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Communication Breakdown

by Jaron Steffens
P.G.Dip Sci (Psychology), B.App.Sci (Psychology)
Dip Child & Adolescent Psychology, Dip Tch (PE & Health)

Communication is the key to all the relationships we have, which means it is also the key reason that some of our relationships go “wrong”. We’re not just talking about romantic relationships; you develop a relationship with anyone that you have contact with regularly. Parent, child, teacher, employer, employee, coach, friend, teammate, personal trainer, customer, client, the hipster who makes your coffee in the morning. These are all relationships that can: enrich your life, have no real impact on you either way, or create so much stress that you are left mentally, emotionally, and physically wrecked.

Going “wrong” can have many different looks too, ranging from explosive to brooding silence, all the way to drifting apart and losing contact. However “wrong” looks for you, this relationship breakdown causes stress. Our human instinct tells us to be social creatures to ensure our health and survival. Medical research shows that an individual who feels socially supported has better long-term health outcomes than individuals who feel they are not socially supported. This suggests that our body jumps into fight, flight or freeze mode when we are struggling with any of the relationships in our lives. The primal part of us perceives this threat to our social status as life threatening causing us to have elevated cortisol levels, chronic anxiety and all the health issues that accompany this.

So, now that we know that relationship breakdowns are wrecking our health, what can we do to ensure that most of our relationships are healthy and enriching for everyone involved?

Assumptions that we make

We could all start by addressing some of the assumptions that we make about people. Many of us assume that people are generally bad and intend to do harm, or we make assumptions that we know what the other person is thinking without any confirmation from them, so we enter into relationships with the defences already set on high alert looking for evidence that backs up these assumptions. This is where the communication gets twisted around. Innocuous, throw away comments or remarks may be interpreted in a way that they were not intended. For the next week one of you is trying to decide whether they can ever forgive the offence, and one of you is wondering what the hell they did wrong. This is ridiculously tiring and causes damaging stress and anxiety. Let’s apply some facts to this assumption and turn it upside down.

The inherently good theory

Humanist theories tell us that people generally have good intentions and strive for self-actualisation. This means that most people are striving for the best outcome for themselves and others. Would you intentionally hurt another person physically, mentally, or emotionally? Roughly 98% of the human population answer “no” to this question. The other 2% have little or no empathy, and likely have struggled socially for their whole lives. Unfortunately, any negative interactions with these people stand out because they are the glaring exception to the norm, so we are more likely to remember them and ignore all the interactions that are positive and elevating.

Recently, two of us were riding our bikes along a bike path, having a good chat, when a person riding towards us swore at us for not riding single file. This made me both sad and angry, and really affected the way I felt about the whole ride. Once I challenged this negative feeling with the evidence I had I felt a lot better: We rode past over thirty people that day, most of them smiled and greeted us as we rode past, one person swore at us. This fits well with the assumption that the majority of people on the planet want positive social interactions. The trick is to notice all the positive interactions, so you have plenty of good stuff to challenge the negative mood created when someone tells you to ride in single f*#king file.

For a better outcome

If you want a great outcome from your interactions with someone else, you can assume that they want the same. Armed with this information, the assumption that we should be carrying into our interactions with others should be, “This person does not intend to harm me, and they want the best outcome for both of us from this interaction.” This will allow you to notice all the great parts of your interactions with this person. Every now and again they may do something that causes you to feel hurt. Knowing that they would not intentionally hurt you, ask yourself, “What else could they mean?”

If you can’t see any other intention behind an action or comment, ask for clarity. If you are hurt, own it. Let them know calmly that you feel hurt and give them a chance to apologise or explain their true intentions. Try to avoid accusing them of anything, which will force them into defensive mode or switch off, because this will end in stress for both of you. Let them know your feelings, then listen and question to check understanding.

Positive, clear communication is important

Positive, clear communication is the most important part of any relationship you have. A bold statement, but I can’t think of a situation that this doesn’t ring true. When communication breaks down, relationships break down. Communication is very little about what you say. It is more about how it is said, what you do, and how you do it. Communication has two sides; one side is the person sending the message, the other is the person receiving the message, both sides hold equal importance. Keep going until you both know that the message intended is the message received so you can remove any incorrect assumptions from the equation.

Communication both makes and breaks relationships. To keep the relationships in your life positive, enter all interactions with the assumption that people want good things for you and themselves, and look for the evidence that proves this to be correct.

If you are in a relationship that is abusive, please seek help, send a message to:
Safe to Talk – 4334
Need to Talk – 1737

Feel free to contact me with any questions or make an appointment, text/phone 021 99 00 54 or email [email protected]

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