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"Assumptions are the termites of relationships."
-Henry Winkler
This is the month that is supposed to "come in like a lion, and go out like a lamb".  Here's hoping that it will "go out like a lamb"!  Last month I began working in my new office, and have since added some photos of the new Pyxis Counselling Services office on Facebook.  This month's article is about communication and some of the difficulties that we have with it.  Communication is one of the threads that is woven throughout our daily life, as we have interactions with different people throughout a given day.      

Communication - How and Why it Can Go Awry

We each see the world through our own unique set of lenses.  This is especially apparent in the realm of communication.  So imagine that everyone wears those funky 3-D glasses, except that each person's lenses are different; no two people are interpreting something exactly the same way.  This bias or worldview is what we bring to every communication and interaction we have with others.  Small wonder then that miscommunication happens!  It makes sense that at times I am going to misinterpret what you meant to communicate to me, because I am hearing it through the filter of my own background, personality and life experience.

So now add a patch over one or the other of the lenses that we've got on.  (I'm imagining a pirate/intellectual look). Just to make things even more interesting, the patch represents a  couple of key ways that our communication can be hindered even further.

Defensiveness is an impulse to protect ourselves from what we perceive as something threatening from another person.  Just as we might instinctively defend ourselves physically if threatened, we do the same thing on an emotional level.  "And what do you mean by that?" is the classic question created at a moment when I perceive that what has just been said was meant to hurt me.  It's possible that it was, but it's even more possible that the person speaking to me is trying to express  what they want or need from me, and might be struggling with how to do that.  (I wrote a blog post on feelings and needs which explains a bit more about this and has a link to information on Non-Violent Communication, developed by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.)  Remaining non-defensive is challenging, and it is connected to the level of trust that we have with people we are communicating with.  Can I trust that this person  who cares about me is not out to hurt me with their words?  

Something that can lead to defensiveness is making assumptions.  This is like a subtext that we hear when someone says something.  A friend says, "Wow, your hair looks so, so great since you got it cut!"  The subtext I hear, or the assumption I make, is that my friend meant, "Wow, your hair looked really terrible before, it's a good thing you did something about it."  Maybe that's what was meant, maybe not.  Chances are not, but it's easy to see how the assumptions we make could create difficulties in our relationships.  I may not say anything to the friend who complimented (or insulted?) my hair, but meanwhile I may be putting up a bit of a wall (defense) because of the perceived insult.  I start constructing a story in my head about how my friend is critical and has always been jealous of my fabulous hair.... and on it goes.

Lest this sound discouraging, here is the great news.  In fact, two pieces of great news.  

One, take a moment and think about how many times you've had good, meaningful, connecting communication with someone.  Hopefully too many times to count.  In other words, in spite of the aforementioned barriers and hang-ups in communication, it is totally possible for people to communicate effectively, and it happens all the time.  

Two, even if communication goes poorly, there is always an opportunity to repair the hurt or mend the rift.  This requires both parties to have that intention, but it can be done.  There are lots of ways that this can happen, including having a clarifying conversation that begins with "I wonder if we could talk about what you were saying earlier, I think I might have misunderstood you..."  Getting an objective third party to help in sorting out the communication issues is another option.  It makes sense to put energy into sorting out these concerns in order for a relationship to remain healthy over a longer period of time.  

We are not able to remove the unique lenses that impact how we see the world and communication, because they are a part of who we are.  But we can become more aware of our potential for defensiveness and making assumptions.  In doing so we create an opportunity for better and clearer communication with those around us.

Please feel free to pass this article along to others using the "forward to a friend" option at the bottom of the page.  As well, let me know if you have any questions or feedback for me.  I am more than happy to have a clarifying conversation.  I look forward to connecting with you again next month.

Susie Merz MC, RCC


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