Why don’t you get it?

Do you sometimes feel that you and the person you are talking to are speaking different languages? You want to get your message across an you think you are being clear but it seems to be getting lost in translation. Does it seem that the person you are talking to appears to be getting a completely different message than the one you intended? In relationships, it is very common to have this experience of the “broken telephone” type of communication where you say and what the other hears is rather different from each other. 

The message that you have in your head and want to communicate is the “intention’ of the message and the message that is actually received by the person you are talking to is the “impact ” of the message. 

When the impact of your communication is different from the intention, it is likely that there arefilterswhich are distorting your message before it is received by the other. 

Howard J. Markman,Scott M. Stanley, andSusan L. Blumberg describe filters to communication in their classic, research based relationship book,FightingforYour Marriage. They explain that a filter is operating in communication when the message that is received is very different from the one that is intended. Markman, Stanley and Blumberg describe five types of filters that may operate to distort the intended message of communication. 

  1. Distractions: 

If you do not have the person`s full attention, it is unlikely that they will get what you are intending to communicate. Since the greater part of communication is tone of voice and body language, distractions also distort the message by blocking the other senses from getting it. Distractions may be internal (such as self-talk, being hungry or tired) or in the environment, such as noise. 

In modern life, we are constantly distracted and multi-tasking whereas effective communication takes some element of focus on the other to read their body language and emotional tone. It is not surprising then, that so much of communication today is miscommunication. 

  1. Emotional states: 

Both negative and positive emotional states can be a filter since these cause a person to be preoccupied with self, rather than being open and receptive to others. 

If someone is anxious or worried about an important meeting, event or exam, for example, it becomes more challenging for them to focus on the message of the other person. Similarly, try communicating with someone who has newly fallen in love and you will notice that their emotional state is such that their “head is in the clouds” and it is rather difficult for them to focus on anything else other than thoughts of their beloved! 

  1. Beliefs and expectations: 

Our world view and the beliefs we have about others can distort the message that they are trying to convey. For example, if I believe that people are only nice when they want something, every time someone gives me a compliment, I will be suspicious. We may have heard the famous sayingyou tend to find what you are looking forwhich is another way of saying that we will filter a person`s message and behaviour to confirm what we expect from them. 

A key skill in communication is to ‘check your baggage’ about the past before interacting with someone with whom you have a history and ‘bring nothing to the conversation’. This means that we are intentional in being aware of our (negative) beliefs and expectations and making room for the other person to NOT live up to those expectations. 

  1. Differences in style: 

It is a common experience in relationships that spouses have different styles, a husband may use humour or sarcasm to communicate for example whereas the wife may be more comfortable in displaying emotion. 

If one spouse believes that raising one’s voice means that the person is angry, they are likely to misunderstand the message from a person who is grew up having to raise their voice simply to be heard. 

  1. Self-protection: 

When we do not want to risk vulnerability, we often disguise the extent of the importance of what we want. For example, if I want to go out for dinner but am afraid of this idea being rejected by my husband, I may say something like “what shall we do for dinner?” Not understanding what I mean by that, he may answer, “I don’t care. Let us have eggs!”. 

One of the simplest rules for communication in general and spousal communication in particular is to “say what you want and not what you don’t want”. It is also one of the most challenging to apply! If you doubt that, just notice what  you say when someone asks you what you want! 

How can we improve communication so that the message that we deliver is closer to the one that we intend? 

The most important things to know about filters is that everyone has them! Even if we are conscious communicators, there will be times when the other is distracted, or too tired or hungry to hear us. There will also be times, even if we are good listeners, when our emotional states or expectations get in the way of us getting the message the other intends to communicate. 

The best way to deal with filters is to 

  1. be aware of them with a sense of humility, 
  1. announce them as soon as you recognize them (Sorry honey, I am too worried to talk about this right now) and 
  1. pick a better time to have important conversations. 

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