Relationships can be challenging. No matter how much love and appreciation we may have for those we care about most, our lack of healthy communication skills has us doing damage even when we have the best of intentions.
It’s not entirely our fault though. Almost nobody receives any kind of communication skills training whatsoever, and it’s affecting our work, our relationships, and virtually every aspect of our lives. Think about it, if our relationships are suffering, it makes it that much harder to enjoy peaceful, harmonious lives.
An article recently published in Forbes Magazine states that “communication is today’s most important skill.” Inc. Magazine also focused on the impact of communication on business in a recent article, stating that “the cost of poor communication has hit an overwhelming $37 billion.”
Of course, our personal relationships are affected by this, too. Psychology Today says many studies “have identified poor communication as one of the top reasons for couples therapy, as well as one of the top reasons for divorce.”
But whether we’re talking about our work relationships, our intimate relationships, or our relationships with our children, other family members, or friends, many of us don’t even realize the damage we’re doing.
As a result of our lack of education and training, resulting in an unfortunate lack of communication skills, many of us, by default, end up doing what we witnessed our parents doing, or what we witnessed other adults doing. Some of those learned habits may be good ones. Chances are, many of them are not. As a communication expert and trainer for over twenty years, I’ve seen great relationships destroyed as a result.
Lovers who forget why they fell in love. Longtime friendships are destroyed in an instant. Family members are estranged, unable, or unwilling to make amends.
Due to our lack of skills in this area, sometimes the more we try to work things out, the more damage we actually do. Until all that’s left to do is walk away.
Here are 4 of the most common relationship mistakes almost everybody makes, and they are eroding at those relationships that matter to us most.
In one survey, marital counselors identified “failing to take the other’s perspective when listening” as one of the most frequent problems in the couples with whom they work.
We tend to believe our view of reality is the accurate one. So, we tend to spend more time trying to convince others to see things the way we do, and often put very little effort into putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes.
When we discount another’s perspective and try to impose our own, we leave them feeling disrespected, misunderstood, and maybe even resentful.
Done once, this may be forgivable. Done repeatedly over time, the built-up anger and resentment can destroy once-good relationships.
Everyone wants to feel “gotten”. Until they do, until that need is met, they won’t feel satisfied. They may be able to bury those feelings, suppressing them and sweeping them under the rug temporarily for the sake of peace. Until it happens again. Each time the feeling of betrayal—the sadness and disappointment, grows.
This may be the single most harmful thing we do in our relationships.
2. Lack of Presence
I’m not just talking about physical presence here, although lengthy and frequent absences certainly take their toll, I’m talking about the lack of presence when someone is in the same room, and yet you can’t feel them. You know they aren’t present with you.
Studies show that most people only listen attentively at most 20% of the time. The rest of the time we are pretending to listen, selectively listening (listening only when it benefits us), or flat our ignoring. But with the advent of social media and smartphones putting mini-computers at our fingertips, our attention spans have drastically deteriorated.
Studies published in Time Magazine and elsewhere show that the average attention span is now eight seconds long. This is less than the nine-second attention span of the average goldfish.
If we don’t see an apparent advantage to ourselves in that period of time we, often subconsciously, choose to check out of that interaction. Be it on social media, YouTube, or, sadly, sometimes even our relationships.
We’ve all done it. Either we’re distracted by something externally (like social media), or by something on our minds, or we assume we know what someone is going to say so we stop listening, or we’re really just not that interested.
This creates a disconnect in our relationships. Not only have we all done this, we’ve all been on the receiving end of this. Have you ever been in a relationship and still felt incredibly lonely? Or been in a room full of people where the connection felt superficial at best?
The Gottman Institute says the primary indicator of whether or not an intimate relationship will last comes down to “bids for attention.” These are subtle, indirect cues that we are seeking connection and, if missed by our partners, especially chronically, the relationship has a much higher chance of failure.
