The communication error we all make, and how it intensifies conflict

Ever had an argument that never ends? There's a reason for that, says psychotherapist Esther Perel.

Esther Perel: There are conversations that will intensify conflict or the potential thereof. And there are conversations who will intensify understanding, potentially even resolution. Conversations that are sure to polarize in which for everything you say I come back with what I have to say, without ever taking into account what you just said. You know what happens. When people disagree they literally have the capacity to listen to ten seconds of what the other side has to say. Ten seconds – that’s three sentences. And by then they already are busy creating their rebuttal. They are no longer listening. They are just preparing their return, their retort. When you have that kind of conversation here is what happens. One is I am constantly just going to come back at you. I am not integrating what I heard from you and it doesn’t influence anything of what I’m saying. So basically you’re saying the same thing over and over again and I’m saying the same thing over and over again and those two never meet. And the more I say X, the more I make you say Y. It’s like I’m going to – it’s me who is reinforcing you saying the fundamental thing with which you disagree with. 

I come with expectations of what I think you think or may say or may want. All relationships are colored with expectations about myself and about the other. My expectations influence that which I then see or hear. It is a filter as well as my mood is a filter. We in communication have the ability to set the other people up because we will draw from them the very things with which we expect from them even when it’s the opposite of what we really want. We create the others in relationships and in communication. It isn’t just that’s who they are and that’s who we are. That is one of the most important things to understand about relationships and communication is how people actually co-create each other in the context of a relationship and why we are not the same person with different people. Because those people make part of who we are. 

When we are in conflictual relationships we will often be prone to negative attributions which is that when you speak to me a certain way it’s because you have a bad temper or you have a nasty personality. When I speak to you in a certain way it’s because I had a lot of traffic getting here this morning and because I’m having a bad day. You are a bad person, I have just bad circumstances. I essentialize you and I contextualize me. All of these things will intensify conflict. It’s the opposite that will create the potential for understanding. Is my ability to take in what you say, to mull it over, to include it in my response so that I make you feel that you matter, that what you say makes a difference, that it enters me, that you’re not just talking to the wind. 

What is lacking is the ability to see that speaking is entirely dictated by the quality of the listening that is reflected back on us. If I’m talking to someone who is on their phone I will be expressing myself and experiencing the communication completely different than if I am speaking to someone who is looking at me in the eyes, who is shaking their head, who says to me I get it, I understand. Not necessarily I agree. So when you listen to me the first thing I need to know is that I have your attention. The second thing I need to know is that maybe you can acknowledge the validity of my point of view. That doesn’t mean you agree with my point of view but my point of view makes sense. And potentially you may even empathize with my point of view. You can understand why I would think or feel or experience things the way I do. That reflecting back, acknowledging, validating, empathizing. That sequence is where the depth of communication takes place. Because ultimately if I speak to you and in the end I leave feeling even more alone I’m literally in an existential crisis. There is nothing worse than to be alone in the presence of another.

Ever had an argument that never ends? There's a reason for that. Esther Perel, the Belgian-born psychotherapist and author, posits that in order to be heard correctly you have to approach the other party as neutral. Too often, she says, people approach conversations with agendas and expectations. Because of this, arguments can easily fracture into two sides parroting what their talking points are without actually listening to each other. Esther says that the best way to communicate is to sincerely listen to the other person as you would want to be listened to. That might seem like simple advice, but the average person only truly listens to about three sentences or 10 seconds before preparing their own retort in their head, and blocking their conversation partner off. Esther Perel's exciting new book is The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.

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