In some shape or form, communication has existed for millions of years, starting with primitive cave drawings and progressing to modern day social networking. In its most basic form, communication involves an exchange of information, either positive, negative, or indifferent. Our willingness and ability to open up and share our thoughts and feelings remains an integral part of a meaningful and lasting romance.
But the art of communication also presents a paradox. On one hand, communication should be easy for us. We’re born with the ability to communicate the second we’re delivered into this world and cry out for the first time. As we grow, we communicate on a daily basis with our vocabulary, our tone of voice, our expressions, our mannerisms, and sometimes with none of the above, as silence itself can make a powerful statement. Often, it’s what we don’t say that speaks volumes. Instead of speaking, we make eye contact with someone across the room. Without a smile or a nod, we feel an instant connection derived from what our eyes, not our ears, are telling us. In an almost telepathic sense, we glimpse someone’s thoughts before they’re spoken.
Our ability to communicate verbally and nonverbally remains intrinsic to the human race. Every one of us owns the means to communicate. Yet so many of us communicate ineffectively, which equates to the second half of our communication paradox. If we are so well equipped to communicate, why do we struggle with communication in our romantic relationships? The reasons are manifold.
In many ways, human communication defines an art form. One that takes time to master. There are numerous ways to communicate our thoughts and feelings, but unfortunately, the intended message doesn’t always get across. Think about how many times you’ve heard or said:
“That’s not what I meant…”
“That’s not what I heard…”
“It’s not what you’re thinking…”
“You’ve got it all wrong…”
Verbal miscommunication derives in part from placing too much emphasis on the words themselves without the proper context to support the intended meaning of what was said. It’s not enough to know when to “transmit” our intentions. We have to learn how to listen and “receive” the information our partners convey. The same philosophy holds for nonverbal communication as well. This chapter explores these issues, and more, in the following segments:
- Do You Hear What I’m Saying?
- Communication Styles
- Gender Differences
- The Help and Hindrance of Modern Technology
- Communication and Online Dating
- Is Online Dating Right for You?
- The Zone of Disillusionment
First, I’ll touch on the art of effective listening, followed by a look at proxemics and how we use the space around us to communicate with one another. In communication styles, I’ll address the different ways people communicate and how our individual communication styles can impact our romantic relationships. Gender differences will examine the distinctive communication styles men and women rely on to get their messages across. In the help and hindrance of modern technology, I’ll delve into the positive and negative impacts modern communication methods impose on our ability to communicate. Lastly, with the segment on communication and online dating, I’ll pull the curtain back on a thriving industry and reveal some personal insights you won’t find anywhere else—along with a roadmap to success with this contemporary matchmaking service.
Do You Hear What I’m Saying?
Hearing is automatic. Listening requires a conscious choice. After all, God gave us one mouth and two ears for a reason. When it comes to listening, there are shades of gray, which author Keith Ferrazzi summarizes in his book, Who’s Got Your Back. Ferrazzi defines four ways in which we listen, starting with the all too familiar notion of removed listening, where we’re sort of listening but aren’t really paying attention because we’re too involved in something else. If we put down the smartphone and stop texting while someone’s talking, we can engage in reactive listening, which implies we’re somewhat more attentive than removed but not entirely in the moment either. With responsible listening, we not only react to what is being said, we also reply with a further action or elaboration. Ferrazzi defines responsible listening as talking to someone rather than talking at them. With receptive listening, we take things a step further and empathize with what someone says.
Expressive verbal communication involves active listening and receiving of information. From this two-dimensional, or verbal communication perspective, my approach to effective communication involves a three-prong effort: communicate, reciprocate, substantiate. This method helps clarify each person’s understanding of what was said and helps lower the risk of miscommunication to avoid an escalation of anger, frustration, resentment, and other negative emotions. When I reference “communicate,” I’m referring to the willingness of both partners to engage in constructive dialogue, where both partners take turns speaking and listening without injecting harmful innuendo or raising barriers to avoid discussions altogether. When one person speaks, the other listens without interruption. Then the roles reverse. This defines what I mean by reciprocate. More than a fancy way of saying we should all take turns speaking and listening, reciprocation involves the action of providing our undivided attention when we listen and not tuning out the speaker’s words until it’s our turn to talk. And when we speak, experts emphasize the importance of using “I” messages—i.e., sentences that begin with the word “I” to describe what we feel and what we want. The use of “I” messages—e.g., I find your accusations unfounded, or I feel uncomfortable when you raise your voice at me—avoids casting blame, which only serves to inhibit our ability to understand the root cause of the issue.
In Difficult Conversations, authors Stone, Patton, and Heen describe how the words “I feel” can have a powerful effect on the listener without imposing judgmental or accusatory tones that often lead to more conflict and power struggles. The authors emphasize the importance of expressing our feelings. In their words, “Engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings is like staging an opera without the music. You’ll get the plot but miss the point.”
