Why is communication so difficult?

Melissa: When Joe goes away on business trips once a month, he doesn’t understand that I need him to keep in touch. He’ll call once at night, but if he goes out late with his co-workers I may not hear from him at all. He is so insensitive and gets angry with me because I feel that way.

Joe: She can’t deal with being alone when I’m out of town. It makes me feel smothered. When I am working and in meetings all day, it’s hard for me to break away to call. Why is she so insecure?

Melissa and Joe have the same argument every time Joe goes on a business trip. They are in what we call a Chronic Communication Circle – going around and around like two hamsters on a wheel with nothing ever changing. The question is: Why do couples get stuck this way? Taking a look at the communication process may help us begin to understand.

Communication is defined as: the act of exchanging information; conveying a feeling or thought so that it is clearly understood; being connected or providing access to each other.

Though this communication process seems rather straight forward, devoid of complexity or substantial mystery, communicating effectively is much more complicated than it appears.

As Melissa talks to Joe she is converting her ideas into words based on unconscious thought which is influenced by many factors: her gender, life experience and beliefs, her thoughts and feelings about Joe. Additionally, her body language, gestures and voice – (tone, volume and pitch) create a platform upon which the words are delivered.

Joe then deciphers the words, influenced by his gender, life experience and beliefs, thoughts and feelings about Melissa; as well as, his perception of her body language, gestures and voice. Thanks to all these filters, there are actually three conversations happening at the same time. As a result, these two people are not clearly understanding each other, or providing access to one another in a productive way.

One Plus One Equals Three – Conversations, That Is

How does one exchange, between only two people, equal three conversations?

The Spoken Conversation
The first conversation is comprised of the words that are spoken – what you see and hear on the surface. Melissa asks Joe to call more. This makes Joe feel smothered. If we only hear the conversation on this level you might think, Melissa is being unreasonable – after all he does try to call once a day. Or you may think, what’s wrong with this guy, can’t he respect her wishes to call more?

The Hidden Conversation
What if we told you that Melissa and Joe’s relationship began as an affair at work? Melissa was single and Joe was married to Kathy. Would that change what you think?

Though on the surface Melissa has no evidence to indicate that Joe would cheat on her, their relationship began at work and Joe was unfaithful to his first wife.

There is a second unspoken conversation that is going on under the surface. Melissa and Joe may be aware of it, but it is silent.

This is the Hidden Conversation:

Melissa: When Joe goes away on business trips, I start to feel anxious. I know he wouldn’t cheat on me, but there is a new employee going on the trip with him and she is very attractive. And he did cheat on Kathy with me. But that was different. Or was it? He used to complain that Kathy nagged him and didn’t trust him. Is he feeling that way about me? Why can’t he just call and reassure me?

Joe: Why doesn’t she trust me? She didn’t act this way before we got married. I feel like she’s closing me in. I’m starting to feel about her the way I felt with Kathy.

The Unconscious Conversation
If we look at this process a bit more deeply, we will come to the realization that there is still more here than meets the eye – the “conscious eye,” that is.

There are many hidden elements that go on just below our conscious radar when we communicate, and some of these are so deep within us, that we may not recognize them even if they are pointed out to us.

This is the unconscious conversation. It is like a mental echo of the past. It is comprised of the baggage that we all bring into our relationship from our past.

Let us now share that Melissa grew up in a family where her father had many affairs. Being somewhat aware of this, her mother stayed in the marriage and was unhappy for years. When Melissa was 12, her father left for another woman and she seldom saw him after that. Today, their relationship continues, at best superficially.

Joe’s parents also separated when he was young. Being the oldest of three, his mother began depending on him to help care for his sisters, and for her own emotional support. She confided in him as if he was her equal. He now knows this wasn’t healthy for him.

Here is the Unconscious Conversation:

Melissa: I’m afraid of being abandoned or ending up in an unhappy marriage like my mom. My dad cheated on her and Joe cheated on Kathy. Is Joe like my dad? Is he going to leave me? I want a deep relationship not like the one I have with my father.

