Monday, September 24, 2012

Are You a Clean Communicator?

When I watch the Monty Python skit "The Argument Clinic," it always crystalizes for me why some people are much easier to communicate with than others. Like the person behind the desk at the argument clinic, sometimes it’s just too frustrating to be understood. What if each person took responsibility for being a clean communicator? Couldn't we make life easier, make communicating more satisfying, and end some drama that happens with dirty communication? I think so.

Think about who you want to speak with when you are frustrated, upset, sad or churned up inside. What qualities do you look for in someone you can open up to? Most people prefer people who listen well, ask questions to deepen their understanding, are non-judgmental, emotionally available, not distracted, direct, honest, not lecturing, and who care and listen from the heart.

Clean communication is clear and direct. If you have a concern or a grievance with someone, you have the courage to talk with them directly, not passive aggressively complain about them to a third party.

Being a clean communicator means you don't use sarcasm, or try to operate like you are "one up." You operate from a base of mutual respect and value the other person.

Clean communicators manage their own stress level. They exercise, meditate, pray, and do their own self-care. They don't make you the verbal punching bag for every speed bump in their daily life.

Clean communicators mean what they say, and say what they mean. Therapists call this congruency.
You keep your commitments, and are impeccable with your word.

Skilled communicators deliver whole communications, as in "when you did x (their behavior), I felt y (your feeling), and next time I would like z (their behavior)."

Good communicators can set boundaries with others. They can say "no." They try not to do things just out of obligation or guilt.

When clean communicators are unhappy with the way an important relationship is going, they don't start an emotional or sexual affair with someone else. They set up a time to honestly talk with their partner directly about their concerns, and see whether they can each take some responsibility for getting things back on track.

Clean communicators avoid saying "always" and "never." They choose "I-statements," rather than blaming "you-statements."

It's dirty communication to label other people, judge them, and blame them. (This is not your job!)

Dirty communication drags out the past in every disagreement and can't let go of it and move on.

Threats are the favorite ammunition of dirty communicators. They threaten to leave, to divorce, to break up with you. This dirty communication style is called being an emotional bully.

Dirty communicators attack and denigrate the other person in any disagreement. They refuse to accept that the other person may have their own perspective, and that that's often okay and healthy. We therapists call this differentiation, and it means you accept the differences between your view of the world and someone else's. Dirty communicators can't do it.

Clean communicators keep their non-verbal cues warm. This includes facial expression, tone of voice, and body language. Dirty communicators do non-verbal leakage that is cold, judgmental, and tight. Warm non-verbal cues make you want to open up. Cold ones make you want to shut down.

My theory is that everyone can look emotionally pretty healthy alone, but it is in close relationships that our insecurities and fears pop out. It gets harder to assert yourself about personal things, and with those that you care most about. The stakes are so much higher than when you assert yourself with a stranger.

For a nice review on these concepts of healthy and clean communication skills, check out the classic book Couple Skills by McKay, Fanning, and Paleg (New Harbinger Publications, 2006).

The good news on communicating cleanly and effectively is that it's entirely learnable. It's our choice every day to choose dirty communication that hurts our relationships and makes people feel they have paid a visit to the argument clinic, or healthy, clean, and open communication.

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