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Just Because You're Talking Doesn't Mean You Get Heard

Communication in relationship

Does it ever puzzle you that your partner doesn't get what you're saying? Do you ever feel you you're being perfectly clear in your communication, but somehow, your message isn't getting across?

Welcome to communication in relationship! Or should I say, communication breakdowns?

As the title of this post suggests, it's a very common issue in marital and other relationships that we don't reach each other, despite vigorous attempts of communication.

There are many reasons why we fail to connect as we talk (we’ll be adding more posts on the topic). One of the most fundamental breakdowns is illustrated by an eye-opening study conducted by a Stanford graduate student in psychology.

Tappers and Listeners

In 1990 Elizabeth Newton asked college students to participate in an experiment in one of two roles: Tappers or Listeners. Tappers received a list of 25 well-known songs (like Happy Birthday) and were asked to tap out the rhythm of a song, by tapping on a table. Listeners then tried to guess the song from the taps.

Before the Listeners made their guess, the Tappers were asked to estimate how many songs Listeners would recognize. The tappers predicted 50% of their songs would be guessed correctly. But of all the song renditions that were tapped (120 total), only 3 were guessed by the Listeners, or 2.5%!

Why don’t they get it?

Tappers were amazed that more Listeners didn’t get it. To the Tappers, it seemed so obvious. The Tappers were hearing the songs clearly in their heads as they tapped away, but the Listeners heard only seemingly disjointed tap-tap sounds.

This study was included in Ms. Newton's dissertation, Overconfidence in the Communication of Intent: Heard and Unheard Melodies. It's unpublished, but mentioned in the Stanford Social Innovation Review under the heading, The Curse of Knowledge.

And this is the crux of the communication problem we so often face at home, with our spouses, partners, kids, or family.

The "curse" is that you have all the requisite knowledge to make sense of what you're saying. Your partner does not. Like the Tappers in the experiment, you are hearing and feeling the entirety of personal experience that gives meaning to your current communication. Your partner is not privy to this information, and hence often hears only seemingly disjointed statements. In other words, when you talk, you are always rooted in your internal experience and have the full context. Not so your partner. He or she is rooted in their own internal experience.

I don’t understand you

Here's an everyday example that happens frequently in Sonika's and my relationship. We’re relaxing in our living room, reading on our respective phones or enjoying our cats playing on the floor. Then Sonika says, “Couldn’t you make that a lot easier?!” I look up from my reading, saying, “Huh? What? Couldn’t I make what easier?” I’m just a tad bit alarmed I forgot something important, or didn’t do something correctly.

In actuality, Sonika is talking about an operation on her phone. “Couldn’t YOU …” is talking to third-person everybody YOU, or the phone itself. To her, this is plainly evident. To me, I’m not understanding. She has full context. I have no context.

Recognize the scene?

This is an everyday example, and can fairly easily be remedied by me saying (which I do), “Context, please?” Even so, I have a few moments of, “Oh, crap, what did I forget?”. For me personally, it’s a common trigger point that I feel I’m not doing things well enough or accurately enough, so this “Oh crap” moment creates tension and stress inside me. From that place, it’s easy to be reactive and in a tense tone say something like, “You can’t just blurt stuff like that out! I have no idea what you’re talking about!”

Communication breakdown patterns

If these kinds of interactions become commonplace, you have a pattern of communication breakdowns on your hand.

The example I just gave is a fairly straightforward one. Most of the time, for us, it’s easily cleared up. But imagine how much more complex this becomes when I’m trying to share something that’s really important to me, or highly emotionally charged.

Say I want to tell you how hurt or mad I feel about our intimacy having disappeared. The context from which I’m sharing encompasses my entire history of intimacy, my hurts and upsets from previous relationships, all the conversations I’ve had in my mind about this topic, my emotional wounds and values, my positive and negative beliefs about intimacy, and much more.

It's no wonder if my partner, the Listener, does not recognize the story I’m Tapping out. You might even say it’s kind of amazing that he or she sometimes does understand me.

Moving forward

In summary, in order to get heard, and to avoid communication breakdowns, it’s extremely important to keep in mind that your partner does not (necessarily) have the same understanding you have. Hopefully this helps you stay patient and compassionate, even if your partner is not understanding you.

Here are a few simple practical starter tips you might try to establish connection and communication:

  • Slow down your communication. Pause. A couple I coached had frequent misunderstandings; I recommended they pause and say, “Wait, I think we’re operating from different understandings right now … can we slow this down?”

  • Ask clarifying questions to better understand. “What’s the context?”, “Who is the ‘you’ you’re talking about?”, or “Could you say that a different way?"

  • Read this article together with your partner so he/she has the same baseline information.

Better still, take a communication course together (or by yourself). There’s no way around the need for learning to communicate lovingly and effectively. As this article illustrates, it’s so very easy to misunderstand each other. Not because you don’t love each other or you don’t want the best for both of you. Because you’re human, and because communication is complex. Communication breakdowns can seriously impact your entire relationship, as you already know.

On the other hand, good communication skills can save you endless hours of grief in the long run. Good communication skills make the difference between a full-scale fight or a slight disturbance in your connection that is easily restored back to love.

Connect! Loving Communication for Couples

We have designed a brand-new course for couples: Connect! Loving Communication for Couples. It’s a six-week course where you’ll be personally guided by Sonika and myself. You’ll learn the art and practical tools to keep your connection alive while you communicate with kindness and clarity.

A few highlights of what you’ll learn and practice:

  • How to make an emotional connection (the prerequisite for successful communication).

  • How to modify or avoid triggers that keep you from listening.

  • How to stay in the moment as you communicate.

  • How to access vulnerable communication and hold space for your partner to do so.

  • How to move yourself from anger to love and appreciation.

  • How to clean up mistakes and make effective apologies.

  • Plus, specific step-by-step communication tools to accomplish all this.

Register directly for the course below. Until Feb 14 (yes, Valentine's Day) you can register at the "lovebirds" special price and save $100.

As always, feel free to reach out to us with any questions.

LoveWorks: We believe relationships are meant to be an empowering, fun, passionate, safe place to grow, love, and learn. Where we get to be more of who we are, not less. We know it’s not always easy, but it can definitely be easier! With our unique and practical approach to relationship, you learn how to resolve conflicts quickly and enjoy fulfilling intimacy for the rest of your life. To learn more or contact us, visit

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