Inside Therapy: Stop Communicating and Pay Attention

Monday, April 16, 2012


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He says and she says but what's actually being heard? it's more about attention than communication. Photo: Berit Brogaard.

A particularly cheerful buddy of mine has been with his wife for about 15 years. They have three energetic kids, two demanding jobs, an always-occupied guest room, and a full-time garden. They don’t sleep much. They do, however, dole out free advice to anyone who wants to know how they manage to stay so close and connected through it all.

“No communication.”

Sounds crazy, but they’re onto something.

Communicate better! Communicate more!

Popular articles are endlessly exhorting couples to communicate. “Communicate better!” they say. “Communicate more!” My own field has fueled this fervor, turning a vaguely defined construct called “communication” into the Holy Grail of relationship happiness. It’s a terrifically wrong-headed approach.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that—given the way human beings are built—it’s impossible for us not to communicate.

Thousands of signals

In any given moment you are with your partner, he or she is sending you thousands of signals—some verbal, but most conveyed through tone, pitch, pace, pausing, posture and presence. Or absence. In fact, what many people call “not communicating” (i.e. saying nothing) is often a particularly glaring form of communication.

Our nervous systems are constantly registering this blizzard of communication. It’s a heavy load of internal processing that our conscious awareness can’t possibly keep up with—which is why Mother Nature has seen to it that we give overwhelmingly preferential treatment to those signals that alert us to potential threats. It’s one of the many strategies she came up with that help keep us alive long enough to procreate.

Brains searching for bad news

Here’s another: our brains are not only designed to attend to bad news, they’re designed to search for it. We scan for ominous signs automatically, without any awareness of doing so. Even during conversations with friends, our eyes make rapid, involuntary micro-movements called “saccades”—partly in order to monitor the environment for physical threats that might require our conscious attention.

In the realm of relationships, these same principles hold. Human nervous systems are continually on the lookout for social signals that might indicate trouble. This is why, at the end of a Sunday afternoon spent with your partner walking the dog, reading the paper, and sharing a box of Milanos, you may wind up remembering first and foremost how, at the end of the day, he or she told you about an unexpected business trip that was put on the schedule for next week.

Signals that get lost in the mix

Partners send each other all kinds of signals—but many of the most important ones get lost in the mix. If you pay close attention when a couple is fighting, you’ll notice that even in the midst of battle they make tiny gestures of truce, repair and reparation. One person will risk a quick, vulnerable glance, or the other will make a little movement as though he wants to touch his partner’s hand.

These little gestures are usually so small and tentative that the other person doesn’t notice them. But they’re there, getting “communicated.”

The problem: what's getting our attention

The problem in many relationships, then, isn’t so much what’s getting communicated. The problem is what’s getting attention. Evolution gave us survival strategies that were great on the savannah but aren’t as well suited to the suburbs.

There’s some good news, though: Biology isn’t destiny. If you’re in a relationship that’s hurting, take comfort in the fact that human beings are extremely good at adapting their behavior; our nervous systems are extraordinarily malleable. Changing our internal hardwiring isn’t easy, but with hard work and good support, almost anyone can learn to allocate their attention in ways that will leave them a whole lot happier.

Just look at my buddy’s marriage. It’s not that he never says anything that could tick off his wife, or vice versa. It’s that when they communicate, which I assure you they do, the signals that upset them aren’t the only ones they’re paying attention to.

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Archie Roberts is a psychotherapist, professor, and writer. He's consulted to organizations around the world and makes his home in Providence.

For more coverage of relationships, don't miss Archie Roberts on GoLocalTV, fresh every day at 4pm and on demand 24/7, here.


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