by Malcolm Miller, Ph.D.

This article is a brief sampling of some of the important communication issues I have worked together with clients on over the years.

It should be made clear this article does not focus on the art of persuasion, which many are really seeking when they come to therapy for help with their communication. It is not about “How do I get my spouse, children, friends, boss or coworkers to do what I want them to do?” but rather, “How do I clearly express myself and understand what the other person really means?”

First one needs to understand the roots of miscommunication. Unless these are understood and reduced, no amount of skill training in the art of communication will be effective. Most of the examples are from couple’s therapy, since these are the instances when I had direct experience with all parties involved and could evaluate the communication patterns and the impact of these suggestions. However, most of the suggestions will translate into a variety of situations.

Four areas are of particular importance. The first relates to the individual’s emotional/attachment history. If the person had a withholding parent, when the partner does not answer a question or respond to a comment, the person immediately feels and believesthat the partner is withholding and punishing. This may indeed be true—it is not unusual that one inadvertently chose a partner who replicates the person’s attachment issues. It can also be that the partner does not know what to say or is afraid their response will end in an argument rather than a positive resolution—so safety is sought and nothing is said.

It is very common with couples who have been together many years to still be more guided by the way they were raised than by increased awareness of the actual reasons their partner acts as she/he does. If this seems familiar, the best way to begin dealing with this form of miscommunication is to:

  1. Realize you may not really understand why your partner did not answer.
  2. In a nice way, say, “Dear, I asked you a question a few moments ago and you didn’t answer. I would really like to know why, since your opinion on my question is important to me.”
  3. Sincerely thank your partner for answering, even though you may not like what was said. Remember, this is about communication not persuasion. Also, if you attack their answer, you are likely validating your partner’s reason for not answering in the first place; i.e., being fearful.
  4. If the answer is not what you hoped for, ask if another time might be convenient to discuss this further.
  5. If you are the one who does not answer, realize you are not really making the safe choice and instead it is best to share why you are reluctant to respond.

A second reason for miscommunication is that people are guided by their experiences growing up of what the correct way of responding or looking at a situation is. As Jean Piaget, the noted psychologist on the development of thought processes, stated, people have a tendency to view their perception as the accurate one, not simply one among many. How many times have you said “I would never do that” or “That’s not what someone should do.”? Another common statement I have heard is “You should know what I meant (or wanted),” when the other person did not have a clue or was thinking something completely different. It is important to realize there is no right way to act, and a person may behave in a certain way because they grew up with the same good values being expressed in a very different way. Again it is best to try to understand rather than prejudge. It is also crucial to discuss the differing views so that both partners can come to a mutually agreeable solution.

A third area of miscommunication is confusing whether the other person is seeking guidance or simply seeking support. If one’s partner is seeking a little tender love and care, he or she will not appreciate “This is what you need to do….” or “This is how I would have handled it.” It is best to figure out what the person is seeking and direct one’s response accordingly. Linked to this, it is important that each person try to be clear ahead of time what he/she is really seeking and structure the question accordingly. If one wants to wear a particular outfit but wonders about accessories, it is best if the person asks “I really like this outfit; anything further you would recommend?” instead of “What do you think of this outfit?” If one just had a bad day at the office with one’s boss and really felt put down, it is more effective to say, “My feelings got really hurt at work today and I’d like to tell you about it and get some TLC,” than to say, “My boss is really rotten and I am thinking of telling him off tomorrow.”

Finally, it is critical to be aware, particularly when the communication is about a sensitive area, that the mood, tone and timing can greatly impact the effectiveness of the communication. If one or both of the partners are anxious, angry or preoccupied, it is best to suggest finding a better time to have the discussion. Not now! When someone is upset, he or she wants to feel better, not have clear communication and develop a problem solving plan. Also, strong emotions block people from really being clear about what they are asking for and being open to various workable solutions, where no one loses. It is best to choose a good quiet place and time without distractions. It is critical for both to be in the same mindset: we love and respect each other and are trying to understand how each of us feels and find a solution that works for both of us as a couple.

Hopefully, these have been some useful pointers about how miscommunications develop and how to begin communicating more effectively. No one is perfect, situations are not always ideal, but the more these ideas are actually used, the better the communication and the more pleasurable the relationship will be.

Dr. Malcolm Miller is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in West Los Angeles and Torrance and is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. He may be contacted at 310-822-9998 or mmillerphd@aol.com.

Copyright 2019 by Malcolm Miller, Ph.D