Nancy Landrum
Nancy Landrum

I've written a time or two that I attended several Smartmarriage conferences, where I met marriage experts and learned most of what I now know about building healthy marriages. I believe it was in Dallas in 2005 where I first met today's columnist and her late husband. I think you'll gain some very valuable information as you read. You can also hear Nancy on my radio program TWOgether as ONE tomorrow at 6 p.m. on KLJH 107.1FM. So without further ado, here's Nancy.

I've heard hundreds of couples say to me, "We just can't communicate!" I've heard parents say about their child, "He won't listen to me!" I've heard adult children say about his or her parent, "She doesn't understand!" or, "He's so unreasonable!" Employees complain, "My boss doesn't listen to me!" A customer rants, "You don't understand!" I've sometimes said those things myself!

Each of the relationships described above is built around a core of love and/or a need for some level of connection, either the need for emotional connection or the successful conduction of business. Yet the experience is sometimes one of pain and frustration. Poor communication is cited as one of the most common causes of divorce. Even when other reasons are given, the inability to communicate effectively often exacerbates the issues rather than helping to resolve them. Lack of effective communication creates a sense of isolation, frustration and disconnection.

Each of us has a tool box filled with communication tools that we collected as they were modeled for us as children. Some additional tools may have been added as we watched TV or heard others on the playground or on the job. The questions that need to be asked are "Do the communication tools I'm using facilitate good relationships? Or are my methods contributing to relationship breakdowns?"

Ron Price
Ron Price

Let me use a simple metaphor: I own a few rental properties. I recently went to a vacated house to do some painting for the new tenant. I tried opening the door with one of the keys on my key ring that was missing a label. When it wouldn't unlock the door, I knew I had the wrong key. So I used the correctly labeled key that successfully opened the door.

All of us have had some version of this "key" experience where we make course corrections based on feedback. Yet we may not be applying this course-correcting principle to our communication skills.

I recall when, out of frustration, I yelled at my late husband Jim and the situation got worse, not better. I blamed Jim, not my yelling. When I sent a sarcastic put-down his way because he didn't agree with me, and he left the house in a huff, I blamed him, not my sarcasm. When our arguments escalated into shouting matches, Jim and I blamed each other. We were not even aware of how poorly we listened to each other. We each only felt the frustration and hopelessness of not being heard, let alone understood. We neglected to realize that, like the key that didn't fit the lock, the communication methods we were using were not capable of opening the door to the loving connection we craved.

Much like a mechanic has to ask about how the car is acting and run diagnostics before knowing how to fix it, improving your communication skills needs to begin with evaluating what you are now doing that isn't working. We all know how a healthy car should perform, but what do healthy communication methods produce in a relationship?

The ultimate goal of healthy speaking skills is having your needs met, from something as simple as the correct fulfillment of your dinner order, a successful problem resolution at work or the deeper need to experience connection with a loved one. Another practical benefit of using healthy (respectful) speaking skills is that the listener is far more likely to be cooperative. Poor skills often trigger resistance. Good skills facilitate a higher degree of connection and cooperation.

If you seem to be encountering some resistance or disrespect in your relationships, you may want to use a diagnostic inventory that Jim and I developed while teaching and writing about "How to Stay Married & Love It! Solving the Puzzle of a SoulMate Marriage." Every method listed in this Inventory is an attempt to communicate thoughts, feelings, concerns or desires. These methods are "defective," however, because each time one of them is used, the relationship is damaged and needs are not met.

The inventory lists 38 common communication methods. A few are: sarcastic put-downs, accusations, bringing up old business, interrupting, excuses, withdrawal, defensiveness, name-calling, biting humor and yelling. Some common reactions to the receiver of these methods are: feeling attacked and then counter-attacking, feeling put down, resentful, ashamed, embarrassed, frustrated, hopeless and, of course, disconnected and uncooperative.

This week, notice the feedback you're getting from those who receive your communications. When the reaction is poor, it might have a lot to do with the method you are using! Eventually, with only very rare slips, Jim and I eliminated all of the tools on that inventory by replacing them with healthy, respectful skills. By doing the hard work of trading poor communication habits with good ones, we took our relationship from the brink of divorce to a state of constant loving.

More tips

To a state of "constant loving." What a worthy goal for any marriage. If you appreciate what you just learned you'll be happy to know there is plenty more good information available from Nancy. Again, you can hear her tomorrow evening on TWOgether as ONE. You can also visit her website NancyLandrum.com where the complete "Defective Communication Tools Inventory" is available as a free download. You can also find a subscription form to Nancy's monthly "How to Newsletter" and weekly blog, both of which cover a broad range of relationship topics. The Landrums' books describing the good skills that transformed their marriage are available at Amazon.com.