We communicate with the whole of our being, not just in words. However, most of us have been taught to believe that the words we use to express our ideas and feelings are the most important focus and basis of communication. If a person decides not to talk, we call them ‘uncommunicative’ – but this is misleading, because that person is most certainly communicating a strong message.
The truth is that by the time we get to the stage of verbal communication, we have already exchanged a great deal of information – much of which flows back and forth between people at a barely-conscious level.
We also communicate our attitudes, thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others in many subtle ways. Things such as body stance, tone of voice, eye contact and the ‘energy’ a person emits, all provide the rich groundwork upon which our words fall – congruously or otherwise.
Understanding the subtler messages permeating our processes of communication is an essential first step to creating greater clarity in relationships.
This can engender richness and passion between couples, or it can be a source of confusion or resentment. Which of these it will be, depends upon the underlying expectations each person has about the nature of the relationship. Our expectations fill in the spaces between the words and actions. These expectations are not necessarily the same for each person, and there are often also gender differences.
The heart of the matter
At the heart of any communication process in which you will ever become involved is – you. Ultimately, this is the only aspect of a communication process over which you can ever have control. The beauty of working on the subtle context that each party brings to the communication process, is that you don’t necessarily have to wait until you can find the opportunity, energy and commitment to work on it jointly. Before reaching for a “How to Communicate” manual and trying to convince your partner to correct all his/her poor communication patterns, it is both wise and necessary to do some self-reflection.
There are three vital steps that you can undertake to bring communication to a point of clarity. These steps are:
- Know yourself – work to understand the patterns that operate subtly, and virtually automatically in your life and whether they are ones that move you towards greater respect and honour for your own being – or not.
- Know where your partner is coming from – work towards understanding their context and the ways in which (from your perspective) they love, respect and honour themselves.
- Command respect for yourself – give respect and ask for it in return – nothing more and nothing less.
Know yourself – discovering your own patterns
We human beings operate on patterns of behaviour that are the result not only of learning from our own life experience, but importantly, many patterns are handed down through generations of our family, in the form of ‘genetic memory’. These ancestral patterns operate particularly strongly in the area of relationships. They form the basis of our family patterns and influence what we are likely to find familiar, comfortable or uncomfortable in intimate relationships. Some of these patterns may be helpful but others are not. They can be changed – with determined effort, but they must first be recognised.
In order to raise your awareness of factors that may influence your communication patterns in relationships (for better and for worse), it is a very useful exercise to write down as many of these patterns as you can identify from your family background. Take the time to write a list of all the family members you have any knowledge of at all – regardless of how little you may know. Follow it back as many generations as possible. Ask other family members for any information they may have. Next to each person’s name, write all that you know about them – particularly focussing on behaviour, emotions, beliefs, the qualities of their relationships with others and how and with whom they communicated.
As you work you will inevitably become aware of many of those patterns operating currently in your life. Examine each pattern for its propensity to enhance (or squash) your loving acceptance of simply who you are. You don’t have to have ‘perfect’ patterns – none of us does. Awareness is the key that allows you to draw on the wisdom of the experience and balance it in your life. Awareness is also the key to your choice to continue or to release those patterns.
Know your partner, command respect
If each partner could do the above exercise and share their discoveries, the results would be enlightening for you both. If that is not possible, then you may still enhance your understanding of the basis from which your partner communicates. Write down your observations of circumstances in which you feel the communication between the two of you was/is at its clearest and most satisfying for you. This will give your partner the best practical guidance about his/her most successful patterns, should you decide to share that information.
Focussing on the ‘successes’ will avoid the possibility of judgmentalism. Be aware that this is your viewpoint only – it is absolutely valid as your viewpoint, although your partner may well have a different viewpoint – which is equally valid for her/him.
Commanding respect is not an aggressive action. It is not about being in anyone’s face. It is about expressing your requirement for respect in a strong and clear manner. It is possible to be strong, and even outspoken, without aggression. When you give respect and ask for it in return you are most likely to receive it, although this is not guaranteed. You ask without ‘expectation’, but you still clearly ask – that is the basis of the quietly balanced ‘command’.
You can’t help but communicate…
Communication is the active expression of relationship. It is what naturally and automatically happens in every human interaction.
It is an integral part of being human in a social environment. When we look beyond the obvious verbal and non-verbal manifestations of communication patterns we see in its subtle fabric, a reflection of self to self. Communication that honours self and others blossoms in an atmosphere of patience and generosity of spirit.
Ann Tan PhD, AASW, MAASW has 25 years experience as a counsellor. She currently works in the Eltham area, Victoria. Her doctoral research studied emotion.
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