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How to be understood

Tags: communication

Picture this: you’ve had a long day at work and you’re glad to be home. There’s some washing-up left in the sink from last night and you want to get it done so you can sit quietly in a tidy kitchen and have a cup of tea from your favourite mug. While you’re washing up, you remember an incident at work today that you didn’t handle very well. As you replay the moment in your head, you let out a big sigh.

Because your partner isn’t inside your head, they might think you’re sighing over the washing-up. If they’ve had a tough day too, they might leap to the defensive and explain why they haven’t had a chance to wash up yet. Before you know it, you’re arguing about something that hasn’t even happened, and your hard day at work has gone unacknowledged by the person you rely on most for support.

Why it’s important to feel understood

Relationships are all about communication – not just what you communicate to each other, but how you each understand what’s being communicated.

When you need something from your partner, the first step is to communicate that need. The second step is for them to recognise the need. Without that recognition, it’s unlikely you’ll get that support. And that’s why understanding each other is so important to having a satisfying relationship [1]. Being understood helps us feel secure and looked after [2].

What you say and what you mean

If you want your partner to know you’re feeling sad, do you tend to sulk until they notice, or do you step up and say, “I’m feeling a bit down today”? When someone misunderstands you, or fails to even notice you, it’s easy to get cross and to blame them for not listening properly, or for not caring.

What difference could it make if you decided to take responsibility for everything you communicate? What if, when someone misunderstands you, you make the choice to re-frame what you’ve communicated until it makes sense to the other person? Try applying this not just to the words you convey, but also to the emotions.

Don’t assume your partner knows what’s going on in your mind

Your partner may be the person who knows you best but it’s not their job to read your mind. So, while sulking might work from time to time, the direct approach is almost always more helpful. How many times have you moped around waiting for your partner to notice how sad you are? It might feel like your partner doesn’t care, but the reality is that many of us tend to over-estimate how much emotion we are conveying [3] [4].

Many of us also assume that our partners instinctively know what we’re feeling [5], but that isn’t always the case. These assumptions can be among the biggest hindrances to communicating effectively in relationships, leaving you feeling unheard, rejected and liable to lash out in response [6].

Being clear about your feelings can protect against all of this. The next time your partner misunderstands you, take a moment before you respond. Try to remember that they’ve only misunderstood you because they don’t have all the information, and take responsibility for filling in the gaps. Being clear about how you feel almost always makes it easier to get what you need.

 

References

[1] Reis, H., Clark, M., & Holmes, J. G. (2004). Perceived partner responsiveness as an organizing construct in the study of intimacy and closeness. In D. Mashek & A. Aron (Eds.), Handbook of closeness and intimacy (pp. 201-228). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

[2] Collins, N. L., & Feeney, B. C. (2000). A safe haven: An attachment theory perspective on support seeking and caregiving in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 1053-1073.

[3] Vorauer, J. D., Cameron, J. J., Holmes, J. G., & Pearce, D. G. (2003). Invisible overtures: Fears of rejection and the amplification bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 793-812.

[4] Cameron, J. J., & Robinson, K. J. (2010). Don’t you know how much I need you? Consequences of miscommunication vary by self-esteem. Social Psychological and Personality Science1(2), 136-142.

[5] Eidleson, R. J., & Epstein, N. (1982). Cognition and relationship maladjustment: Development of a measure of dysfunctional relationship beliefs. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 50, 715-720.

[6] Cameron, J. J., & Vorauer, J. D. (2008). Feeling transparent: On metaperceptions and miscommunications. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1093-1108.

 

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