My Wife Says I Don’t Know How to Communicate
A picture of a phone calling Blair Ashby at 720-789-4000
Here is a telephone conversation I had with a gentleman that became a coaching client.
“Good afternoon. This is Blair”. I answered.
“My wife says I don’t know how to communicate,” said an angry-sounding voice on the other end of the call.
I asked, “You sound like you feel angry. How do you feel about her words?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think! She says, I can’t! That’s that!”
I continued, “I understand you feel she’s made that decision. You have called me, though. So, you must think you have something in this. How do you feel your communication skills are?”
The phone when quiet. I could hear the caller fidgeting with something. After a few seconds he snapped out, “I know how to talk. I use words. She just doesn’t understand me. But as I said before, it doesn’t matter what I think. She says I can’t communicate”.
“I hear you saying it doesn’t matter what you think. I disagree. It does matter because if you believe that you can communicate, and you listen to your wife saying that you can’t, then those opposing forces cause you to feel misunderstood and angry. You probably also feel attacked when she says, ‘you can’t communicate”.
“Yes!” He interrupted.
I continued, “What do you do when you hear her say you can’t communicate?”
He answered, “I go out to my garage, turn on the game, and work on something.”
“How well does that work?”
He replied, “It works great! I calm down and start to feel normal again. Then I go back inside and instantly, she starts talking to me, and the whole explosion starts over, again”.
“You mean you feel attacked by her again?”
“Yes!” He yelled. “She never stops! All she does is ask me question after question. I answer yes or no, and then she yells some more that I can’t communicate!”
I pause and then ask, “Do you love her?
“Yes.” He replies.
Do you want to have peaceful and pleasant conversations with your wife”?
Instantly he answers, “Yes! But only if we talk to each other instead of her talking down to me all the time”.
I felt he had shared a lot of information already, and most of it was in what he wasn’t saying.
“So you feel she’s talking down to you,” I repeated his words.
“YES!” He yells back.
I pause for a few more seconds to collect my thoughts. “May I explain a new way to look at this problem?” I hear him grunt what sounds like a yes. So, I continue, “Survival has built into us six tools for dealing with situations. The primary tools are: grab and hold for things that seem like an advantage for our survival, and fight, flight, and freeze for things that seem harmful to our survival; lastly, in a separate part of our brain, we have reasonable thought. The five initial reactions get all our sensory information first; that’s sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Thus, reactions usually happen before the rational parts of our brain even receive the sensory data.”
“Okay…” He sounds confused.
I continue, “Ironically, our human brains also have a weakness in this whole survival thing because reactions and rational thought are not connected. Our brains react to any threat or advantage with a grab, hold, fight, and, and freeze action. Interestingly it also behaves this way with mental, emotional, and physical threats and benefits. Here’s the issue, fight, flight, freeze, grab, and hold are great tools for physical survival; think of a bear attacking you or a tree full of fruit as an example. However, because rational thought and reactions are not connected, our reactionary system “acts before it thinks.’ In other words, our brain works the same way toward a bear, attacking us as it does to our spouses yelling at us. Our minds shift into a fight, flight, or freeze mode.
Fight, fight, and freeze are generally not helpful tools to use in a loving relationship.
Based on this new way to think, when you go to your garage and turn on the game, which tool is your brain using to react to your wife’s attacks?” I ask.
“…uhm… Flight, I suppose. But I’m not a chicken!” He quickly added.
I know you’re not a chicken. You have called me. I’m guessing you’re looking for help. Chicken’s don’t often ask for assistance.”
He quietly laughed and said, “So, what do I do? How do I make her understand I can communicate?”
I answered, “Earlier, you said, ‘It doesn’t matter what I think! She says I can’t communicate!’ In my opinion, she is both correct and incorrect in her assessment. You are right; you do know how to use words and talk. However, she is implying that she doesn’t feel like you two are conversing. Exchanging words and talking is not the same as having a conversation. Based on what I have heard so far, it appears to me that neither of you seems to be talking to or understanding the other.”
He interrupted, “What do you mean? Who else are we talking to if not each other?”
I replied, “You’re right. You two are talking to each other. Unfortunately, that is not the same as a conversation.” I expanded, “Communication gets into some psychology and philosophy, and I’ll try to keep those to a minimum. Until I interview both of you, I can only say it sounds like you two are interacting with your feelings while you think you’re talking to the other. As an example, your wife says, ‘You can’t communicate,’ and you think you can communicate. So probably, your mind immediately starts yelling about all the ways that you are right and she is wrong. Is that right?”
“Yes,” he meeking answers.
I continue, “When you hear her yell, your physical reaction is to go to your garage, and you turn on the game. Is it possible your actions just said to your wife, ‘I won’t talk with you right now?’
“Uhm…yes,” he answers weakly.
You felt attacked. Your actions ran away from the feeling of being attacked. In your brain, a voice was yelling, ‘I’m under attack, run away, hide!’ However, your wife can’t read your mind; she can only see your actions. When you’re thinking, ‘I’m being attacked,’ she’s seeing you avoiding the conversation by going to your garage. This is one way you two appear not to be interacting with each other?
“Yea…I guess so,” he mumbled, sounding insecure.
“What do you hear me saying now,” I ask?
“You’re saying I’m running away from her.”
