There’s always a need to improve communication. Here’s why there’s no such thing as good communication — and what to do about it. A truly easy, simple what-to-do!
Ralph and I have been practicing good communication for more than 4 decades, and yet every conversation includes misunderstandings. Why is that? The answer is explained in this interesting TEDx talk by Stan Tatkin, a couples therapist. I’ve posted the most important parts of his talk below the 10-minute video, finishing off with reflection questions that will give you and your beloved an opportunity to practice the simple technique he recommends.
“There’s actually nothing more difficult on the planet than another person. Think about that. We’re all difficult; we all come to each new relationship wanting easy, but we also come with our fair share of unresolved painful experiences from previous relationships.
Between love and work, love is by far, more complex and challenging.
Much of the reason for this is based in our automatic neurobiological reflexes, so let me explain. Let’s start with that fancy neocortex of yours, the high cortical areas. For simplicity sake, let’s call them your ambassadors. Your ambassadors are very smart, deliberate, but slow; and they’re very expensive to run. They’re really good at planning, predicting, organizing, languaging and they’re really good at making things up.
When you think of logic and reason, think ambassadors. The subcortical areas of your brain, let’s call them your primitives; they’re very fast, memory-based, automatic, and very cheap to run. They’re involved in love and sex, but also threat detection by scanning for dangerous faces, voices, gestures, movements, as well as dangerous words and phrases.
When you think fight or flight, think primitives. Thanks to your primitives, your day is 99% fully automatic. Your ambassadors love novelty, but they have to offload newness to your primitives in order to conserve resources. You can’t possibly run your day with your ambassadors in full gear; you would fry your brain. So the primitives use something called procedural memory, otherwise known as body memory….
Your primitives are relying on procedural memory to run your relationship, and that memory includes everyone and everything of an emotional importance in your life. That primitive brain of yours is going to read your partner’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions through that memory lens….
Communication, memory, perception — all error-prone. Human communication, even on a good day, is terrible. We’re mostly misunderstanding each other much of the time; when we feel good, we don’t care that much, when we don’t feel good, we care a whole lot.
When stress goes up, human communication gets a whole lot worse. Memory is unreliable. Memory is faulty, folks, and in a fight for whose memory is right, you’re probably both wrong. Your perceptions are like fun house mirrors. Your perceptions are constantly being altered by your state of mind and your memory. They’re constantly playing tricks on you. If we assume our communication, our memory, our perception is the real truth, that’s hubris, and that will get us into trouble.
But why do our fights spin out of control? It’s because real time is too fast, and when we feel threatened, we act, and react with our primitives. Our ambassadors actually have no idea how we got into this place….
I want to get to the fun part here. Since all of you literally carry around your own neurobiology lab with you, wherever you go; here’s a few experiments you can run in the comfort of your own home: the next time a relationship moment turns tense, change your position; go eye-to-eye and face-to-face, notice what happens.
And by the way, if you tend to fight a lot while driving in the car, it’s because you’re side-to-side and glance; a glance is a threat trigger, that’s why you should never fight in the car, or on the phone, or while emailing, or while texting. We’re visual animals, and we need our eyes in order to regulate each other’s nervous systems.
I want you to understand that what I’m talking about here happens to everyone, regardless of personality, previous experience, and relationship experience, or trauma. No angels, no devils here; we’re all capable of becoming threatening, even to those we love, and we’re capable of making huge mistakes and errors in communication, memory, and perception; all of us.
The decision to be in a relationship, the decision to be in a committed relationship — loving, secure functioning — means being in the foxhole together and protecting each other from the dangers out there. It’s not just about getting our own way. We’re supposed to have each other’s backs.
I’ve seen far too many relationships end before their time, because people cannot get this simple concept; our major job is to protect each other and make each other feel safe and secure. The world is a dangerous place, it’s always been so; and right now, it feels a little scary. If we don’t have each other’s backs, who will?”
- In the last argument I had with my sweetheart, what did I say or think that might have been based on an erroneous memory or perception?
- How do I know when my beloved understands me correctly? How do I react when he/she doesn’t?
Strengthen your relationship:
Sitting (or standing) face-to-face, eye-to-eye (not even partially sideways), share with each other your answers to the above reflection questions. Then pray together, asking the Holy Spirit to fill you with a greater awareness of the truths that heal memories and build better understanding of each other.