As a former attorney, I tend to be verbose: hey, after all it is a fact that attorneys used to get paid by the word. That’s why contracts used to be so complicated and lengthy. Well, that and the fact that the more complicated we made them, the less likely it would be for others to understand them and the more likely it was they would need to hire us. Okay, so where am I going with this? Communication!
Communication is at the heart of a healthy, vibrant and heartfelt relationship. According to research conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus at UCLA who wrote “Silent Messages“, 7% of a conversation is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements (i.e., tone), and 55% through nonverbal elements (i.e., facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc.).
As an example of how this works, let’s use the, oh so familiar, “F” word. Whenever we hear or overhear that word (more likely than not, from a man), the tone used usually lets you know the mood that the person is in. That is, is it said in jest, rage, frustration, etc. The gestures accompanying the word provide further, and more solid, evidence of the person’s mood.
But are the percentages important? Does knowing that communication is X% nonverbal or Y% verbal ultimately mean anything? Perhaps the important part to remember is that what is said is not as important than how it’s said and the body signals as the words are said.
When we fail to detect body signals or tones, or when the partner him/herself is unaware of the true meaning of what they’re saying, trouble arises. That is, what one partner says is often, actually almost always, not what the other partner hears. Of course, we are all familiar with, and most of us have suffered at the “hands” of the infamous “Nothing” in response to the question “What’s wrong?” Men take the answer literally, while women tend to have a “hidden” meaning. While some, if not most of us, have been trapped by that one, there are other minefields waiting to blow the relationship up. Allow me to share a personal example (please be kind as this is hard to share).
In my latest relationship, my partner made it clear that she would “terminate” the relationship if I could not pull my financial weight. This is not said in judgment for I understood her position (belief?) based on her past history. Moreover, it is likely that this was not even the real reason but a cover for her own “fear”, a subject we will explore at a different time.
At the time of the final denouement, I was working very late at night in an effort to market a company I had just started. Unfortunately, what I failed to understand was that my partner was growing frustrated by what she perceived was a lack of interest (i.e., love) from me. She was also growing frustrated by what she perceived as my negativity towards my ability to be a provider. In reality, I was as much in love with my partner as ever. However, I felt the pressure to be the provider, so I would work late into the night.
Near the end of our relationship, my partner would come to me as I worked at my computer, tenderly touch me on my shoulder and ask whether I was “coming to bed.” What she really meant to say was: “Please come to bed and hold me tight as I believe you no longer love me and I’m falling out of love with you.” Her body posture no doubt indicated her need as well. Of course, focused on my work and the need to be a financial provider, I failed to notice that as well. Clueless, I would state that I would be in bed “in a little bit.” I would stay at my computer a lot longer than “a little bit.” In fact, it was several hours before I actually went to bed wanting to hold her. Of course, by now, she was fast asleep. Because I cared deeply for her, I didn’t want to wake her. So I would simply caress her, whisper “good night”, and go to sleep. Of course, she was clueless to any of this since she was asleep. A few weeks later, she “terminated” the relationship.
The lesson? We failed to communicate! Or rather, we mis-communicated. I failed to understand what she really meant. She failed to tell me what she really needed.
While I now understand that I failed to read the clues my partner was giving me, it is indubitable that she could have said exactly what she meant. But women are not wont to do so. Apparently, inbred within them is the need to have their partners read their minds…before any woman take the poison pen to paper: Just kidding! Well … almost. As a man, I have been taught that women do want us to read their minds! Or perhaps it is that they need us to read their minds as “proof” of our love for them?
Actually, this is more likely than not a result of upbringing. In this society, as in almost all others, men grow up to be action-oriented (for example, we grow playing with GI Joe and toy guns), whereas women are more intent on making connections. Talking is a necessary part of this latter. Men grunt, women talk. Or do they? Research and statistics seem to be all over the map in this, and perhaps it is just a stereotypical belief.
What is indubitable is that partners’ differences in communication result in roller coaster-type of relationships. So are we stuck always wondering what our partner means? Can we evolve to saying what we mean? Are there regional, national or international differences? Or, to paraphrase someone who had his “10 minutes of fame” quite a while back: “Can’t we just all communicate?”
In future follow ups to this blog, we will explore further differences between men’s and women’s communication styles, and particularly the genetic evolution reasons for these differences. In the meantime, remember: to become a butterfly, you must want to fly so bad that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.
With love, Jean-Pierre