03/17/2014 06:28 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2014

Bad Communication Is Not the Problem

Couples in committed relationships, as well as people working as a team, often want to improve their communication. In fact, nine out of 10 couples I see in counseling, initially report that their problem is bad communication. They go on to explain that they have done couples counseling and learned good communication skills like paraphrasing and reflective listening. They point out that they are confused about why after a few months, they returned to bad communication.

They are typically taken back when I tell them that it is very likely that bad communication is not their problem. I go on to explain that bad communication is a symptom similar to a headache resulting from a brain tumor. We can temporarily treat the symptom of the headache without addressing the real problem. So it is with bad communication, as new and improved listening and speaking skills are introduced. However, because the problem is not treated, old habits of bad communication gradually return.

I refer to the symptoms of bad communication as 12 Dirty Angels. I employ the description of dirty because they do not feel good. They disrupt building trust, rapport and a reliable coalition. I refer to them as angels because they are heralds announcing the presence of a significant problem. (Acknowledgment for Thomas Gordon's pioneering work on roadblocks to effective communication.)

12 Dirty Angels

1) Blaming and Shaming
2) Distracting with humor
3) Avoiding and withdrawing
4) Ordering and Commanding
5) Threatening
6) Moralizing and Preaching
7) Criticizing and ridiculing
8) Name-calling and sarcasm
9) Interrogating
10) Lecturing
11) Analyzing and diagnosing
12) Offering unsolicited solutions

The Dirty Angels send a variety of messages that interfere with and inhibit clear and open communication:

• "I know and you don't know."
• "There must be something wrong with you."
• "I'm going to explain what's going on with you."
• " I really don't want to listen to you."
• "You better get it right!"

The Dirty Angels announce the presence of one or more of the following problems:

1) The first problem is diminished self-love. When we do not feel good about ourselves it becomes increasingly difficult to hear someone discussing distressful feelings and reactions to life's challenges. Feelings of inadequacy are often accompanied by feelings of helplessness. We compensate for feeling powerless by compensating with attempts to control the situation of the speaker.

2) The second problem is the employment of a weak emotional boundary. When communicating with such a boundary we struggle to separate ourselves from the speaker's preferences, beliefs and feelings. We either take on the experience of speakers, thinking we are responsible to fix or rescue them, or we overreact with attempts at influencing them.

3) The third problem is denied fear. When we become unconsciously scared, we begin responding to our fear rather than what is being communicated by the speaker.

4) The fourth problem is an inability to calm down. When that happens we are simply reacting to our own emotional states and unable to relate to the message being sent to us.

Addressing the Real Problems
• We can address the problem of diminished self-love by getting more conscious of when we are okay with ourselves and when we have dropped into self-deprecation. It may be a time to suspend any attempts at in depth communication and work on what it takes to feel better about ourselves.

• Handling the second problem of weak emotional boundaries can happen by practicing the skill of employing effective boundaries. One way this can be done is by asking the following questions to ourselves while listening to someone: What is the speaker saying about her or himself? Can I continue to listen while remaining mindful that the main focus of his or her communication is not me?

• Coming to terms with the third problem of denied fear means committing to becoming more conscious of feeling fear in an ongoing way. This level of mindfulness happens as we ask ourselves repeatedly: Am I feeling fear now?

• Addressing the fourth problem of an inability to calm down means learning to become more grounded. Gaining more ground happens by: deep breathing, feeling the ground with our feet, being attentive to sensory input of sight, smell, sound and touch, and being aware of inner physical sensations of tightness and constrictions.

Treating the real problems calls for a commitment to mindful living. We likely will not get away with simply acquiring new and less hostile language. Effective communication reflects internal states that resonate with a commitment to deepen our appreciation for ourselves, to employ effective boundaries, to remain cognizant of our fears and to learn to calm ourselves.

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