What you say might not be what they hear

I had a lovely client in this week who couldn’t understand why he was having trouble communicating with his wife. Her reactions baffled him. He said it wasn’t hormonal. Admirably, he was taking responsibility for what was happening. Clearly, he said, he just wasn’t doing a good job of getting his messages across.

This guy obviously isn’t alone. Most of us have experienced situations where we think what we have said is clear as day – only to discover that our partner, children, colleague or friend had a completely different interpretation. If it’s happening all the time, something needs to change.

The trick is to always remember to whom you’re talking. Good communicators tailor their style to suit the audience – whether that’s an audience of 1 million or 1. The mistake many of us make is to talk in a way that we understand, rather than in a way that others understand.

Classic examples include:

I’d like us to spend more time together is interpreted as You’re neglecting me.

I think we need to let the baby learn to settle herself is interpreted as You’re a terrible mother.

I miss cuddling you is interpreted as I’ll go somewhere else if you don’t give me more sex.

You’re not looking after yourself is interpreted as You’re letting yourself go or you’re getting fat.

What can I do to help? is interpreted as The chores are your responsibility, but on this occasion, I’m willing to help you out.

You may laugh, but this is what I hear in my office everyday. Obviously if your partner, child, colleague or friend is very sensitive to everything that is said, then they need to work on their own self-esteem. But we can help the situation by checking how our words are being interpreted. Most couples have the same argument over and over again. So why not get on a new path by tailoring what you say.

If you know your partner is worried about not being a good enough mum, then any discussion around parenting needs to begin with some reassuring words about the fabulous job she’s doing. If you constantly argue over the chores, then a better way of asking how you can help would be to say: Why don’t I vacuum/clean the bathroom/wash up etc, unless you have a better idea? And if your disagreements are usually over sex, then your suggestions for ways to increase intimacy need to be clearly bookmarked between words of love and commitment.

I’m not suggesting we attempt to read other people’s minds or take sole responsibility for our partner’s happiness, but a simple check on what was heard may lead to a reduction in unnecessary tension.

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