“I” messages also lessen the tendency to engage in debate over dialogue, where debate serves to win an argument, versus dialogue, which lends itself toward compromise. Daniel Yankelovich emphasizes this point in his book, The Magic of Dialogue, where he states, “In dialogue, all participants win or lose together. The worst possible way to advance mutual understanding is to win debating points at the expense of others.” Yankelovich contrasts debate with effective dialogue. In his book, he defines debate as a tactic to find flaws and make counterarguments, defend assumptions as truth, and critique one another’s positions. In contrast, he emphasizes the importance of dialogue as listening to find meaning and agreement, revealing assumptions for reevaluation, and discovering new options in lieu of seeking closure. A friendly debate with your partner about foreign relations is one thing, but approaching personal conflicts in your relationship from debate will only build animosity and resentment, which serve to stifle, not improve, communication. Or as Dr. Florence Bienenfeld wrote in Do it Yourself Conflict Resolution for Couples, “Relationships are like streams. To be free-flowing and alive, they cannot be dammed up with anger, hurt, and frustration. Only when these resentments are cleared away can love and intimacy flow freely.”
In my third aspect of highly effective communication, I emphasize the need to substantiate, or attempt to analyze the reasonableness of what we heard from an objective point of view. This doesn’t mean we necessarily agree or disagree. It means we apply some basic logic to what are often emotionally charged conversations.
Pretend one person wants to make a major purchase on a credit card and states their case for doing so—i.e., they communicate. The other partner listens objectively, forms their own opinion and offers a dissenting opinion about the purchase—i.e., they reciprocate. If the purchasing partner responds with a valid reason—one you might or might not agree with—you substantiate by applying logic to what was said and conclude that you either agree or disagree with what they said. On the other hand, if the purchasing partner had responded with a tirade of angry expletives, you might substantiate a lack of sound logic or reasoning.
Similar to my philosophy of communicate, reciprocate, and substantiate for highly effective verbal communication, Harville Hendrix promotes a process called Couples Dialogue aimed at highly effective communication in a multidimensional environment. From Hendrix’s description, Couples Dialogue involves mirroring for the content of the verbal and non-verbal messages; validation for the meaning of the messages; and empathy for the feelings underneath the messages.
By Hendrix’s definition, mirroring involves one partner talking while the other partner listens and mirrors back the words, body posture, facial expression, and tone of voice. Mirroring implies you heard the content of your partner’s spoken words without judging, blaming, or finding fault in their terms.
With validation, we let our partner know that we understand the meaning behind his or her expression. In other words, you might explain, “I see your point of view,” or “That seems logical to me.” Validation involves placing our opinions on hold and trying to understand the message and its meaning but not necessarily agreeing with the message or its meaning. We accomplish this through subtle gestures, facial expressions, or light touch as well as signaling with our tone of voice. Furthermore, we seek to acknowledge and understand our partner’s feelings as they’re expressed. Acknowledgment is not agreeing. Instead, it conveys an indication that we are trying to understand the emotional content of our partner’s words, that their feelings are important to us.
With empathy we strive to read our partner’s emotions and respond to their unspoken concerns. This implies we must learn to sense our own feelings without becoming emotionally detached.
Couples Dialogue provides a powerful tool in a multidimensional—or two-dimensional—environment for communicating difficult positions on subjects we might feel uncomfortable or reluctant about discussing. Couples Dialogue stipulates a prerequisite of shared core values for mutual trust, respect, and honesty—not to mention a willingness from both partners to aim for courteous, constructive conversation.
To faithfully understand our partner’s viewpoint, we have to put ourselves in their shoes and make an effort to see things from their perspective. Case in point: A few years back, I found myself between motorcycles. After several years of trouble-free ownership, I sold my coveted FJR1300 because I’d grown bored with the bike.
Months later, when I felt the overwhelming urge to ride again, I visited a Harley Davidson showroom to check out a jet-black V-Rod Muscle—a bike I’d admired for years. The American made motorcycle looked fast standing still and conjured notions of arm-wrenching bursts of speed from a bike I’d always dreamed of riding. My enthusiasm caught the attention of a tall, sturdy salesman who fit the Harley image with his rugged good looks and bad boy charm. I asked questions. He gave answers. He was listening to me, in a very polite, relaxed, manner, but he wasn’t hearing what I was saying. When I asked about the bike’s stopping power from the Brembo brakes, he told me I looked bad ass in the seat. When I asked about the routine maintenance requirements—a topic I already knew the answer to but wanted to hear his take—he told me the bike made everything else on the road look pathetic. When I asked him if the handlebar position could be tailored to my arm reach, he told me the bike looked mean. And so we conversed for the better part of an hour in a meaningless exchange of information based on what he thought I wanted to hear. I couldn’t have cared less about the tough guy image the bike conveyed or whether it was loud enough to wake the neighbors. My questions centered more on the bike’s features, functionality, and overall riding characteristics—not the bike’s ability to draw attention to myself. In the end, I walked away without answers. The salesman came away without a sale. Had he listened to my questions and tried to put himself in my position, as an intelligent, responsible rider trying to understand if the bike would meet my needs, he might have had better luck with the “image angle” he tried to play.
