People of my generation well remember the famous quote uttered by Strother Martin in his role as a prison warden in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke. It was addressed to Paul Newman and according to Wikipedia the phrase is "#11 on the American Film Institute list, AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes." The phrase to which I refer is of course "What we've got here is (a) failure to communicate."
While these words may be a blast from the past, trust me when I tell you I hear them just about every day in my marriage coaching practice. Couples will come to me seeking improvements in their relationship and I ask them to tell me two or three things that are "broken" which they would like to see "repaired".
I haven't kept statistics, but I'm thinking 99.99 percent of the couples cite poor communication as one of their presenting problems. Typically it is listed first and typically it's cited by both spouses.
And this shouldn't come as a great surprise since few of us were ever taught how to communicate in relationships. For most couples, in the early days of getting acquainted, communication flows so naturally and easily that they make the mistake of believing it will always be that way and no additional training is necessary. Unfortunately they soon discover the inaccuracy of this prediction. When communication works well life is great, but when it's off the relationship can be in great peril.
Men and women are so different from each other in so many ways and one major way is in how they each communicate. That, however, is a topic for an entire column alone so we'll save it for a later date.
Today I want to share with you a fairly extensive list of ways you should not communicate and two pointers for improvement. The following "don't try these at home" items come from Nancy and Jim Landrum which I found in their book How To Stay Married and Love It! They term the following "Defective Communication Tools" and I absolutely recommend you avoid these at all cost.
Just for fun you might want to grab a sheet of paper and honestly check off those that you do frequently and those which you feel your partner does frequently.
• Use always and never statements;
• Give unwanted advice;
• Use the silent treatment;
• Use sarcasm;
• Act like a martyr or victim;
• Slam doors or throw things;
• Compare your spouse to someone else;
• Embarrass your spouse in public;
• Use threats or other controlling behaviors;
• Jab with "zingers" (try to tell me you don't know what those are )
• Talk in a condescending tone;
• Yell, scream or rage;
• Bring others into your disagreement;
• Withhold sex or affection;
• Defend and make excuses;
• Blame and use an accusatory tone;
Well, the list can go on, but I think you get the idea. The point is that we all develop bad habits over time and poor communication habits are no exception. Very few of us are expert communicators 100% of the time. That even goes for folks who are supposed to be professional communicators, but please don't ask me how I know that.
It's also true that old habits can be hard to break. But let me suggest that you look over the above list of negatives and choose one or two that you will be willing to focus on and practice the opposite.
Again, since change can be difficult, let me offer you two pointers to consider.
For one, consider what you do want to do differently rather than focus on what you're trying to not do. I don't fully understand the brain science, but I've been told that the brain does not hear the word "don't". For instance if you tell a child "don't spill your milk" his or her brain will hear "spill the milk" and you can pretty well guess what comes next.
This seems to hold true for adults as well. We are far better suited to accomplish what we do want rather than avoiding what we don't. So choose a new communication habit or two you would like to implement and focus your energy on those.
My second suggestion is that you solicit help from your spouse in breaking the old ways and replacing them with new. Simply tell them what you are trying to do differently and that if they ever catch you falling back to the old ways they are not to say anything or react in any manner. What they are to do is hold out their hand and you are required to fill it with a $1 bill, or perhaps a $5 or $10.
The idea here is not a new money making scheme, but rather to implement a gentle, often comical, reminder that you have chosen to forgo the old ways of communicating and to replace them with the new.
Folks, if you are married you are a team. You are in this wonderful adventure of life together and the ability to communicate is and should be one that you learn how to do well. Nobody ever said it would be easy, but I can assure you the benefits are well worth the effort required.
I plan to come back to this theme in the coming weeks and detail effective means of communication. So stay tuned.
Ron Price is the co-founder and executive director of the Four Corners Coalition for Marriage & Family, a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to strengthening and equipping marriages and families in the Four Corners area. He can be reached at 505-327-7870.