It is ironic but true in an age when the technology of communication has been developed beyond a level most of us would have thought possible just a few short years ago, and when the globe has become smaller through satellite technology, cable television and the Internet, that personal communication – the ability clearly to hear and be heard by those with whom we are in close relationship – has, if anything, deteriorated.
A large part of the work of those of us who practice psychotherapy is centered around issues of communication. Indeed, effective communication is at the very core of the psychotherapeutic process itself. People come to therapists to work on a variety of problems, including low self esteem, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and relationship problems. One thing all of these people share is a desire to be heard: not just listened to, but genuinely heard, understood, taken seriously. A good therapist must be a good listener as well as a good communicator, one who can understand and empathize with the feelings being expressed by the person sitting in the other chair without allowing his/her own feelings to interfere. This must be coupled with the ability to mirror those feelings back to the other person in a compassionate, yet objective fashion that will enable that person better to understand and accept his/her experience. In short, good psychotherapy is good communication.
If we were all better communicators in our private lives, there would be much less need for psychotherapy. But that ideal seems to be further and further removed from the reality so many people in our society experience today. The people whom I see in therapy every day are “hungry” to be heard and taken seriously. It is clear that most of them feel that very few people in their lives have been able to provide that for them, beginning with their parents and continuing with their peers and spouses or significant others.
This is not a new problem. Bad parenting and bad listening are surely as old as humanity itself. But I find myself wondering whether the art of communication has not, in fact, deteriorated in the past several decades. There are a couple of things that would lead me to that conclusion. First, and perhaps most obvious (but often overlooked), is the fact that people in our highly technological society simply do not talk with each other as much as people in our parents’, and certainly our grandparents’, generations did. The very technology that has improved global communication has led to less personal communication. Our grandparents talked to each other at the dinner table; we tend to watch TV. They often talked after dinner; we rush to our computer to check our e-mail or surf the Web, or watch more TV.
A survey published in the New York Times several years ago revealed that couples who had been married for more than 10 years talked directly to each other, on the average, less than 30 minutes per week – a rather shocking statistic! I do not wish to imply that simply increasing the amount of communication among friends and intimates would automatically improve the quality of that communication, but I think it would be a step in the right direction. When you are speaking you may or may not be heard, but when you are not speaking you are definitely not being heard! While our parents or grandparents may not have had more highly developed communications skills than we, they at least had more occasion to say what was on their mind.
It is not a secret that intimate relationships have a much higher failure rate today than they did even 20 years ago. Obviously, there are several things that contribute to the high failure rate in intimate relationships today, but one which, in my experience, is quite high on the list is poor communication.
That brings me to my second point: Not only do we communicate too little with those closest to us, but when we do communicate, we often do a poor job of it. As a marriage counselor, I find one of my most important jobs in working with couples is helping them to communicate more effectively. Often it is not a question of a major overhaul in communication, but simply learning to say things a little differently. For example:
1. Respond to your loved one in a way which indicates that you heard and understood what he/she first said to you.
2. Use more “I” statements when unhappy with the other person rather than simply blaming and resorting to name calling (e.g.: “When you do … it really hurts” rather than “You’re such a jerk when you…”);
3. Be careful not to use language that will be hurtful and push the buttons that you’ve come to recognize in the other person;
4. Avoid the use of divisive terms such as “always,” “forever,” “yet again,” and especially avoid threatening to end the relationship when you have no intention of doing so.
These are just a few examples of the kinds of little things we can do to improve communications that are likely to enhance the quality of our relationships. With or without the help of therapy, we could all benefit from becoming better communicators — no small task in the busy technological society in which we live today.
H. Kimball Jones, PhD, is Upper West Side Area Director of the Psychotherapy & Spirituality Institute. A Diplomate of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors with a PhD in Psychiatry and Religion, and ordained in the United Methodist Church, he has been a pastoral psychotherapist since 1975.