“It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.”

Posted on Jan 1, 2014

Good Communication Matters!

As a seasoned couple’s counselor, one of the most common things I hear is “We don’t communicate.” While this sounds basic enough, I am never quite sure exactly what it means. Communication is important; it is also quite complex. The following comments will make the complex a bit simpler.

Communication has many components: Verbal, non-verbal, intonation, and intent – to name a few. The old adage, “it’s not what you said but how you said it,” refers to the fact that while we may use the correct words, our tone may convey a mixed different message. This can be confusing. What can we do to improve our communication thereby minimizing confusion and misinterpretation of what we hear?

Scott Pontier

Scott J. Pontier, M.A., M.S.W. is a NJ Licensed Marriage and Family Counselor. With graduate degrees in both theology and mental health he brings a unique perspective to his work. He has been providing psychotherapy and couple’s counseling for over thirty years. Scott maintains a private practice in Bridgewater, NJ, leads corporate presentations on a variety of topics, and is also a provider for First Step Counseling (a service of North Branch Church). He can be reached at (908) 203-9444 or via email at scott@scottpontier.com.

Listening for understanding or “active listening” is a vital yet learnable tool for enhancing our communication with others.  Often, instead of really “listening” we are actually busy formulating our own opinions and response. This is not active listening. Instead, attempt to really “hear” what is being said, even if we may feel differently. We can listen to “understand”, even if we don’t agree. Understanding and affirming another person’s views does not require that we agree with them. Work to repeat back to the other person what you understand them to be saying (without editorializing or giving your own opinion) and wait for them to let you know if they do feel you understand them. Then, you may offer your own opinion and ask them to “understand” you by reflecting back what they heard.

Reading between the lines is a key communication skill to learn. This refers to the “message underneath the message,” or the non-verbal portion. It is also a part of what we “listen” for when practicing active listening. For instance, an individual may verbalize the words, “I’ll do it.” However their “tone” suggests they will do so begrudgingly. In other words, the “feeling” they convey does not match the “words” being used. In good communication we identify what we hear “between the lines” and play it back to the person speaking. For instance, “I heard you say you would do it, but you said it red-faced through clenched teeth while punching the table. I am confused because that seems like a mixed message to me. I want to be sure we are on the same page.” Paying attention to any underlying message allows for a fuller, more accurate communication.

“I messages” are fundamental when communicating. When we say, “I feel disappointed that we don’t speak more during the day,” it is honest, clear and not blaming. Saying, “You make me mad when you never bother to call me during the day,” tends to sound blaming and will likely cause defensiveness. “I messages” are not simply a matter of “manipulating” words. It is “owning” our own feelings, since not everyone would feel the same way under the same circumstances. It also increases the probability that the other person will feel empathy and concern towards you (as opposed to being defensive and potentially starting a disagreement).

Seek first to understand and then to be understood, is one of Stephen Covey’s seven habits (from his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People). Often we rush to talk first, or to talk over another who is speaking. Try it the other way. Let the other person talk first. After the other person has felt heard (and understood), they have a much greater capacity to listen to us. The benefit works in both directions. There is a well known old quote that goes something like this:

We are created with two eyes, two ears and one mouth. We should use them proportionately!

Good communication is matters. It is a cornerstone to healthy relationships. It helps us feel understood, cared about and validated. Many resources (such as books) exist to assist in improving communication. For people feeling “stuck and frustrated,” counseling is a helpful option as well. So, listen well and communicate clearly!