My marriage is built on a foundation of miscommunication.
In a good way.
When my husband and business partner, Keith, first asked me out, nerves made the conversation go something like, “Would you like tickets to a Baltimore Center Stage performance?” It could have been the end to the beginning. I thought he meant for me to bring a friend. He saved himself a sentence later by adding, “No, to go with me.”
As communications coaches who created a company around tweaking word choice and body language to help people communicate more clearly at work and in their personal lives, we see daily how seemingly benign words and gestures, along with different communication styles, can fuel anxiety and misunderstanding.
We led a workshop with one couple, where the husband worked from home and felt hungry to engage in conversation with his wife, right when she walked in the door in the evening. She, too, wanted to hear about his day, only not at that moment. It showed in her body language and tone. She needed time to recharge after being around a lot of people all day.
We’ve seen couples and colleagues alike encounter similar challenges until having a conversation about it, developing better situational awareness and becoming more aware of how their words and body language are perceived.
Read on for six tips to avoid communications pitfalls with your significant other. (P.S. The tips also work at work!)
Be Vain: Check Yourself Out
The kind of communication that carries the most weight often gets ignored. Body language. It’s up to 70 percent of communication. Coupled with tone, the two variables can make even the simplest response of “OK” come off as loving, sarcastic or abrupt.
When in the middle of a difficult conversation, feeling rushed or if the kids are in the room and we need to go into parent code speak, we often unintentionally send off signals to our partner that don’t match our words.
Be aware of your body language. Crossed arms imply you are defensive and closed off to what the other person has to say. Clenched fists do the same.
Kids pick up on body language fast. I’ve had mine ask me what was wrong after they’ve entered the room at the end of an adult conversation and didn’t hear a word.
Find yourself looking away when your spouse asks you a question? People often get into the habit of looking out into the distance as if the answer to a question is floating in the air. One person’s search for an answer can be perceived by someone else as not taking the conversation seriously or even lying.
Maintaining eye contact, keeping your palms open to show you are engaged and listening, and avoiding defensive posturing will help prevent a conversation from escalating into a fight.
A lack of specific language sounds trivial. But, it can quickly launch a misunderstanding. Take the word “soon.” One parent’s promise to sign the kids up for soccer soon may mean that day to one person and the following week to another.
The same goes for “next” Friday. A plan made Sunday night to meet for lunch “next” Friday gets foiled when one person has the Friday coming up in mind and the other plans for more than a week out.
A small squabble about an unmet expectation can become a negative undercurrent during a later argument if left unsolved.
Doormats are for Feet
If you downplay your conversations with “doormat language,” such as “I was just thinking,” you are inviting your significant other to step on you or, at a minimum, perceive your thought as having less importance.
If one person says, “If you can just possibly stop leaving your dishes all around the house, I would appreciate it.” What that person means is “I don’t like finding your dishes everywhere. It is frustrating. Can you please pick them up?” The first statement sounds insecure and wishy washy. Imagine what your kids would do if asked to make the bed or clean their rooms in a similar style.
We often see people set out to “soften” language in conversations, peppering requests with such down players as “just” or “if it’s possible” and see it backfire when the request is ignored or thought of as insignificant. Being direct with pleases and thank yous goes much further than bookending conversations with weak wording.
Don’t Fan the Flames
“Let’s not have this conversation in front of the kids.” “Just calm down.” “You know this is not a big deal.” “I hate when we have these conversations.” “I know what you are going to say.” These phrases are lighter fluid for fights.
Avoid the temptation to make a small disagreement grow with phrases that escalate emotion. This kind of wording adds additional avenues of frustration that were not there in the first place. There will be times when the closest you can get to a solution is to respectfully agree to disagree.
I remember what I wore during memorable and not-so-memorable moments of childhood. I can spew off phone numbers I haven’t called in decades. And there are times when Keith and I disagree on one topic and suddenly it triggers the playlist of older disagreements. I’m working on hitting stop. There is something to be said for throwing conversations away when they are done and not recycling them.
Friction Moves Things Forward
The toughest conversations on difficult topics can lead to the kinds of understandings that wouldn’t exist if someone had not been brave enough to be authentic with their feelings instead of sugarcoating. When you are upset about something or have a concern about what was meant, ask and don’t let it wait. The conversation that follows may be more difficult in the short run than brushing it off, but it will lower the odds of returning to the same argument again.