Stuart Jeffries’ great piece in The Guardian last weekend quoted me as saying – about suggestions that infidelity might be a good thing for relationships –
why is deceit taken to be a good thing? The answer is to communicate
If we agree that communication is a good idea this begs the question of what is meant by communication. How do we actually go about communicating about our relationships with the people we are in relationships with? My book deals quite a lot with communication about points of conflict, and includes some suggestions regarding communication about sex, monogamy and commitment, but I thought that it was a topic worthy of further exploration here.
I’ve been at two workshops in the past month or so which have dealt with relationship communication in general, and with communication about sex in particular. At both of these I came across some useful ideas which I’ll share in the next couple of posts.
Communication part 1: Relationships
The first workshop I attended focused on the idea of communication about communicating. This might sound a bit meta, and indeed one word for it is meta-communication.
Basically what it means is that people have different ways of communicating which they prefer, or which come more easily to them. Instead of launching into conversations with people in our lives, and then becoming frustrated or angry if they communicate in ways we find difficult, it might be worth starting with a conversation about how we’re going to communicate.
Counsellors and therapists refer to this as a focus on ‘process’ rather than ‘content’. When we’re dealing with the process of communication we’re talking about how we communicate. That means we can then go into the content of communication with an awareness of this. If the discussion of content becomes difficult it can often be useful to return to talking about the process, before getting back into it.
Of course this is applicable to all kinds of communication. For example, it can be useful to start a workshop or group discussion with a consideration of the kind of communication people would like and what processes would be best to enable it. It might be worth putting some ground rules in place, or agreeing on some mechanism by which people will take turns in contributing like putting up hands, holding an object and passing it around, or nodding when they’ve finished talking. Agreement, disagreement, need for clarification and other things can also be expressed in various ways verbally or nonverbally.
The aim of communication
This brings us to consideration of the aim of the communication, which is vital. The style of communication that works best depends very much on what we are aiming for. For example, in a workshop or seminar, if we are aiming for as many diverse views as possible to be expressed, and for everyone to feel as safe as possible expressing them, then ground rules which cultivate a culture of openness and open up space for different contributions are a great idea. If we are aiming to reach a quick joint decision, or to have a feisty back-and-forth debate, then other modes of communication might work better.
So it can be useful to recognise that this is not about prioritising certain kinds of communication over others, but rather about a collaborative process of finding the best communication style for the people, and aims, which are present.
This is an important point because different ways of communicating are more or less comfortable or familiar depending on all kinds of aspects of people, such as their cultural or class background, age, generation, disability, sexuality, race, gender, and so on. For example, I’ve been in situations where people have felt excluded from conversation because norms against talking over each other, or against touching, gesticulating or raising voices, have been so different from the ones they are familiar with. There is also great diversity in things like how comfortable people are with silence or with expression of different emotions; how relevant they feel it is to tell personal stories or to use academic language; or what they understand by direct eye-contact or sitting close to somebody.
Those old ‘mars and venus’ style ideas about gender differences in preferred ways of talking (direct or indirect, listening or problem-solving, talking it out or retreating to think it through) are useful to consider in some ways. The problem with them is that we can’t generalise as simply as ‘men this and women that’ because gender doesn’t work in this way for many people, and because there are so many intersections between gender and other aspects of a person. Rather it is more useful for each person to consider all aspects of their identity and background, and how these have shaped their own preferred ways of communicating.
How we prefer to communicate
A great starting point for communicating about communicating is to consider how aspects of ourselves like culture, class, gender, age, generation, disability, sexuality, religion, experience, etc. impact on how we tend to communicate. You might consider questions like:
- How did the people around you communicate when you were growing up? Who was included or excluded from interactions? What styles of verbal and non-verbal communicating did people use? Which ones were more or less approved of or successful? What did you like or dislike about this? Which aspects impact on your communication styles today?
- Are there any aspects of how your particular body and/or mind works which mean that certain ways of communicating are easier, or more difficult, for you?