“Am I? Let’s try this another way. Are you running away from her?” I ask.
“No! I just can’t stand to hear her whining that I can’t communicate!”
“Okay. You’re saying you don’t want to hear your wife complain about your communication. Is that correct?” I ask.
He replies, “Yea. Exactly!”
“Okay. Now try to imagine. What do your actions look like to her?”
The phone went quiet. I couldn’t hear any sound from his end. Just as I was starting to wonder if he had hung up, he said, “It probably looks like I’m running away from her.”
“You’re right,” I replied. “But you are not, are you?”
“You just don’t want to feel like you’re under attack, correct?”
“See how you were reacting to how you felt instead of addressing her complaint? You were reacting to the feeling of being attacked’ instead of the situation that she was speaking about”. I finished.
“Yes,” he quietly replies.
“It appears both of you are reacting to feelings instead of the conversation you’re having,” I said.
“Now, to take some pressure off of you, if she said, ‘You don’t know how to communicate,’ I think she could have handled that a lot better. She probably has expectations of what communication means. She may expect you to know the same communication rules that she follows. If that is true, that is not fair to you. You can’t read her mind.
I call the rules that a conversation follows the ‘Rules of Engagement.’ I believe every couple benefits from having these agreed-upon rules on how everybody will speak to each other. If you or both of you, hire me, Rules of Engagement will be one of the tools that we will create to make your relationship work better”.
He replied, “Good. We need those. I can see now; we don’t know how to talk to each other. We fell in love and got married. It just happened, you know. Now it’s hard because we don’t know how to be a couple with kids and the daily grind”.
I offered him some encouragement. “It’s good that you recognize these areas that you two can work on together. Allow me to guide you on how to talk with your wife about starting communication coaching”.
“Yes, please!” He enthusiastically answered.
I continued, “It will go smoother for you if you start with addressing her needs. She wants you to communicate better. We don’t know what she means by that yet, so we will just go with what she offered. Here is one of the essential skills which you can learn in communication: Reflective Listening. Reflective listening is repeating back word-for-word precisely what someone says or paraphrasing what they said so that they know they have been heard. Let her know you are present to her and her needs with Reflective Listening.
“How do I do that?” He asked, again sounding confused.
“Consider starting the conversation this way—first, your body posture. Have your arms at your side. Bend your elbows, so your hands are up with your palms open and up. This posture is non-threatening. While in this position, say, ‘I hear you saying I don’t know how to communicate.’ Then close your mouth and stand there. Wait for her to reply with words or actions.
This first action will convey several messages. The open hands with the palms exposed will imply that you are not trying to fake her out or deceive her. Saying the words, ‘I hear you say’ will show that you are present to her and listening to her now. And then repeating her words, ‘I can’t communicate’ tells her that she is so important to you that you are concerned about her needs. Whether she tells you or shows you, this small beginning will help her feel that she is important to you. This feeling of value is essential because you two must rebuild your trust in each other.
I want to emphasize that you must decide what is best for you. I am only offering suggestions for you to consider based on the premise that you two love each other and are not abusive toward each other. Please do not put yourself or your wife in danger.
Her response will probably fall somewhere between anger and acceptance. She may start yelling at you, or she may signal that she is listening and that you should continue. If she starts screaming, the best thing you can do is to stand there and listen to her. Passively listening may be a challenge for you, as you will probably want to go to the garage and avoid the feeling that you will experience. However, she may have a tremendous amount of negative emotions built up that need she needs to vent. If you are physically safe and not under an abusive emotional attack, please try and let her vent. If she respects you, the yelling probably won’t last forever, and then she will grow quiet and signal for you to continue.
When she signals for you to continue, tell her you’d like to seek communication coaching and that you would prefer that you both do it as a couple. Before you talk with her, practice saying, “I want to hire a communication coach. May we do this coaching as a couple?”
The secret here is to use “I” statements and avoid the word “you” as much as possible. “You” statements combined with negative feelings, almost always come out sounding like an attack, accusatory, or blaming. If negative emotions are involved, “You” statements generally do not help. As an example, think of how you felt when you heard your wife say, ‘You can’t communicate.’ I will guess that you felt negative. That negative feeling shifted your reactions into a run to the garage mode. Therefore, avoid “you” statements and use “I” instead to help the conversation go smoother.
Again, before you have this conversation, I recommend that you practice in front of a mirror several times. Work on your presentation. Make it easier to think this way by practicing first.”
I finished with, “What are your thoughts about this suggestion?”
He was quiet for a moment before he answered. Then he said, “Communication is hard work, isn’t it”?
I replied, “Yes, communication can be a challenge. Fortunately, you can make compassionate communication natural and a habit with practice.”
He continued, “Will it work?”
I answered, “When a couple loves each other, I’ve never seen compassionate communication fail. I can’t guarantee that it will work, though. My wife and I use it in our marriage. When we use our Rules of Engagement and Reflective Listening, generally, possibilities that neither my wife nor I can see open up. I think it works well.”
“Okay, I’ll let you know what she says. You may only have me in the beginning. I want to learn how to communicate better because I think I’ll be happier,” he concluded.
I ended the call with, “May good fortune be with both of you. I look forward to hearing back from you. Call me if you have further questions”.
If any of this conversation resonates with you, please contact me here.
Posted April 1, 2020