Why Communication Skills Are Not Enough to Deepen Your Relationship

Updated: Sep 18

Janet Myatt, MA

Learning how to communicate effectively is one of the single most important things we can do for ourselves, our relationship with others, and with the world around us. It leads us into areas of personal growth that promote deep healing and awaken the mind to much higher states of awareness.


Many communication training programs have focused on specific well-established skills. And, of course, these skills do provide important tools that help communication flow more smoothly. They are good to know, and will help open up communication. However, these skills alone are not enough to deepen our relationships because of themselves they don’t get us to the levels of connection that produce intimacy, safety, and healing.


For nearly ten years I worked in corporations teaching effective interpersonal communication skills to groups. The program was designed to help people learn how to diagnose the cause of a problem and how to deal with emotional behavior. The skills were great! When people remembered to use them, they did experience better results. But, in the course of an actual situation in the workplace or at home, few people were able to employ the skills because they were already triggered by the situation. Emotions were already in play – their own and the other person’s. Perceptual distortions and biases were fired up and controlling the entire approach to the situation. And past history was mucking up the present communication.


I found this to be true not only for my clients, but for myself as well. Clearly, I understood the skills and believed in their value. But, in real-life situations they proved not to be enough. A cognitive understanding of how to communicate better was not enough to offset the perceptual distortions and resulting pain that arose from strong emotions, entrenched beliefs, and habitual patterns of reactivity.


I was frustrated by this mismatch. I wanted to discover what would make a real difference. Eventually, I came to understand that basic communication skills do not provide the depth and insight needed for developing emotional intelligence and intimacy. To truly connect with another, we must be able to create opportunities for understanding the triggers and behavioral patterns – our own and the other person’s – that impact the relationship.


Let’s consider five basic communication skills. The examples are between a couple, but these skills apply to other relationships too.


1. “I” statements

This skill teaches individuals to speak to their own emotional experience rather than blaming and shaming the other person. The focus is on the speaker owning how they feel and how they are currently impacted by the other person’s behavior.


“You” statements place responsibility for the speaker’s emotions on the other person. This is a disempowering place to be. It grows anger and sadness by teaching the speaker they have no power over their emotional state. It also shuts down communication as a “you” statement is perceived as an attack and will initiate a defensive reaction. Defensive reactions may be aggressive – fighting back, or passive – shutting down, crying, walking away. But either way, open safe communication is now blocked.


“I’m angry that the kitchen is a mess when I left it clean.”


Versus


“I’m sick of you never cleaning up after yourself. You always expect me to do it for you.”


2. Avoiding the “but” sandwich.

Hearing a compliment linked with a criticism negates the positive message and promotes a feeling of being manipulated and unappreciated for what has gone well. Learning to use “and” instead of “but” helps keep the positive part of the communication valid in the listener’s mind.


“Thank you for mowing the yard, but you left the clippings all over the sidewalk.”


Negates the opening thank you. The message is, “you didn’t do it right.”


“Thank you for mowing the yard, and I’d appreciate it if you’d put the clippings in the garbage.”


Acknowledges the mowing without negating it with the request.


3. Diagnosing the Problem

Too often we get off to the wrong start in a conversation because we walk into it with a set of assumptions that often sabotage the communication. Learning to diagnose the underlying cause of a perceived problem helps individuals gain a clearer understanding of the situation they want to discuss. And, enable the initiator to respond with additional skills best suited to the problem.


In our example above, the “and” statement is an improvement. At the same time, this communication could go better by starting with a question rather than an immediate request for action.


“Thank you for mowing the yard. Are you planning on putting the clippings in the garbage today?


“No, I’m tired.”


“Are you saying you don’t want to do it or you’re unable to do it?”


“I don’t want to.” [A motivation problem]


“I appreciate your hard work mowing the lawn, and at the same time I’m concerned about the clippings getting in the pool.”


Motivation problems are best handled by communicating natural consequences

  • To the task: “I’m concerned about the clipping getting in the pool.”

  • To others: “Someone will have to net them out before they cause algae to grow.”

  • To the person: “The water chemistry may get messed up and cause you a lot of extra work.”

Ability problems are best handled by asking the individual for their ideas of what to do first.


“Thank you for mowing the yard. Are you planning on putting the clippings in the garbage today?


“No, I’m tired.”


“Are you saying you don’t want to do it or you’re unable to do it?”


“I hurt my back putting the mower away. I need to rest.”


“I’m sorry you hurt your back. Rest sounds like a good idea. What do you have in mind for the clippings?”


“I’m going to work something out with Danny when he gets home from soccer.”


“That’s great. I’m glad you have a plan, I was worried about the pool. Thanks again for taking care of the lawn today. I hope your back feels better.”


4. Active Listening – restating what you heard

There are two parts to this skill.

  1. The speaker learns to chunk communication into shorter statements

  2. The listener learns to state back what they heard and checks for understanding.

I’m upset that you weren’t ready on time; now we’re going to be late


You’re upset because I’ve made us late, is that right?”


The goal of repeating what you hear is for the receiving partner to repeat back precisely what the speaker said – not a paraphrase. I’ve found that paraphrasing invites too much perceptual bias to flow into the response as the person struggles to find different words. One chunk at a time, the speaker expresses and the listener restates until the communication is complete. This helps:

  • Keep the focus on the speaker and communicates the message that they matter.

  • Reduce the tendency to “hear” a message sounding-off in the listener’s own head that assigns motives and messages onto the speaker that fit the listener’s perception. These internal interpretations are fraught with distortions and are usually designed to validate the listener’s inner wounds. This grows misunderstanding and lack of connection.

