For words, at least, there are dictionaries that can help us establish their meaning, even though in most relationship communication circumstances it would be very odd if we had to read the dictionary in order to understand each other.
For body language and voice tone however, there are no dictionaries that apply generally, to all of us. Even though there have been attempts to create such dictionaries, the fact is that each person has their own set of gestures and postures with their own corresponding meanings. And worse still, a gesture or posture that means one thing about a person in one context can mean something completely different about them in another.
Facts become Stories
When you think about it, it is remarkable that relationship communication works as well as it usually does. After all, everything that we rely upon in relationship communication is subject to interpretation. On the receiving end of the communication, we take in information; a mix of words, voice tones and body movements, that we then need to decipher in order to have an idea of what they are supposed to mean. This gathering of information is done by our five (or more) senses, which simply collect data. To the senses the data has no meaning; it is neutral and factual. It is only when the mind interprets the data, that meaning is created – the mind makes a ‘story’, based on the facts that the senses have delivered to it.
Unfortunately – because it is the main cause of misunderstandings in relationship communication – we tend to confuse the stories with the facts, and believe that our interpretation of the facts is also a fact, not just a story. Most of the time this does not cause a problem, since most of the time the stories we make up are correct, i.e. the same as the intended meaning by the person who ‘sent the message’ – so we understand each other.
It does, however, become a problem when the story we have made up does not correspond with the intended message, and we still respond to the message we believe was sent, without double-checking first with the ‘sender’.
Non-verbal communication; Thumbs up!
Let me illustrate with a simple example. In the modern ‘Western’ culture the “thumbs up” gesture is positive and communicates encouragement and agreement. In other words, out of the facts (an outstretched arm with four fingers curled into a fist and the thumb pointing upward), the interpreting mind makes up a story with that particular meaning. So when someone presents you with the “thumbs up” gesture, you probably feel encouraged or something similar, and there is little reason why you would check with the person if your story was correct, i.e. if that is what their gesture actually meant.
However, if you are visiting certain parts of the world, and you make the “thumbs up” gesture to someone, you would probably wish that they double-check their story with you, before they respond, rather than confusing their story with the facts. You see, there these same facts (arm, fingers, thumb remember) are likely to lead to a mind story which says that you have had sexual intercourse with their mother (but in much more colourful terms than that!).
But stories are not facts
In daily life relationship communication is based on innumerable facts, which all have a vast degree of variability to them. Words may have slightly different meanings for different speakers. Gestures, postures, facial expressions and voice tones all cover a range of ever so subtle nuances. Therefore, when we are faced with the task of interpreting all the facts that constitute someone’s message to us, the odds are that we quite often will come up with stories that are incorrect, and hence lead to misunderstanding. In order to become skilled at resolving misunderstandings in relationship communication, we need to be able to tell the facts from the interpretation of the facts, the story. And we need to be clear that what causes our feeling response to the message, is not the facts, but our interpretation of the facts.
Relationship communication troubles
To truly understand each other, we need to make the effort, together, to share with each other what our private worlds are like. Not by reactively dumping or blaming our emotions on the other person, but by simply communicating how it is for us, and to thereby invite the other to try on our reality, to step into our shoes for a moment, so that they can understand and we can feel understood. This is of utmost importance in loving relationships, where heated arguments can become a slow (or fast) working destroyer of love.
In my Articles collection there is an article, which has a quite detailed explanation of a strategy for for how couples can deal with upset feelings in a way that leads to understanding and avoids the spiralling into a war of words, or worse. This is an extremely important relationship communication protocol to master for every couple who want to learn how to deal with sensitive issues, in a non-blaming and non-defensive manner. You can read the article here: Upset feelings? Don’t put fuel on the fire!
If you recognise yourself in what is described above, and you would like some help to break your bad habits of relationship communication, let’s have a chat about what I can do for you; contact me today!