Why we dread these four words in the context of a relationship and ways to overcome that feeling.

It has become almost an aphorism of contemporary times that the four most dreaded words that can be uttered by anyone in a relationship are: “We need to talk”. Whether it’s between partners, spouses, parents and children, business partners or friends, these four words cause acute discomfort since they seem to be loaded with an ominous undertone. The sub-text seems to be, “the fun and games are over, and now we must get down to serious business”. And somehow ‘talking’ to the other person in a dyadic relationship arouses concern, fear and sometimes even hackles. Although, on the face of it, this would seem ludicrous considering that one would expect talking and communicating to constitute the very life-blood of any relationship, but when it comes to serious talking, we all seem to go slightly on the defensive, for, it seems implicit that some critique of us or what we have or have not said or done is bound to follow these four words.

As the most advanced (though some may dispute this) species on the planet, and certainly one that has developed complexly organised language and articulation skills, one would expect, in all of us, a certain felicity to express and communicate our thoughts, feelings and desires. We manage to do this almost flawlessly when it comes to making social conversation, business presentations, sales pitches or writing blogs or columns. However, when it comes to communicating something related to our feelings, we seem to flounder a fair bit. We do fairly well when it comes to communicating positive emotions like joy, mirth and love, but when it comes to emotions like pain, hurt or sadness, we either get tongue-tied or lash out in anger. And since most of the conflicts that we experience in dyadic relationships usually pertain to negative emotions, we experience communication gaps. Some of us may communicate reasonably well, but in the absence of reciprocity, true communication doesn’t take place.

Ground rules

To try and communicate at least a little better, there are a few things we would do well to keep in mind.

The first of these is that men and women think differently, respond differently in the same situation and communicate differently. I am not going into detail about these differences in communication patterns between the genders, since several books have been written on this subject. (If you’re interested, you can read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray and Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps by Allan and Barbara Pease.) And, if you do hit the ‘gender wall’, you might need to make more effort to understand each other. Secondly, most of us are masters at talking around an issue. When one talks through an issue, one deals with the issue completely. One confronts it head on and one tries to express one’s position on the matter as simply and clearly as possible.

However, it is not often that we have a stomach for head-on confrontation, since we fear we could be judged or that the other person may feel judged by us. So we talk around it; we hedge a bit and try to ‘give hints’ to our partners rather than saying it directly. We end up thinking we’ve communicated what we wanted to say, but actually the partner has understood it completely differently.

We need to remember that when we express an opinion or a thought or an idea, we do express a judgement. However, if we learn to keep our judgements intellectual rather than emotive, factual than accusatory, neutral than negative, then the other person in the relationship need not fear being attacked by us but could learn to just respond to our observation in a matter-of-fact way. In other words, we need to ensure that we are not passing judgement on the person, merely expressing our judgement of a specific situation or behaviour.

To give and take

Also, we often talk at each other rather than talk to each other. By this I mean that we expect the other person to merely be a passive recipient of whatever words of wisdom we spout their way. One is not really engaging with the other person or what is being said; one has something to say and will say it in as many ways as possible, without even attempting to take in what the other person is saying or doing. And finally, we erroneously believe that the object of good communication is agreement and that at the end of discussion (or row or fight) both of us should converge on the same point of view. Which is probably why we argue more than discuss, until we hopefully realise that the object of communication is not convergence but mutual understanding.

However, when we talk to each other, we also listen to each other. We receive the other person’s message, even if we completely disagree with it, and our responses are more considered than off-the-cuff. Also we increase the possibility of understanding each other and talking through an issue. And if, at the end of the day, if both persons in the dyad are satisfied that they have said their respective pieces and have said them well, then we need never fear those four words again.

Email: vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com