How the ‘letters’ we send and receive affect our relationships
I want to change the way you communicate, or at least the way you think about communication.
Take a look at these examples and stick with me for a moment:
A letter drops through your front door.
You announce: “It’s just another bill!”.
When you open it, you find that it’s not what you expected at all but is something completely different.
How about this example of these two individuals in a relationship:
Partner A: “I’m going to stop by Simon’s after work”.
Partner B: Thinks to themselves, “No problem, they’ll only be a few minutes later than usual”.
Partner A: Arrives home at 11pm.
Partner B: “Where have you been?!”
It’s happened to us all at some point or another. You say something to another person, they take it the wrong way, and it ends up in disaster. You didn’t mean it to happen but the damage is done.
It seems that in these instances we react according to how we interpret something, rather than how it was intended. This is what I mean by the difference between what is sent and received; i.e. the message the other individual intended for you, versus how you interpreted it.
Why do we do this?
One possible explanation is that, as humans, we are wired to sense danger and have been for as long as we’ve existed. When we see or hear something which could be considered to be ‘dangerous’, or ‘attacking’ in some way, we defend against it. Therefore, it might be that the way in which we respond to these sorts of situations is just how our mind protects us against potential incoming threats.
Now, the problem occurs when we are defending against something which actually isn’t a threat in the first place. This in turn results in the other side feeling attacked themselves and can result in the situation escalating to a level to where it never should have gone in the first place. In relationships which are already stressed or strained, this danger threshold may be lower, and so these situations may occur even more often.
As far as I’m aware, there has been no-one in the history of humanity who has been able to read minds. So what makes us think we can do this in our day to day lives? Imagine our relationships if we didn’t make assumptions or at least questioned the assumptions we made. Wouldn’t it be better if we opened the letter before we responded to it?
What can we do about this?
You can start by trying these five steps:
1. First, become aware that this may be something that happens to you. Consider times it may have happened recently and how what was intended may not have been how you interpreted it.
2. Start to notice when you are doing it. Responses may initially be automatic, but the more you become aware of these sorts of issues, the more able you will be able to respond differently.
3. Learn to “press the pause button”. Before you react, take a moment to consider whether it was actually someone’s intent to hurt/annoy/frustrate you. Are there any other feasible explanations? What are they going through? For example, are they stressed themselves?
4. If you’re not sure, ask for clarification – it’s okay to ask for more information, or a follow-up question to check if you understood something correctly.
5. If all else fails – is it possible to give the other person the benefit of the doubt?
This may all seem simple, but it’s a trap we all fall into at some point in our lives. By taking the time to open the letter and consider its contents carefully, we can reply in a much more helpful and useful way than if we respond without opening it in the first place.
Finally, our relationships are precious and need to be nurtured. When it comes to the contents of a letter, it might not matter so much, but our relationships are much more meaningful. It is without doubt that we can all do more to improve the way we communicate, so let’s start now and make a difference.
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About Ilan Ben-Zion
Hi, I’m Ilan! I’m a Chartered Clinical Psychologist and Director of The Oak Tree Practice and Little Bee Clinic. I believe that as Psychologists, it's our duty to share our knowledge with the world via articles such as this.
For some people, therapy is the best way forward so if you are interested, please get in touch!