Failure to Communicate

Failure to Communicate By Steven Kovar • 2 min read

Growing up, I always assumed breakdowns in communication and fickle relationships were strictly teenage issues—that adults somehow divined the answers in their transition from kid to grownup. Turns out I was wrong.

At home, in the office, or between friends, most issues in a meaningful relationship result from miscommunication happening at some point. Our initial reaction is to become aggressive or defensive, trying to "solve the problem" by winning the argument (wrong) or conceding to make the other person happy (wrong) rather than deconstructing the problem to find where communication broke down (right).

Whether that emotional reaction stems from misaligned expectations, a lack of context, or nonverbal miscues, it's vital to avoid letting the situation escalate into an argument—which tend to be one-sided. I like what Ben Horowitz says about feedback being a dialogue vs. a monologue:

You may be telling somebody about something that you don’t like or disagree with, but that doesn’t mean that you’re right... Your goal should be for your feedback to open up rather than close down discussion.

The satisfaction of winning an argument doesn't benefit the relationship. It creates tension and is childish. If you are too riled up to have a dialogue, disconnect yourself from the moment and come back to discuss the cause of miscommunication when you are relaxed—it works wonders. I promise.

You want a mutual understanding of the situation and of each others' feelings so you can make an informed, collaborative decision. If you are having trouble articulating your feelings, try using this phrasing in your head or to your partner:

When you say X in situation Y, it makes me feel Z.

Similarly, Jeff Atwood mentions in his post How to Talk to Human Beings how a parenting book fundamentally changed how he deals with "children aged 2 to 99." The book provides a template for resolving tension: listen, repeat what they say, and label their emotions. The 'child' will find the solution themselves. Jeff's post shows an example of a discussion with an upset adult:

“Oh come on! I can’t get a signal here? Dammit. This is New York.”
He looked at me.
“No signal?” I say. “Here in New York?” (Repeat what they say.)
“It’s not like we’re in Goddamn Wisconsin.”
“Mmmm.” (Listen. Make soothing noises.)
“We’re not on a farm. It’s New York, for God’s sake,” he said.
“That’s frustrating,” I say. (Label their emotions.)
He calmed down.

Next time you feel tension in a relationship, take a step back to gain some perspective and apply these concepts. Remember, it's not just kids who need to learn how to communicate.


Published in #Thoughts.

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