Another story comes to mind. This one involves a lovely woman I dated for a month or so before I concluded we would never be a good match. By all accounts, I found her an intelligent, attractive, outgoing woman with a successful career and an optimistic outlook. I’d felt a certain chemistry on the phone with her, and sensed the same chemistry when we met in person on our first date. Naturally, she enjoyed sharing certain aspects of her life, and by all accounts, we had the makings of a great friendship, and the foundation for a romantic relationship—or so I thought.
Two dates and several phone conversations later, I realized how much she liked to talk, and talk, and talk, and talk…to the point where I found it very hard to express my own thoughts, opinions, or pleas for mercy. She talked about details of her work. She talked about details of friends she’d known for years. She talked about the news, the weather, and anything and everything she could think of every second of every minute of every hour she kept me on the phone, gums a flappin’. Any effort on my part to break her stream of consciousness and insert my own words into the conversation met with a verbal avalanche of frivolous monologue. I couldn’t so much as buy a vowel, let alone insert my own comments into the one-way conversation.
On what would become our last date, I took a different approach and invited her to join me at my favorite Italian restaurant—a place with excellent food, impeccable service, and a quiet ambiance more suited to romantic conversation than endless babble. Dinner was wonderful, and for a time, the conversation started flowing back and forth with a natural rhythm.
Then the wheels came off.
What had progressed to a comfortable dialogue between two adults had eventually diverged toward the familiar tongue lashing I’d endured on previous dates, hoping and praying for my phone to ring, for the governor to grant me clemency, or the ground to cleave open and swallow me whole.
For what seemed like an hour after the check arrived, my date’s voice remained the only sound I heard in the entire dining room area, booming and blasting at me like maverick waves pounding the shore. A throbbing headache squatted in my frontal lobe. My eyes glazed over. My senses grew numb to the world around me.
And then suddenly, like the peaceful calm that follows a hurricane’s wrath, the megaphone disguised in human form receded and I could finally hear my own thoughts again. I spied an emergency exit near the back of the restaurant and contemplated a run for the door, until my date smiled with admiration and touched my hand. Perhaps I’d been too hasty in my assessment of her. Too judgmental in my opinion of her one-sided communication skills.
As if on cue, she leaned over and parted a lock of hair from her pretty face, smiling as she whispered, “Would you like to go somewhere else?”
“Where do you have in mind?” I asked with mild trepidation.
“Somewhere I could talk to you for hours.”
I learned a lot that night. About trusting my instincts. About the importance of chemistry. About defining my needs and desires. About the value of a balanced conversation and the merit of noise-canceling headphones.
Great conversation involves an ebb and flow of information we receive and information we deliver. Dialogue, by definition, involves at least two people conversing, not one domineering the airwaves in the absence of consideration for the other person’s ability to listen without their eyelids fluttering in a semi-lucid state of consciousness. Great conversation doesn’t always come easy, especially in the early stages of getting to know someone. Sometimes we don’t feel the right chemistry. Other times, our nerves get the best of us. Sometimes we have a rough day and neither person feels like talking. Unlike chemistry, which is either present or not, good verbal communication skills can improve over time. It simply takes practice and a desire to improve.
Only seven percent of all communication is verbal. The other ninety-three percent is nonverbal and involves facial expressions, body language, posture, and other physiology. Despite our ability to communicate with words, we speak louder with our hands and face. I can’t carry a conversation without my hands involved. I also smile a lot when I talk.
The unspoken nature of our facial expressions reveals more than our words convey. Our personal traits, family backgrounds, and cultural differences also affect the way we communicate nonverbally. In Robert Keteyian’s book, Do You Know What I Mean?, he describes additional factors involved in communication, including logic—to describe a coherent flow of information, visual-spatial—to describe the way we interpret images and symbols, kinesthetic—to describe our posture, gestures, facial expressions, and overall body language, interpersonal—to describe emotional connections, and intrapersonal aspects—to describe how we look inward on ourselves. Collectively, these factors describe how we communicate with one another. But aside from how we communicate, we must understand where we communicate in relation to our physical proximity to one another and how our personal space boundaries influence the way we communicate nonverbally. Hence, the following primer on proxemics.