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Why couple’s communication fails

Probably the number one complaint I hear from couples when they arrive in my office is “We just don’t know how to communicate.”

As we go through our daily lives we observe all sorts of people and objects. We use our past experiences to filter and organize our observations and information we take in. Sometimes we encounter new information that changes the way we think about a person, group, or object. Taking our observations and selecting, organizing, and interpreting the information make up our perceptions. These perceptions are how we see the way things “are.” Our perceptions are not necessarily based on “facts” — but are based on our personal realities that are informed by past experience. Our perception of people and objects around us impacts how we communicate and act toward others1.

Communication frameworks and our perceptions
Selecting and organizing incoming information happens very quickly —many times without much thought. But the meaning, or framework, that we give to our experiences is called a schemata. Schemata are like databases of stored, related information that we use to interpret new experiences.

Over time we take in information and combine it to make more complex and meaningful thought. These schemata are the “filter” our mind uses to categorize our perceptions before, during, and after communication and interactions with others. This is much like an app on a smartphone — these schemata help us interpret our world. Just like apps must be regularly updated to improve their functioning we humans must also update and adapt our schemata with new experiences. These updated schemata will change our perceptions of situations.

In couple’s communication I find that communication issues are not necessarily around the subject being communicated. Instead there is a disconnection between the information one person is trying to convey and what the other person is actually hearing. I call this a Perception Disconnection.

Perception Disconnection in action Suzie asks Bob if they can talk about the budget after work. Bob comes home and Suzie says bluntly: “We are out of money. There is too much debt on credit cards. You need to take out a 401K loan so we can get everything paid off.”

Bob leaves the exchange thinking, “She is clueless. She doesn’t understand or care about where the debt came from – she thinks her way to solve this is the only way. I needed to get some clarity to some important financial questions but not now.”

In this example, the Perception Disconnection is clear: Suzie simply intended to communicate urgency and actually called on Bob to execute an action to get the job done. Bob actually interpreted Suzie’s communication as hostile and blaming. Good communication didn’t occur and the chances of the proposed debt elimination strategy being implemented are now slim to none.

How to manage a Perception Disconnection
When it comes to a Perception Disconnection clarity the key to management is to try and avoid the disconnection. It’s easy to make the other person “wrong”, saying something like, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you understand what I’m saying?”2 Approach your partner with openness and find out where the communication disconnection occurred. Asking something like “It seems like you are angry about what I said. What did you hear me say?” will help clarify what the other person’s reaction is based upon.

Old patterns of thought create problems, especially when we try to interpret new information through old incompatible frameworks. Sometimes it is difficult to revise these patterns and doing so takes effort and usually involves some mistakes, disappointments, and frustrations. Being able to adapt our schemata is important for couple’s communication and a time for relationship growth.

Dr Lisa Webb is at the Body & Mind Consulting Associates Group: www.bodymindtn.com.
Her latest book: “Boardroom to Bedroom,
Using your Executive Success for your Marriage” is available at www.amazon.com

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