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How to communicate with your partner: everything you need to know

Updated: Sep 8, 2021

To my horror, I realized the other day that some of the stuff I’d been saying to a patient of mine might have been completely misinterpreted. What I’d thought I’d been saying was that she should free herself to be open to the possibility of ending her relationship with her husband. After all, he has little to offer her and he’s done a lot to hurt her.

The point was that she shouldn’t feel trapped.

I was NOT saying that she should end her relationship. That’s an entirely different thing. Feeling freed up to choose alternative X if you want to is very different from feeling advised that you should choose alternative X over alternative Y.

Why am I saying this?

Because misunderstandings like this come up in relationships ALL THE TIME. In fact, relationships are superspreading events for misunderstandings! How can this be? Here’s how misunderstandings can easily become the norm in a relationship:

  • You assume you understand each other without checking it out

  • You communicate with each other on the fly

  • You talk without really having the other person’s attention

  • You talk about the most important things in an emotionally charged context (the more charged the emotions, the more it’s the emotions, not the information, that gets communicated)

  • Because of the emotional charge in a relationship, we tend to hear what we want to hear

  • If you say “X” I hear whatever I assume X means to me

  • The way we communicate is too often wrapped up in our intent, not in our thinking about how it will be received

  • We’ve too often tuned each other out

Honestly, sometimes I’m amazed that anyone in any relationship ever understands the other!!

Let’s contrast this with ideal communication.

First of all, anything I want to say to you has two parts:

1. Information: We’re out of bread and since I’m home already and you’re not I need you to pick up the bread on your way home.

2. “Bid for”: What this information is a bid for. What the real underlying request or need here is. In this case it’s picking up bread, of course, but even more important, it may be your taking me and my needs seriously. If you don’t pick up the bread, there’ll be more damage than our just not having bread.

And so the communication needs to convey the actual information and should also convey what the information is a bid for. If I say, “It’s raining outside,” who’s to say what that’s a bid for. But even if it’s merely a bid for a response, any response, I’d be better off saying, “Gee, did you notice it’s raining out?”

Second, in ideal communication here’s what you’ll be making happen:

  • I have your full attention

  • The nub of what I want to communicate is somehow highlighted. For example:

    • If what my main point is is a question, then the very last words coming out of my mouth will be that question.

    • Whatever else I say, I will make sure that whatever it is that I want to convey to you is what I highlight. If I want you to clean out the garage this Saturday and I’m angry and disappointed with you that you haven’t done so already and that your not having done so makes me want to walk out of our marriage, I’d better make damned sure that everything I say points to “It’ll really mean a lot to me if you clean out the garage this Saturday,” instead of it pointing to my anger, disappointment, and threats of leaving.

    • If I have a bunch of needs and issues and thoughts and comments, I’d better make a super-huge, very big deal of the one need or piece of information I want you to take away from all of that.

  • I’ve checked to make sure you got my main point. “Look, I know I’ve said a lot about my mom’s visit, but do you remember the main thing I said I need from you?” If you omit this step, it’s your way of saying you don’t care if there’s a miscommunication.

  • Less is more. The more important the thing is you want to communicate, the less you’ll say other than that thing!

  • If you’re sharing information, you’ll make sure to include why you’re sharing it.

  • If you’re making a request, you’ll make sure you include why this request is important to you and what exactly it is you’re asking for.

  • You’ll check with each other to make sure that you agree on any action or decision and on what that action or decision will be.

    • “I need you to pick up some bread on the way home.”

    • “Sure.”

    • “Is there any reason why that might be a problem?”

    • “Ya know, I’m actually just about to go into a pretty heavy meeting. Could you send me a text to remind me about the bread?”

    • “Oh, sure.”

    • “Great. Thanks!”

Do you have to do all this? No one’s holding a gun to your head! So don’t do it! If you think it’s way more fun to go loosy-goosy with communication in your relationship, do so, and let in the miscommunications, misunderstanding and all the catastrophes and rage that come along with that.

But you know how if there’s a storm coming you might want to make sure your roof is nailed down? Well, in the same way, the storm that’s coming here is one of bad miscommunication, so why not nail things down the way we’ve outlined.

Now it occurs to me—scary thought!—that in this super-compact run down of how to avoid miscommunication I might have left some things out or needed to go into more detail in some areas. If you have questions, just ask! I really want to know how I can make this as helpful as possible for you!


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