- What expectations do you think there are on how people of your gender, race, class, age, body type, religion, cultural background, or sexuality communicate? Do any of these fit your preferred way of communicating? Do any of them not fit?
- Remember an interaction which you really didn’t like and one you really did like, in recent weeks. What do the differences between these tell you about your preferred way of communicating?
- Do you have any hard limits (ways of communicating that you are absolutely not okay with somebody else using)? Do you have any strong preferences for ways in which you would like to communicate? Are there aspects you’d be willing to compromise on?
Suggestions that were put forward in the workshop I attended were also to consider whether we preferred to communicate:
- Straight away, or after having some time to think
- Verbally, in a written form (e.g. email, text, webchat) or some other way
- Face to face or not (e.g. internet, telephone, etc.)
- At particular times of day (e.g. not first thing in the morning, not last thing at night)
Relating to the last point a lot of people agreed that it was worth having your physical needs met (sleep, food, etc.) before embarking on an important conversation.
What are we aiming at?
During the workshop we came up with lots of different things which we might be aiming at when we communicate with another person. It can be very useful indeed to discuss what we are aiming at before getting into the conversation itself, given how many conflicts occur simply because people are looking for different things out of their interaction. Think, for example, about times when one person really wanted someone to listen and sympathise, whilst the other person assumed that they wanted advice. Or there are times when one person is just enjoying making a connection whilst the other person assumes that there needs to be some definite point or outcome to the conversation. Perhaps one person really wants to get some practical support whilst the other person thinks it would be useful to just keep listening.
You might find it useful to add to the list below (from the workshop) of things we might be aiming for in communication. You could then think about which ones you are looking for (in general, from different kinds of interactions, or with different people). When you’re about to communicate with somebody it could well be useful to compare notes on what you’re looking for from the conversation and consider whether they are compatible. If they can say what they are hoping from you, you can then say whether that’s something you have to offer or not (in general, or on this occasion).
- To make a connection
- To impart information
- To find out information
- To get support
- To problem solve
- To make a decision
- To persuade
- To discuss
- To get a response
One particularly loaded kind of communication is communicating our love for other people, and having that communicated to us. Something that I touch on in Rewriting the Rules is that people often have different ways in which they like to express their love, or to have it expressed to them. For example, if one person likes declarations of love and the other person thinks that it is best to show that they care by doing household tasks, then the first person might end up feeling very unloved despite all the others’ efforts. I’m reminded of the line in the Billy Bragg song ‘no amount of poetry could mend this broken heart, but you can put the hoover round if you want to make a start’.
Author Gary Chapman suggests that there are five ‘love languages‘ or ways in which people like to express love and to have it expressed to them. These are:
- Words of affirmation
- Quality time or undivided attention
- Acts of service
- Physical touch
In the workshop we agreed that these were not static things that we had the same across all relationships, but that it could be useful to think, in each relationship we have, about:
- Which of these ways of expressing love do we prefer to receive? (there may be more than one, there may be additional ones for you)
- Which do we prefer to give?
- Which do we not like to give?
- Which do we not like to receive?
- In what specific ways do these work for us? (e.g. if we like words of affirmation, which words do we prefer, how frequently and in what form?)
As with communication in general it can also be helpful to think about the expressions of love that were, or were not, familiar to us growing up; associations with age, gender, race, class, etc.; and any things that are vital to us (e.g. not liking public displays of affection, wanting one text message a day minimum from a loved one, needing people to turn their phones off on a date, etc.)
Hopefully these suggestions have shown how useful it might be to engage in meta-communication (or communication about communication), not just when we have problems or conflicts, but much more generally in our everyday interactions.
If we can accept that there are many different ways of communicating, and approach each other with curiosity to find out what our preferences are, then we are in a better place to understand how our communication works. Perhaps we can make a habit of starting conversations by articulating what it is that we’re looking for, and commit to shifting from content to process any time that things become tricky.