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How we communicate is important.  Saint
Paul tells us: “If I speak in human and angelic
tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing symbol” (1
Cor 13).

Even when we love someone, we sometimes say the wrong thing.
We are especially vulnerable when it comes to sensitive topics or personal
issues. How we express ourselves can encourage further discussion…or start a
fight.

Some people find it easy to express their innermost thoughts
and feelings, while others are more reserved. Still others are rather
impulsive, and say the first thing that pops into their heads—which often isn’t
the most tactful. Whatever our temperament, there are some practical tools we
can learn that will help us communicate better with our loved ones. 

In our new book The Temperament God Gave Your Spouse (forthcoming
from Sophia Press), we identify some key communication skills culled from
experts in the field. Whether you want to discuss a sensitive topic without
incurring defensiveness or anger, or simply want to increase positive feelings
in your close relationships, we recommend the following: 

Empathy. Empathy is a Christ-like putting yourself in another’s
shoes, seeking to remove the beam from your own eye before you try to remove
the speck from your partner’s. You listen
and respond to your partner in a way
that shows that you understand what he is saying and feeling. As Pope Benedict
says, “We have to realize what an art it is to be able to listen attentively.” [1] 

Empathy means I empty myself of my
issues, concerns, goals, and responses, and focus totally on the other: on how he
feels, his thoughts, or what he has to say (and why). For example, instead of
saying “You sure were a bump on the log all evening!” (which is likely to make
them feel defensive, and retort, “Well, at least I wasn’t dancing on the table,
like you!”), you can try empathy: “You look tired and worn out,” or “You seem upset.
Do you want to talk about it?” When you show empathy, you pave the way for a
deeper understanding. In the words of Saint Francis, “Grant that I may not so
much seek to be understood as to understand.”

Underlying positive.[2]
When we are angry or hurt, we tend to forget about the good things, and focus only
on whatever is wrong. Sometimes we let the negative feelings build up or we
stifle our complaints for so long, that negativity threatens to overwhelm us,
and bad thoughts about our spouse or loved one override any positive ones. Instead,
try to see your spouse or your relationship through Christ’s eyes: focus on the
things we are grateful for, count our blessings, and acknowledge the good
intentions of our partner. The antidote to negative override is to express our feelings
in a responsible, loving way (sticking to the present, not blaming or making
negative character judgments) and to express the underlying positive

Instead of, “You are always late!”
Try this: “I really respect how hard you are working and how difficult your
boss can be sometimes. But I get embarrassed when we arrive at the party so
late.” Instead of “You never spend time with me!” try “I know how stressful
your job is and that you need to have some time to relax and unwind. But I miss
you when you work all week and then are out playing golf on Saturdays.”
Expressing the underlying positive is not the same as flattering, buttering up,
or lying. It means honestly looking at what is good about the situation and
acknowledging the good intentions of your beloved. As Saint Paul says, “Rejoice always. Pray
without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks” (1 Thes 5: 16-19).  

Speak personally, be specific, stick to the present. What we want
to avoid are generalizations (“you always” or “you never”) or patronizing, blaming
and negative judgments on character (“You’re so lazy!” or “A good father
would…” or “You’re just like your mother!”). These kinds of statements
inevitably increase defensiveness and start fights, because they beg for a
rebuttal: “I wasn’t late on Friday!” or “So now you’re saying I’m not a good
father?” Instead of “You’re so unreasonable!” try “I disagree with you on
that,” or “I have another idea that might work.” Instead of “A good parent
would…” say “I really need you to help our son with his math.” Instead of “You never come home on time” try “It seems
that you’ve come home late 3 times this week, and I really would like to have
more family time.” Instead of “You are so lazy!” try “I am feeling overwhelmed
with all the housework I do. Can you help with the dishes tonight?” Instead of
“Nobody should act like that!” try “I really get upset when you act like that.”
Instead of “Am I the only one in this family who isn’t a spendthrift?” try “I
am really worried about our finances right now. I’d like to talk about setting
up a budget.”

 Softening the start-up.[3]  Nobody likes to be ambushed by a huge problem.
A softened start-up is a way to bring up a problem or to express an unhappy
feeling in a neutral, less accusatory fashion. It increases the likelihood that
your position will be heard. If you want to ask your boss for a raise, you
don’t blind-side him in the elevator demanding more money. Instead, you
schedule a meeting. The softened start up allows the other person to enter freely into the discussion at his own
pace, even to choose when he will discuss it — thereby avoiding that feeling of
being attacked and having to defend himself. A softened start up might include talking
personally ( “I feel…”) and also
might ask permission to discuss the topic, avoiding “ambushing” your partner.
For example, if you want to bring up a problem, say, “We’ve been going out a
lot lately I’m afraid we won’t save money for the future. I’d like to talk
about making a budget. Would now be a good time to discuss it?” Asking
permission to discuss a sensitive topic gives the other person freedom to
discuss the topic at a better time, perhaps when emotions are not running so
high. 

Be open to influence.  Often,
we fear that openness to another person’s ideas entails agreement. We don’t
want to “encourage” a particular line of thought, so we remain impassive or
even oppositional. You don’t have to agree with what your partner is saying,
but instead of disparaging his idea or blocking his feelings, it is better to remain
open to what he is saying or expressing. This way, you remain respectful and keep
the lines of communication open. For example, when you are tempted to scoff in
disgust, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!” try instead, “Let me hear
your thoughts on that,” or “Tell me why this is so important to you.” Remaining
open to influence is an antidote to pride and individualism. It helps us
overcome the “tyranny of egoism” as Pope Benedict says. 

Good habits of communication require practice, self-control,
and sometimes tempering our immediate natural reactions—all of which demands growth
in virtue. Ultimately, true interpersonal communion comes through communion
with Christ, who is the source and foundation of all truth. But we can foster
an attitude of humility, charity and self-giving by practicing empathy, emphasizing
the positive, and being open and receptive to our loved one’s deepest feelings
and thoughts.

 


[1] Joseph
Cardinal Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission
of Theology
. San Francisco:
Ignatius Press, 1995. p.33.

[2] The
underlying positive is a key communication skill developed by Dr. Bernard Guerney
in his Relationship Enhancement program. For more information, see www.nire.org.

[3] The
softened start up and openness to influence are suggested by author and
marriage research expert Dr. John Gottman. See, for example, Ten Lessons to
Transform Your Marriage
. New York:
Crown Publishers, 2006.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Anne-348574 September 19, 2008

    Thanks for this wonderful article! communication is actually the key to everything in life! God bless

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