The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

A Few Simple Ideas About Communication

Authored by Stephanie Ferrera, M.S.W.

An open relationship was defined by Murray Bowen as one in which the partners could communicate a high percentage of their personal thoughts and feelings to one another.  Under certain conditions, this is the most natural thing in the world.  Think of a couple in love talking, smiling, laughing, hours on end.  Or a parent enjoying the charm and spontaneity of a young child.  The emotional rewards from such easy, warm connection are golden.  The uplift we get from a really good conversation is gas in the tank to keep us going for miles ahead.

Conditions for open communication are not always optimal.  Our most important relationships can also be our most difficult.  The level of sensitivity between partners is exquisite, such that a poor choice of a word, or a tone of voice, or expression on the face, can trigger an emotional reaction.  People begin to over-interpret, misunderstand, assume meanings that were not intended, and generally go off track.  The result can be discouragement and withdrawal.  Communication becomes cautious as we edit out sensitive subjects, and fewer and fewer things are safe to discuss.  The name of this is emotional fusion.

The goal, then, if I wish to become a better communication partner, is to work on myself.  Oh, that again!  Never easy.  First, be aware of my own reactivity.  A brain flooded with emotion cannot do the clear thinking that clear communication requires.  So the first order of business is to calm down in whatever way I know how.  Deep breathes.  Take walks.  Listen to music.  Pray.  Meditate.

Second, get clear about what I think.  A calm brain can look at facts, be more objective, find words to express thoughts effectively, screen out blame and criticism, see the other person’s side, and hear them more accurately.  Clear thinking leads to knowing my own convictions and being a little more sure of where I stand on issues.

Finally, and the hard part, is to say what I really think without attacking the other, or defending self, and as calmly as I am able.  Dr. Bowen spoke of the “I-position”—the product of deep thinking about what one is willing and not willing to do, knowing where one can compromise and where one cannot.  This is the Mount Everest of open communication, and equivalent emotionally to the work of climbing a mountain.

If we recognize that our best thinking is our best contribution to our families, friends, and communities, we can find motivation to work on thinking more clearly and communicating more calmly.  Then the conversation really gets interesting; no more small talk.

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