The 3 Layers of Communication
Communication isn’t difficult. I can scream at someone all day and that’s technically communication. I got my point across. Done. Was it effective? Not really. What causes the most grief is HOW we communicate and understanding the messages we exchange. I like to break down communication into three layers: CONTENT, PATTERNS and FEELINGS/NEEDS. It helps get to the root of the messages in a more authentic way. This is just one framework out of many so take what works and leave the rest.
CONTENT: All couples argue about content. “You don’t touch me anymore.” “You never help around the house.” A savvy therapist knows that focusing on content is an uphill battle because the goal post is always changing, e.g. boyfriend begins to help around the house but now he’s a "bad listener."
PATTERNS: I often suggest couples communicate about the communication. What I mean is to be curious about and explore communication patterns. Think: behavior. Explore what you notice with open-ended questions and observed behaviors (facts). “I notice that when I complain about work you go on your phone. What’s happening there?” This is getting warmer to the core, bottom layer, which is about…
FEELINGS and NEEDS: Now we’re getting somewhere! There’s a wonderful curriculum developed by Marshall Rosenberg called Nonviolent Communication aka Compassionate Communication and there are a number of trainings online anyone can attend. You don’t have to be a shrink to sign up and they’re awesome. In short, feelings arise when we’re either getting a need met or not getting a need met. If I feel fearful I may need safety. If I feel anger I may need respect. It sounds simple but it’s a language that needs mindful practice because we confuse feelings with thoughts and needs with strategies constantly (more on this later in a future blog entry).
Once you get to the feelings and needs layer you can make changes from the bottom up. “You feel disgruntled because you need support?” (Notice how there’s no mention of the boyfriend’s lack of help around the house.) MOST times the person will shout “YES!” To which I reply, “Okay, great. Let’s look at ways you can get the support you need.” The pattern usually changes as does the need to focus on the content. It also invites the boyfriend to help resolve the issue since he’s no longer on the defense.
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