In other words, what is subconsciously and indirectly being said in our relationships is, pay attention to me. If we are missing those cues and failing to do this, we are doing harm to that relationship.
3. Poor Conflict Resolution
Conflict is natural. It’s simply when two parties have conflicting needs or desires. No matter how loving any relationship might be, it’s unrealistic to hope or believe we will always want the same things.
It’s how we handle these conflicting desires that says so much about a relationship.
Conflict could be seen as a wonderful opportunity to deepen and strengthen a relationship. If it’s handled well.
But this is another one of those areas where our lack of communication training causes us to do more harm than good so much of the time. It takes a truly conscious communicator to hold it together when their wants and needs are feeling threatened.
This is when some pull out all the stops in order to “win”, behaving in ways and saying things they would never otherwise do or say. In the end, they may get their way, but this leaves the other on the losing end of that bargain.
Some, willing to do anything to avoid conflict, will accede victory to the other just to keep the peace.
This win-lose approach to conflict resolution may satisfy one party, but the other will likely feel some level of resentment, whether they acknowledge it or not. If this happens often, the obvious or underlying resentment can mushroom to epic proportions. And the relationship is in big trouble.
So in truth, unless both parties feel satisfied with the final outcome...unless it's a true win-win, everybody loses.
When someone tells me they’ve met someone and they think he/she may be “the one”, I always ask the same question: have you had your first real disagreement yet?
Because you don’t truly know someone or the sticking power of a relationship until you know how they, and how you both together, handle conflict.
Does this person listen to you respectfully at that moment? Does she hit below the belt? Does he manipulate or raise his voice? Does she hang up the phone or stomp out of the room?
The way a person handles conflict is a pretty accurate indicator of success in both their personal and professional relationships.
4. Not knowing how to ask for what you want.
Another way our lack of communication training shows itself in our relationships is when it comes to asking for what we want.
Since some of our earlier attempts in life at communication did not go well, some will become really passive—no longer speaking up about what they want, maybe even telling themselves that the other person “should know” what they need. We put the responsibility on the other person to read our minds and take the onus off ourselves to speak up and ask for it.
Or some simply play the martyr—acting like they don’t have any needs, so they don’t have to ask and risk hearing “no”.
Others, not knowing a more graceful way to do it, get super aggressive, and energetically overpower their partner to get what they want.
Both of these approaches tie back into the conflict resolution we just explored, and over time can be cancerous to what was once a healthy relationship.
Knowing yourself enough to know your own mind and what it is you want, and then having the skill to ask for it in a way that the other person can receive it, will save you a lifetime of frustration and help you avoid leaving a wake of broken, damaged relationships behind you.
The only benefit having a history of dysfunctional relationships offers is a bank of enough of them to be able to reflect back on the patterns that were present in them all, and to hopefully take responsibility for the role you played. It gets harder to blame the other person when the players keep changing but the relationship dynamics are the same. Eventually one has to recognize that the only constant…is them.
But it doesn’t have to go this way, and we can choose to realize that everyone’s always doing the best they can with their current level of understanding.
As we already noted, there is almost a complete lack of communication training in our society. The training so many have received was learned by witnessing some not-so-great examples. Or it was communication training based on manipulation and persuasion strategies to help us make the sale in business.
To evolve your life, and your relationships, evolve yourself.
Learn how to show up in all of your relationships…be it with your lover, your children, your friends, and family—even your professional relationships, in a way that strengthens the bond, rather than deteriorates it over time.
Learn to see things from the other’s perspective. Eliminate distractions and practice being present—not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally. See conflicts as opportunities to strengthen and grow the relationship, and yourself, by looking for a win-win. And ask for what you need in a way that the other person can receive it.
With a few simple communication tweaks, you’ll start to witness all of your relationships transform. It’s so worth it because the quality of our lives is often directly proportionate to the quality of our relationships.
So, I’d love to know what’s your biggest communication challenge. And which of these 4 relationship mistakes do you think you sometimes make?
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