Kathi Whitten, LCSW - Individual, Couple & Family Psychotherapy
I believe one common reason for the stress people experience is due to chronic feelings of being misunderstood. Whether the actual problem being discussed in psychotherapy is depression, anxiety, childhood events, addiction, couples or parenting concerns, job distress or a variety of other situations, much of what I listen to seems to be a question of not feeling “heard” or understood by other people.

Why is it so hard?  Often we are just asking for simple things or relating ordinary thoughts—and someone else (seems to) hear something totally different.  It seems even worse when it comes to talking about very sensitive needs, concerns, or requests to another person to change a behavior.

What makes talking to other people so challenging?  Shouldn’t  it be easy to just ask somebody what they want or  tell them what we need or are thinking about?  The reasons sharing information about ourselves is so difficult are complicated, but there are things we can do to improve the likelihood of understanding others and being understood and responded to ourselves.  Here are a few of the most obvious (but, good communication is far more complex and delicate than this list would suggest):

  • Be clear about what you want to say, then put it into as direct a statement as possible. Avoid long, round-about discussions that might be difficult for someone else to follow.
  • Repeat in your own words what you believe you heard the other person say to you.
  • When making a complaint to someone, focus on how the situation has affected you.  Avoid blaming and use “I statements” and whenever possible, offer an alternative solution.
  • Be respectfully honest—don’t leave the other person guessing what you are trying to say by merely providing hints of your concerns.
  • Listen to the speaker with all your attention—avoid thinking ahead to what you want to be saying next.

The simple idea of putting yourself into the shoes of your conversational partner may be the single most important skill we can learn.  It is tempting to believe that we know what the other person “really” means when he or she is speaking—especially a person we know well.  However, if we fail to check out our assumptions directly with that other person, we run the risk of committing the most dangerous of communication errors—one that I believe underlies more long-term disagreements and misunderstandings between people than any other kind.  Assuming we “know” what another person thinks or feels is likely to lead to continuing difficulties, whereas clarification generally opens things up to understandings and trust that both speakers are being “heard.”

These are key areas to explore in family and couple therapy.  Well-meaning, caring people feel stuck in efforts to change old ways of being together, and can’t shift to new patterns because of old habits of communication.

Consider therapy if you think that you could use improvement in ways that you and people you care about communicate with each other.

Copyright Kathi Whitten 2008