After thirty-five years in private psychotherapy practice and decades of studying and teaching, I've found all good communication boils down to just four simple rules. Whether it's with our spouse, our kids or our boss, mastering these concepts will have us communicating with anyone about any topic, effectively and lovingly. While this topic may not seem new, I believe we can never be reminded of them enough. They are simple but not easy.
There are also four main violations that create misunderstandings (as well as the ensuing hurt). They stem from unexpressed emotions -- sadness, anger and fear. Recognizing these four bad communication habits will help us avoid the alienation and confusion we often experience when interacting with others, especially at emotionally-charged times. Using them is like throwing gasoline on the barbecue.
Choosing Between Distance or Closeness
Knowing the communication rules and violations doesn't call for stilted conversations. Being cognizant of them ensures we make a choice whether we want distance or closeness. By abiding by the four rules we honor ourselves and others with every exchange and increase the probability to find connection and common ground.
1. The First Rule is “talk about yourself.” This is our domain. It's a big enough task to take care of ourselves so believing it's our duty to comment on, or interpret, other diverts us from focusing on what's true for us about us. Share what we feel, think, want, and need. This brings closeness, as we reveal information about ourselves. It can take a minute to determine what we believe, feel or want.
The First Violation is to tell other people about themselves (without permission). This includes criticizing, blaming, sarcasm, teasing, attacking, and finger-pointing. You're guaranteed to create separation and accentuate differences. I call this "you-ing" because instead of talking about ourselves, we divert attention and put the focus on putting others down or making them wrong.
2. The Second Rule is to stay specific and concrete. That's what we do with everything from music to architecture to computers; and what we must do when communicating. When we stay concrete, others can understand what we're saying – the topic, the request, the reasons. It brings peace.
The Second Violation is over-generalizing. This can take the form of sweeping conclusions, abstractions, and labels, and using words like “always” and “never”, or bringing in other topics barely related to the subject at hand. This is confusing, as we don’t know what's being said. It fuels fear.
3. The Third Rule is kindness. Compassion fosters love. It can take the form of offering appreciations, praise, focusing on the positive, and sharing gratitude. Stick with talking about what will uplift and move the conversation forward.
The Third Violation is saying unkind things. Focusing on what’s not working, or on what we don’t like, throws a wrench in furthering the communication and just produces anger and feelings of separation in the recipient.
4. The Fourth Rule is simply to listen. That means seeking to truly understand what someone is saying, and encouraging their speech. Almost no one feels listened to enough! Listening is a practice that brings closeness. The next section elaborates on this essential skill.
The Fourth Violation is not listening. We know how that feels. Not good. Automatic interruptions, debates, and wise-cracks don’t truly acknowledge the speaker but instead further our own agenda.
We don't have to look very far to find these violations. They are in virtually every setting and cause communication breakdowns and distance. The four rules on the other hand, bring loving, effective communication and feelings of connection. Remember: share your own experience -- "I", use specifics, stick to kindness, and listen. They are very simple (but not easy) rules. The rewards of living by them are infinite and supremely satisfying.
The Art of Listening
Here is a list of listening-don'ts:
* Leaping into problem solving
* Offering unsolicited advice or opinions
* Finishing others' sentences
* Changing the topic
* Matching stories
* Debating or challenging
* Cornering or interrogating
The best way to show you're listening is to close your mouth, shut out background noise, and give the other person undivided attention. Full attention when someone else is speaking also means you're not already gearing up for an opportunity to counter with your own opinions.
You may think you're demonstrating empathy when you interrupt another person's story to chime in about your own experience. But you may be surprised to find the other person doesn't really care about a "bigger fish" story; they just wore their heart on their sleeve and you're trying to one up them! Communication has turned into competition.
If you tend to interrupt or dominate every conversation, slap some imaginary duct tape on your mouth when someone else is speaking. Hogging the airtime, or not paying attention to another person who's speaking, will produce anger in others. When you don't listen to someone, you're failing to acknowledge that person as an equal. And that's never going to inspire good feelings. The other person perceives it as a violation and responds accordingly. Listening well, on the other hand, promotes love. It's a form of selfless giving and an invitation to connect.
Just because you understand a person's position doesn't automatically mean you agree with it. For love to flourish, you must fully accept that the other people's viewpoints and needs are as valid as yours. This seems to be challenging for many who have developed strong opinions about everything from politics to mothering techniques. Earnestly listening to people makes them feel comfortable and safe.
Here are some further listening suggestions
1. To encourage a withdrawn person to talk, lovingly say, “Tell me more” or “More details please.”
2. Smile and nod a lot. These nonverbal gestures express an open and compassionate stance of listening.
3. Support yourself mentally when listening and silently repeat such phrases as: Your viewpoints and needs are as valid as mine. Or when they're talking about you rather than themselves, think: They are "you-ing" me, and what they're saying says nothing about me.
4. If a topic fills you with big doses of sadness, anger, or fear, ask for and take a short time-out to deal with your emotions. Then return to listening.
5. When “YOU-ED,” matador it. Don’t defend, argue, placate, explain, or offer your rational explanations. Like a matador, let the BULL go by, remembering: "They are out of their territory and "you-ing me."
©2018 by Jude Bijou, M.A., M.F.T.
All Rights Reserved.
Book by this Author
Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life
by Jude Bijou, M.A., M.F.T.
With practical tools, real-life examples, and everyday solutions for thirty-three destructive attitudes, Attitude Reconstruction can help you stop settling for sadness, anger, and fear, and infuse your life with love, peace, and joy.
About the Author
Jude Bijou is a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFT), an educator in Santa Barbara, California and the author of Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life. In 1982, Jude launched a private psychotherapy practice and started working with individuals, couples, and groups. She also began teaching communication courses through Santa Barbara City College Adult Education. Visit her website at AttitudeReconstruction.com/
* Watch an interview with Jude Bijou: How to Experience More Joy, Love and Peace
* Watch video: Shiver to Express Fear Constructively (with Jude Bijou)