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Avoiding Missteps and Misunderstandings

How to listen before you leap (to the wrong conclusion)

"Does Jackson have sun in his eyes?"

This question was Leslie's code—apparently—to tell me that I (Les) needed to pull the visor over our crying baby's car seat.

"No, I think he's just fussy," I responded as I got into the driver's seat and glanced at our son in the rearview mirror. "What are we having for dinner tonight?"

"Dinner! How can I talk about food when I can't even hear myself think?"

Leslie unbuckled her seatbelt and climbed into the back seat to shield Jackson from even the slightest ray of light.

"If you wanted me to adjust his visor, why didn't you just ask?"

"I did."

"No," I said with the confidence of a high-priced attorney. "You asked if the sunlight was bothering Jack."

"Exactly. I asked you to make sure the sun wouldn't bother him by pulling up the visor. Apparently I have to spell it out!"

"Not a bad idea," I mumbled under my breath.

"What?" Leslie asked.

I started the car and put it into gear.

By now, our baby had stopped crying (I suppose that had something to do with the visor on his car seat), and Leslie and I both sat silently as I drove.

A couple minutes passed when Leslie uttered a single word: "Tacos."

The conversational misstep

This conversation occurred yesterday on a carefree drive to a park. We were under no stress—other than a crying baby. Just a cheery little outing with our family—or so we thought. But why the hiccup in our communication?

Truth is, we know better than to let our conversation get tangled up with crossed wires. After all, 0we've been married for two decades. We counsel other couples. We give national marriage seminars. We have the tools. We know the techniques. We understand the dance steps.

The miscommunication was a tiny stumble on the dance floor of our day. It was quickly filed away as a minor blunder. Or was it?

Getting in sync

Studies have shown that these seemingly insignificant missteps in communication have an important effect. Each message that breaks down inscribes a note on your relationship: "My partner doesn't understand me." While it may not be conscious or articulated, it is felt. And when a couple suffers enough of these breakdowns, isolation and loneliness are bound to creep in.

On the other hand, when you and your mate are communicating well, there's an indelible inscription on your relationship that's priceless: "I am known and understood."

That feeling of being in sync, of speaking each other's language—fluently—is vital. Couples gauge the depth of their connection by the satisfaction of their conversations. It's an excellent barometer of our bond. Studies indicate that improving your communication increases the quality of your relationship more than anything else.

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