Quite often speaker and listener seem to be in separate conversations. Both are squarely inside their own perceptual bubbles, interpreting things through their own personal biases and triggers. We may think we’re listening to what our partner is saying, but we’re really listening to a distorted message rooted in our own inner emotional life. We’re not listening for understanding. We’re listening to defend, attack, and win. I call this listening with our inner “lawyer” and critic.


The speaker says, “I’m upset that you weren’t ready on time; now we’re going to be late.


But the listener hears this as, “You’ve messed up again. Your feelings aren’t as important to me as other people’s.”


In this example, the receiving partner to misses the fact that the speaker is worried. And worse, the listener is teaching himself [i] he is not valuable. This provokes the listener to either become defensive or shut down. This, in turn, teaches the speaker that they are also not valuable. The listener’s focus is on himself.

This helps:

  • Keep the focus on the speaker. This sends the message that they matter.

  • Reduce the tendency to “hear” a message sounding-off in the listener’s own head that assigns motives and messages onto the speaker that fit the listener’s perception. These internal interpretations are fraught with distortions and are usually designed to validate the listener’s inner wounds. This grows misunderstanding and lack of connection.

5. Appreciation and Gratitude

Long-term relationships need fertile ground to keep growing and thriving. You might think of the relationship as a garden that each of you cultivate together. What you put into it is what you’ll get out. Expressing appreciation and gratitude are the fertilizer that keep the garden healthy and the relationship on a strong foundation of affinity. This is especially true during times of stress and conflict. Right when it’s hardest to do is when it’s needed the most. Making it a priority to focus the mind on what’s going right not only protects the relationship, it keeps each individual’s mental-emotional world grounded and balanced.


Listening for Understanding

You can see that these five basic communication skills are important. However, they are not enough to cultivate true intimacy and deeper understanding alone. To go deep, individuals need to be willing to let go of over-attachment to their own perception and become genuinely willing to understand how someone else is perceiving things. This requires:

  • A willingness to listen for understanding.

  • A willingness to understand that all perception is biased and ultimately not true. This requires some level of spiritual insight.

Let’s look at an example of listening for understanding.


I’m upset that you weren’t ready on time; now we’re going to be late


You’re upset because I’ve made us late, is that right?”


“Yes, I’m worried _____ will be upset with me. ____ always makes snide remarks when we’re late.”


“You’re worried ____ will be upset with you and say something snide about it.”


“Yes.”


“It makes sense that you’re upset that I’ve made us late because you’re worried that ­­­­____ will disapprove and say something hurtful to you.”


The receiver learns to understand how their partner’s emotional world currently works.

Speaker’s Emotional World

  1. I lost control of when we left

  2. I’m worried about others feeling disapproving of me

  3. Result: I’m upset and worried; I’m feeling powerless

Forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and respect can flourish when an individual learns to be open and curious about the other person’s current sense of reality. This is hard to do without some deeper psycho-spiritual work. Yet, the benefits far outweigh any cost in effort. Understanding another’s patterns of behavior and how they get triggered can help people get out of recurring patterns of limitation, pain, and disappointment.


To do this, each individual will need to bring to light their own core emotions and reactive patterns. And, make space for the fact that other’s also have core emotions, a core pain-body. The behavioral reactions to core emotions are often different and even oppositional. But the common denominator is a feeling of fear, unworthiness, and lack of safety. When we understand that perception is not truth, we have room to grow. We can decentralize our identity out of our thoughts and emotions making room for a change in perception that is healing.


In our example above, the listener also has core emotions that provoke the pain-body. Finding the right time to explore his or her emotional world will be important. Each couple will have to figure the timing of this out for themselves. Perhaps following the previous exchange or on another day, the listener can become the speaker and share how he or she reacts to anger and stress.


“When you’re upset I feel terrible. I’m sorry you were upset and I’m also mad that you didn’t ask me why I was late or express any interest in my feelings.”


“You feel terrible when I’m upset. You’re sorry I was upset but mad that I didn’t ask why you were late or ask about your feelings. Is there more you’d like to say?”


“Yes. I feel like this happens a lot. You just assume your feelings are all that’s important. And if I’ve displeased you, I should be punished for it.”


“You feel I put my feelings above yours a lot. And you feel I want to punish you when I’m upset with you. Is that right?”


“Yes”


“Is there more?”


“I don’t like feeling punished. It makes me feel hostile. I don’t feel I deserve to be treated like that and it makes me not want to be around you.”


“You don’t want to be around me when I’m upset because you feel I’m punishing you.”

“Yes.”


“It makes sense that when I’m upset and don’t ask for your input, you feel punished. You feel you don’t deserve it and become hostile and withdrawn. Is that right?”


You can see how much is revealed in this exchange. Individuals and couples can learn how to respond to each other’s core vulnerability in a safe, compassionate manner that empowers them to experience true intimacy. From this safe, nourishing environment, personal healing and growth occurs for everyone involved.


At the same time, you can also see how difficult it is to learn how to do this at first. Developing a sense of self that is not over-identified with our perception takes a deep commitment to healing the mind. In my experience, A Course in Miracles is one of the most transformational catalysts of psycho-spiritual healing available at this time.


Through studying the principles of forgiveness, wholeness, and brotherhood a threefold benefit unfolds:

  1. Individuals begin to evolve and actualize their highest creative potential,

  2. Their relationships begin to fulfill their highest potential,

  3. The collective whole evolves consciously.

Without profound psychological healing, basic communication skills training is not enough to create meaningful, lasting change. Together, they become a powerful force for change that supports highly successful relationships. And ultimately, a better more peaceful world can arise.


If you’re ready to move beyond basic communication skills training, let me know. I am now developing classes and workshops to support you. Your feedback will help me get a better idea of what to build.

[[i] Gender neutral use of this pronoun intended.]

 
 
© 2020 Janet Myatt
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