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The most common complaint that I hear from couples in my practice is, “we don’t communicate well. She/he doesn’t understand me.” The problem is presented equally by men and women.

Communication between people is complex. It involves transmission and reception and both present problems. One person speaks, attempting to express some thought or feeling, and the other person receives the thought or feeling.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Not so fast.  The transmitter (initiator) intends to deliver a message, but may not express him or herself well.  Something gets jumbled between what one intends to say and what actually is said.  The receiver, thinks he or she understands what is being said, but in actuality, he or she is interpreting what is heard and responding to this interpretation rather than to what was actually said or to the intent.

For instance, the dialogue might go like this.  Tom intends to say to Mary, “Some folks at the office are going out after work for drinks. Would that be OK with you if I join them?”  What he actually says, is “I’ll will be working late tonight.”  Mary, knowing that there are women at the office, interprets this in her mind as “you are bored with me and would rather stay at work.”  She then responds in an angry tone with, “OK, fine, but I won’t be here when you get home!” An argument ensues about whether Tom is having an affair.

In order to minimize the probability of such miscommunication I suggest what is known as active listening. Active listening requires that the listener makes certain that he/she completely understands what the communicator is saying or intends to say before responding.  Active listening begins with the receiver of the communication paraphrasing what was heard and possibly asking for additional information.  It is important that the listener give the speaker the opportunity to clarify, amplify, modify, or even retract what was said.  Once the speaker fully expresses his thought or feeling and indicates that he feels completely understood, then the listener has the opportunity to respond. At that point the process continues with the roles being reversed.

The previous dialogue might look like this:

Tom: “I’ll be working late tonight.”

Mary: “My understanding is that you will be working in your office late tonight. Is that correct?”

Tom: “Not exactly. Several people from work will be going out for drinks after work. We will be discussing some recent developments at the office.”

Mary: “OK, so you will be going out with a group of people from the office after work and will be discussing work-related matters over drinks. Is that it?”

Tom: “Yes, that is what I was trying to say.”

At this point Mary may wish to start a new conversation about feeling insecure in the relationship in which case the dialogue would continue with Tom being the active listener.

Active listening takes practice. It takes patience.  Simply learning to listen is difficultActive listening is even more difficult. However, it is an effective way of avoiding misunderstanding and insuring that conversations stay of point. It gives each party the opportunity to clarify and to be understood.

Another tip for better communication is to always give the intent of a question before asking. This gives the responder complete information as to the purpose of the question in order to give a complete response.  For example, let’s say that Tom says, “Do we have plans tonight?”  It sounds like a simple yes or no question.  But it is not full communication.

The reason Tom is asking the question could be that Tom really wants to go out for drinks with some co-workers after work. If Mary says, “no” then Tom assumes that he can make go out with his co-workers and says, “Great. I will be going out with the guys after work for drinks. I will be home late.”  Mary may feel set up.  She says, “I thought you were going to invite me out for dinner. Now I am disappointed.” It would have been far better for Tom to have said, “I would like to go out for drinks some of my co-workers after work. Is there any reason that shouldn’t go?” Mary would not have had an expectation of dinner.  Giving the back story for all questions before asking them can save people considerable grief and avoid awkward conversations and miscommunications.

[Dr. Dreyfus is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist, relationship counselor, sex therapist, and life coach in the Santa Monica – Los Angeles area treating low sexual desire, premature ejaculation, sexual addictions, drug and alcohol abuse as well marriage and relationship communication and intimacy issues. The profits from his latest book, LIVING LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT along with his other five books, are being donated to charity through the website Book Royalties for Charity and can be purchased through Amazon.com. Please become a fan on his Facebook Fan Page by indicating “like” on the page by clicking here. You can also find more tools to help you experience a more fulfilling life by clicking here to visit his website.]