Joe: I’m feeling that same “closed in feeling” I used to get when my mom would come looking for me as a kid. She always had to know where I was, just like Kathy. I want to be with a woman who is independent and secure.

So, this is how it’s possible for one exchange between two people to equal three conversations:

1. The Spoken Conversation
2. The Hidden Conversation
3. The Unconscious Conversation

And, they all go on at the exact same time. If Joe and Melissa only address this issue on the spoken level, chances are the problem won’t get resolved. They will blame and try to prove the other wrong in the name of justifying their own point of view. With each seeking a win-lose resolution, the outcome will be a lose-lose.

So, how do couples achieve a win-win? Simple. They have a FOURTH conversation. The one that has been missing and is so desperately needed.

The Lost Conversation
The Lost Conversation is the one that goes beyond the spoken word, diving deeper into the conflict, to uncover the hidden and unconscious conversations. Below the surface, it searches for understanding and meaning within each individual and their relationship. Here, right and wrong have no place, because at this level, both partner’s perceptions are always “right.”

The Lost Conversation aims to move the conflict from an angry place to one that is more intimate, respectful and curious about each person’s feelings.

In counseling, we helped Melissa and Joe see that there was not one conversation taking place but three. Looking deeply, we were able to actually speak the other voices and help Melissa and Joe see that there was a lot more going on than just Joe not calling Melissa.

Here is the Lost Conversation:

Melissa: Joe, when you go away on business trips and don’t call at least once a day, I start to feel anxious. I know there is no logical reason for this; it is just my feelings.

Joe: Well, that’s interesting. I noticed you’ve been asking me to call more often and I have been withdrawing and calling less. It actually started to remind me of how I felt with Kathy and I couldn’t understand it because I know you are not dependent like she was.

Melissa: I think because our relationship started as an affair, my mind drifts there when you’re away. And I start thinking about how my dad betrayed my mom. I know that’s my issue.

Joe: I can see that. In my mind, I start thinking you are becoming needy like Kathy and then I flashback to my mom never letting me out of her sight. I start to feel smothered.

Melissa: Wow, I didn’t realize that’s how you felt, but it makes sense. How can we work it out so that I get the reassurance I need without making you feel smothered?

Joe: How about if I initiate most of the calls so I don’t feel closed in, but I will make sure I call every night, even if I’m out.

Melissa: That would be great! Thanks for understanding and working it through with me.

Joe: We are a team – that’s why I married you!

You can see when partners dive deep, search for meaning and understanding and validate each other’s feelings, finding a solution becomes easy.

So, how do couples (just like you) achieve this meaningful level of communication?

Begin by setting the stage for working as a team by agreeing to:

  1. Have a respectful conversation, leaving anger outside the door. If anger enters, take a break to cool off and come back to the table.
  2. Forgo assigning blame or right and wrong.
  3. Look for understanding beyond the spoken conversation by being curious about each other’s perceptions in order to understand your different points of view.
  4. Validate each other’s feelings and thoughts. This doesn’t mean you necessarily agree, it means that what the other is saying is understandable.
  5. Express the hidden thoughts behind your spoken words.
  6. Reach back into your history and ask yourself if the current situation reminds you of issues from your past. Search your baggage, especially if your emotional response is very intense. Then own your response and your history and share it with your partner.

When you both truly understand each other’s perceptions, then, and only then, problem solve. Brainstorm solutions that will meet both of your needs.

This sounds like a tall order, but the rewards are immeasurable! When you and your partner are able to find the Lost Conversation, you will be able to communicate effectively.

Even more, you will have dramatically increased the level of intimacy in your partnership. You will each feel heard, understood and loved – more deeply than ever before.

This article also appeared in the August/September 2009 issue of On Purpose Woman Magazine, a free magazine distributed in the Baltimore Metro area.