Overcoming the Blocks to Good Communication
Encountering someone with whom we can easily communicate is a source of joy for many of us. The serendipitous spark that suddenly ignites between us when we believe that we have found a kindred spirit is both magical and inspiring. How is it possible that we can find someone that we can talk to pleasurably for hours, only to find later that this connection is suddenly difficult, elusive, and frustrating? What are the causes and conditions that turn good communication into a quagmire of misunderstanding and discontent? Once that process of deterioration begins to happen in an ongoing relationship, how can we restore the flow of connection and rediscover the closeness, warmth, and rapport that we once felt. This is the subject matter that I will begin to explore in this installment of “Tools of Transformation.”
In the last two chapters of this column, I identified some of the ingredients of healthy, loving relationships: chemistry, compatibility, cooperation, and communication. Here, I will take up the challenge of addressing a few of the obstacles that get in the way of good communication and thwart our attempts at intimacy. We know how good it feels when we establish rapport with someone and mutual self-disclosure begins to flow. We cherish those moments when we begin to develop trust and feel safe enough to risk intimate conversation. These prized experiences, however, are fragile, vulnerable, and easily lost. How can it be that the excitement of these moments of simpatico, rapport, discovery, and ease of communication can turn to frustration, hurt, and disappointment? Who are these gremlins that rob us of the joys of intimacy and replace them with discontent and pain?
What we prize are the qualities that support and sustain healthy intimacy. Some of these qualities are appreciation, gratitude, acceptance, wonder, compassion, simpatico, recognition, contentment, and surprise. The enemies of good communication and true intimacy include ego driven power tripping, discounting in all its forms, competitiveness, and our reactive defenses. In my columns over the next few months, I intend to explicate these problematic aspects of our personalities and discuss remedies that will effectively ameliorate the distress they create. In this blog I will begin with an overview and exploration of the impact of our defenses on communication and intimacy.
Anyone who has taken a beginning psychology course likely knows that there are five major defenses: Denial, Distrust, Rationalization, Blaming, and Placation. We develop these ways of protecting ourselves throughout childhood, usually in reaction to the distress of growing up in a dysfunctional family or an oppressive societal situation or both. Since we build these defenses unconsciously, they become an instinctive part of us and therefore, feel almost “normal.” In other words, our defenses are experienced as an integrated part of ourselves. This reality leads to expressions like “This is just the way I am,” or “I have always been this way.” This makes it difficult for us to identify them for what they are, a habituated reaction to whatever feels like a threat to our existence. When we behave in a defensive way, we can feel like we are doing what we need to do to take care of ourselves. Unfortunately, what actually ensues when we are defensive is that we have activated behaviors and attitudes that are likely to result in conflict and the escalation of uncomfortable emotion. This pertains because when we are being defensive, whomever we are interacting with is going to perceive us as aggressive, except in the case of the defense of placation, which is an attempt to smooth over the situation.
What each of these major defenses does is inherent in the name of the defense. Denial rejects the existence of whatever one needs to be dealing with. “I don’t really drink too much. I have a greater capacity for alcoholic beverages than most people, and besides, wine is good for your heart.” These sentences contain not only denial, but also rationalization. Distrust creates a wariness in us that can cause us to distance ourselves from whatever we fear. “I don’t feel comfortable with the people who go to that club. I’m afraid they will judge me.” Rationalization is the process of finding reasons why we are the way we are, or for explaining away experiences that have impacted us. “The only reason I’m not dating anyone right now is that I’m too good for the people in this school.” Blaming places responsibility on anyone or anything other than us. “If it wasn’t for that creep Joey, we would have had a great night.” Placation attempts to smooth over conflict or upset and tries to make things better than they are. “I know George has a bad temper, but I can usually calm him down and then he’s a real sweetheart.”
The litmus test for recognizing these defenses in our interactions has to do with their lack of congruency with what is actually happening. There is a disparity between a defensive communication and what has just taken place. It’s as if someone is singing just off key. There is an incongruity in a defensive response that the receiver may only pick up as a feeling of discomfort. For example, a young woman calls her boyfriend and asks what he did last night. When he answers her there is a disconnection between his words and his energy. “Oh, not much, my buddies and I were just hanging out, drinking a few beers.” The over-generalization of his response is suspicious. If he really wanted her to know what he was up to, he would be offering more detail, and she would be able to feel the authentic vitality of his response. Whenever we begin to suspect that someone is not being honest with us, the person we are interacting with is likely to be reacting defensively. Likewise, if we find ourselves reacting to what someone is saying by contradicting them or completely denying what they suggest with words like, “This is not my fault,” “this isn’t really a problem,” “it’s your fault and your problem,” “I instinctively know this isn’t true,” “I don’t need this b.s.,” “oh that’s OK, I didn’t really need that anyway,” it is very possible that we are reacting defensively as well.
