Communication Barriers: Are Your Words Hurting Your Relationship?

communication barriers

SYR Podcast # 6 Session Notes 

(Scroll down to end of notes for podcast audio)

The power of words can’t be overestimated. Undoubtedly, they impact people. They stir feelings and cause us to react. Sometimes the impact is immediate and dramatic. At other times, the language we use shapes our relationships in subtle ways. But this subtleness shouldn’t be minimized in importance. Over time, these quieter moments accumulate, molding the terrain of our relationship in ways that can nurture openness and intimacy or create powerful communication barriers (which undermine the emotional connection we are seeking).

In couples counseling, one or both partners may complain about having little or no power to influence the course of their relationship. Such disempowerment distresses us. Just imagine your relationship is slipping through your fingers and there is little-to-nothing you can do to stop this unraveling. Such helplessness can make us feel crazy at times, pushing us to extremes in a desperate attempt to change things (though such extreme reactions usually just make things worse).

But it turns out that these disenfranchised couples actually have significant power. Their words shaped by helplessness and defensiveness continue to inadvertently feed the very helplessness they are railing against. Lobbing accusations at your partner in an effort to get him/her to act in more loving ways seldom brings about the desired outcome.

Rather, your accusations (even if partly accurate) can continually incite your partner’s defensiveness and widen the emotional divide between you. In these instances, the power of your words inadvertently creates communication barriers that lead you to feel helpless, a helplessness that feeds back to and shapes the ways in which you communicate.

Barriers to communication start with the words we say to ourselves

When we’re having a particular emotional experience, the way we capture the experience and communicate it to ourselves (and then, possibly to others if we choose) is through words.

I’m a competent and capable person;
I can do whatever I put my mind to;
I feel so lost without her. My heart literally hurts;
I hate when John talks to me like that. I feel like I’m the child and he’s the parent;
I’m worried about our financial future if you don’t take this job;
I never get what I want, I’m just an unlucky person.

The above statements are examples of the words we use to identify and capture our experience. The process of naming our experiences helps give shape and clarity to what we’re feeling; it helps us make sense of the unfolding and ephemeral nature of our inner world. Our words act like a verbal thumb tack, holding our experience in place so we can raise it up to the light for further examination.

Now let’s look at that last statement above a little closer:

“I never get what I want, I’m just an unlucky person.”

This feels like a truth to the person saying it.

I feel this way because it is true and that’s why I’m saying it (naming it to myself).

Feeling + truth = words I choose to describe the experience

So in this equation, our words are thought to simply reflect a truth within us (in this equation there is a one-way directional influence here, our inner truth/experience causes us to use certain words).

But what if the choice of words also shapes what we’re experiencing, by either intensifying the experience, helping to maintain it over time, or biasing it in some way?

In particular, what impact might the choice of words NEVER and UNLUCKY have on this person’s view of him/herself and of his/her future experiences?

The power of words: How our words/beliefs act as filters, allowing in and excluding certain experiences

Language extremes (words like always, never) are powerful shapers of experience. These extremes blot out nuances, diluting the multitude and richness of experiences that we come across on a daily basis.

And these word extremes prevent us from identifying any exceptions that may contradict (rather than confirm) their extremeness. For instance, how many times did the person holding the belief “I never get what I want” actually get what s/he wanted but this getting-what-I-want experience had no place to land and be recognized? Language extremes (saying, “I never…” or “You always…”) constrict our perceptions, biasing the information that gets psychologically tagged as relevant or irrelevant.

In this equation, there is a bidirectional influence between the words we choose to describe our experiences and the actual experiences themselves.

I feel this way because it is true and that’s why I’m thinking/saying it. And the words I’m choosing to capture my experience are altering the very experience they are being used to describe.

Barriers to effective communication: How our words shape our partner’s experiences (including her/his experience of us)

When we lob words like “always” and “never” back and forth at each other, it’s usually not to highlight each other’s virtues (“You always treat me with respect. You’re the best!”; “You never get impatient; I’m so blessed to have you in my life.”).

Rather it’s usually to point out shortcomings that are driving us a little crazy (“You always forget to call or text when you’re running late. I’ve asked you a thousand times to be considerate but you never listen to me!”; “You always jump out of bed right after we’re done having sex! Why can’t you just stay with me for a while after we make love?”).

Nothing gets us more defensive than being on the receiving end of an always or never accusation. I’ve seen such statements enrage people during counseling sessions and I’ve witnessed how quickly these statements can shut someone down.

every time
all the time
without fail

These words/phrases handcuff us emotionally by implying an ongoing and consistent wrongdoing without any exceptions. Our efforts and any forward movement we’ve made is denied. And in the face of such sweeping accusations, we end up feeling helpless (and shut down emotionally) and/or indignant (and defend ourselves by counter-attacking).

It deserves repeating: Such indictments ignore our efforts to improve the relationship, while also overlooking any exceptions that exist in addition to what isn’t working (for example, your wife has been more affectionate over the last month, but the recent marriage conflict has erased these improvements from your mind).

Communicating Frustration (rather than truth)

When these indictments come out of our mouth, they usually reflect our frustrations.

We’re exasperated, we’ve had this conversation with our partner a hundred times before and s/he acts like it never happened. We may have done our best to communicate effectively (and sensitively) in order to get our message across to our partner. And we may have even been promised some kind of change…only to have the promise fall flat. Who wouldn’t be pulling their hair out under these circumstances?

These frustrations should be acknowledged, because once acknowledged, a more balanced conversation can occur. “I know you don’t do it all the time, but it’s just so frustrating when it happens again. We’ve talked about this…”

Here the goal is to identify our frustrations and how our frustrations push us toward extremes in perception (“You’re constantly…). The antidote to these communication barriers is to express our frustrations, not to allow our frustrations to blindly choose our words for us.

Remember, your relationship frustrations shape your perception and your choice of words (the descriptives used to capture your experience); and your choice of words calcifies your experience in ways that can lead to certain biases (thinking your partner always acts a certain way prevents you from seeing the times when s/he acts in ways that dis-confirm or challenge your expectations).

Being on the receiving end of such verbal extremes saps our motivation to continue our efforts to improve our marriage or relationship. If my last two screw-ups nullify the three prior successes, then I’m probably going to throw my hands up and think, “Why should I even bother? Nothing I do matters.”

Realize the power of your words (even when the frustrations about your partner are making you feel anything but powerful). So take some time to think about the words you typically use to describe what is and isn’t working in your marriage or relationship.

And after an honest assessment, try to bring balance and nuance to the words/phrases you use to describe your feelings (to yourself) as well as the words/phrases you communicate to your partner/spouse.

Here’s to using the power of words to improve your relationship!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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