There’s no doubt that communication is essential yet very complex. I work with a lot of couples in my private practice. During the initial visit, someone will predictably say that communication is their biggest problem. Can you guess which person says this the most? You guessed it, the woman. It has been observed that women want to talk about the relationship regularly to prevent any big problems, but men believe talking about the marriage all the time means there is a big problem! According to marriage experts Pat Love and Steven Stosny, this gender difference in desire to talk is due to women’s fear and anxiety about the relationship and men’s sensitivity to shame and failure. This shows how our own perspectives act as “filters” to any communication we receive. These filters we have often foul up the messages others are trying to send us. The result is misunderstanding, which can lead to a whole cartload of conflict.
When communication is going well, however, both men and women will feel secure. When anyone identifies communication as a problem, what they usually mean is that they don’t feel understood, or accepted, or that they don’t feel they have any influence in the relationship. In fact, people don’t believe that communication went well unless they feel heard, understood, and validated. These are activities accomplished only while listening, not when you are talking. This just shows how important LISTENING is to the process of communication. As Stephen Covey writes in his “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” it is important to seek to understand the other person first, only then should you try to be understood.
Let’s break down the three steps (hear, understand, validate) to good communication. The first step is about listening. In order to do this, you have to focus on the other person, not on yourself and your own thoughts. Stop worrying about being heard, quit talking, and hear what they have to say. Make sure you are showing attentiveness with your body language. An easy acronym for remembering important ways to nonverbally show you are listening is SOLER: Squarely face the speaker, Open your posture, Lean in to show attention, Eye contact, and Relax. These behaviors show you are in listening mode.
The second step, understanding, means you have mentally processed what the speaker is saying. You must listen not only to the words, but also for what the speaker is feeling and wanting. This takes work, time, and patience by both the speaker and the listener. During the understanding phase, the listener may be saying things like; “Let me see if I understand, your saying…”, or “Sounds like you feel hopeful about this.” Or “I get the feeling you want to see some change happen here.” This process needs to continue until the speaker believes you understand what they are talking about.
The third step of validation is accomplished by conveying acceptance of the speaker’s feelings and needs. You may not agree with their perspective, but you are expressing to the speaker that you accept they have a right to their own opinion. The listener must avoid criticism and defensiveness at this point. The listener at this point might be saying things like: “I see your point,” or “I didn’t realize you felt this way,” or “It sounds like you definitely have a good reason to feel this way.” This can be especially hard if the speaker is trying to make you understand how much of a jerk you are. It is easier, though, if you remember how important it is that you listen, understand, and validate. Anyone who does this will be considered less of a jerk by the end of the conversation. Additionally, anyone who feels heard, understood, and validated by you is much more likely to want to provide this kind of listening when you want to be heard.