bites” that pollute our airways and turn our communication into a schizophrenic infomercial. So perhaps, if we are going to learn to communicate effectively and intimately, in addition to learning the fundamentals of communication, we are going to have to rediscover “Silence.”
Once again, I offer my thanks and appreciation to Toby Landesman for allowing me to display her photographs, both beautiful and humorous!
If you have questions or comments about what I have written please feel free to leave them in the space below. I will respond as quickly as possible. Consult my first “Tools for Healthy, Loving Relationships” article for more on the first three C’s of Communication in last month’s edition, which can be found in the Archives at the top of the Newtopia Home Page.
Written by Thomas Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.