The reality is that when we are defensive, communication begins to break down. We may react in a variety of different ways such as: distorting what actually happened; feeling attacked; becoming overly angry; feeling uncomfortable and withdrawing from the situation; feeling the need to smooth things over. We may feel anxiety or outright fearfulness. Every one of us experiences defensive feelings and reactions with some regularity. Each of us is carrying the seeds of defensive interaction within our psyche, and all it takes to bring these reactions to the surface is a perceived threat. Then the denying, the fearful reactions, the blaming, rationalizing, and placating begin.
Years ago, I was visiting with a psychologist friend of mine and we were having a good time together. We liked each other and were being playful and flirtatious, when suddenly my friends face changed. “Hold on a second,” she said. “I am starting to feel uncomfortable. Let me check in with myself for a minute.” She closed her eyes. No one I knew ever communicated in this way, so I felt somewhat uncomfortable, but I had the presence of mind to wait and not say anything. In a matter of perhaps 30 seconds, she opened her eyes and said, “When you teased me, I felt uncertain about how you felt about me. I became afraid that you were distancing yourself from me, just when I felt hopeful that we were getting closer.” This was a revelation to me. My friend was right. I had teased her, a behavior which is characteristic of me to this day, and my teasing, though playful, created some distance. If I had been as attuned to myself as she was to herself, I would have felt my own discomfort in relation to our getting closer. At that point in my life, I wanted to have pleasurable contact with women without getting involved with them. I had been hurt too many times in past relationships, and I was distrustful of women that I felt attracted to. In that moment I was only able to admit that I had teased her. I claimed that I wasn’t really distancing myself. I did feel close to her. I employed another set of defenses, denial and placation.
What I learned from this experience has stayed with me to this day, both in my personal life and in my work. Being attuned to our feelings of discomfort, when we are in an interpersonal interaction, will allow us to realize when we are getting defensive. This is valuable information because in truth we have all been hurt. We all have tender places in our psyches that are reactive to anything that feels threatening or hurtful. At the subconscious level, we are anticipating that whatever we are afraid is going to harm us is indeed going to happen. Although our defenses are constructed to keep us from harm, instead they often create the very situation that we are trying to avoid.
The key to heading these overly reactive patterns off at the pass is to do what my friend did with me. Notice when you are starting to feel uncomfortable. Go inside yourself and become attuned to your feelings, thoughts, and visual imagery. These are the clues that point to where your discomfort is coming from. Once you have a sense of what is going on inside you, you can return to the interaction you are having in a more open and honest way. You can recover your connection to the other person and resume intimate disclosure. When we reveal ourselves, first to ourselves and then to the other person in this way, we become real. We let ourselves be seen.
This kind of revealing self-disclosure feels risky. Instead of defending our old wounds, we are making ourselves vulnerable. I have had a wonderful relationship with my chiropractor for many years. When he works on my neck he still has to remind me that I don’t have to hold onto my head. He has it. I can let it go. Even though I trust him implicitly, even though he has never hurt me, some part of me is afraid to let go and turn the healing work over to him. I still need to be reminded of his faithfulness to my care. While he tests my muscles in relation to all kinds of issues, we have ongoing conversations that never cease to amaze me. On Friday we came to a mutual conclusion as we talked about our clients’ predicaments and our own struggles. We all need to follow our pain. We need to get in touch with our wounds and our fears, and learn to accept them. Not only that, we need to disclose these vulnerabilities to our loved ones.
Digging deeper into our habitual reactions through reflection, meditation, conversations with friends and with our counselors can lead to very rewarding experiences of intimacy and bonding. When we speak our truth to each other in love, not only do we increase our acceptance of ourselves, but we also open ourselves to the love and appreciation of someone that we care about. This can lead to the melting away of our defenses and to an accumulation of new positive experiences. We can take this opportunity to begin writing a new script for our lives, one that is a map of how to be open, self-disclosing, and receptive to our loved ones. This is the path to gratitude, tenderness, generosity of spirit, and true loving vitality.
In my next installment of “Tools for Healthy, Loving Relationships” I will explore the role the ego plays in thwarting intimacy. I will also discuss learning to take ourselves and one another into full account, the antidote for discounting and redefining our experience.
I offer my gratitude and appreciation to my collaborator Toby Landesman for her beautiful, creative, and humorous images.
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.