A few years ago my parents and I shared a meal with my paternal grandparents. While any meal at "Nanny and Papaw's" was an adventure, this time was especially entertaining. At the time, my grandfather and my father shared a hunting lease, and over lunch the subject of making deer sausage came up.
My papaw proclaimed boldly that when grinding meat, the proportion of deer meat to sausage meat was 50-50. This was all well and good until my grandmother politely corrected him, telling all of us that he was mistaken and the correct proportion was actually half and half.
For a moment, no one spoke, then in no uncertain terms my grandfather informed her that she was wrong and the correct proportion was 50-50, as he'd originally stated.
My grandmother, this time more adamantly, responded by telling all at the table that it was most certainly half and half.
This discussion, between two people well into their seventh decade, went on for several minutes while the rest of the family exchanged confused glances and tried not to laugh. Finally, my father interrupted the conversation long enough to tell his parents that they were both saying the same thing. Always one to get in the last word, my grandfather pointed his finger and triumphantly told my grandmother, "See, I told you, woman!"
We all might get a laugh out of how quickly and how far off my grandparent's argument went, but if I'm honest, my wife and I have been guilty of some of the same types of communication errors. Disagreements over how I pronounce the word applicable, whether toilet paper should go over or under (the obvious answer is over), and the often-repeated phrase "When did we discuss that?" are all telltale signs that my elderly grandparents aren't the only ones who've dealt with a failure to communicate.
Although the need for good communication is rarely disputed, what it takes to actually practice it is much harder to grasp. What's often lost in the shuffle is the "how to" of communication. Consider the following three suggestions as guardrails ensuring that you stay on the road to good communication.
It Isn't What You Say, It's …
It's important to remember that our tone says as much about what we're saying as the actual words we use. I was first introduced to this concept as a child. Being a little stubborn and a lot independent, I didn't appreciate my parents correcting me. At times I'd backtalk my mother when she told me to do something such as taking out the trash. Those times would almost always result in my father and I having a sort of "Come-to-Jesus meeting," where we discussed my bad attitude. Often I'd defend myself by saying, "But Dad, I said I'd take out the trash. Why am I in trouble?" He'd then respond, "Son, it isn't what you said; it's how you said it." My words had indicated willingness, but the tone in which they were delivered had indicated anything but a willing attitude.
In marriage this issue often manifests itself in a sarcastic or belittling tone. A negative tone can be a way to say one thing but really mean another. Phrases such as, I'm sorry, You're right, and even I love you can take on different meanings depending on the tone with which they're delivered. At times your tone, though not malicious, can convey that you're upset when the truth is that you're just a little more animated or emphatic. Staying aware of your tone and what it says helps to avoid conflicts, and to keep conflicts that do arise from becoming bigger.
Concepts vs. Details
Many people fall into one of two categories, the conceptual-oriented person or the detail-oriented person.
The conceptual-oriented person tends to look at the big picture. When this person takes in information, his brain forms and remembers concepts, but not necessarily a lot of details. This is the person who tastes a piece of chocolate pie and remembers that it was good, and that when he put whipped cream on top it was even better.
The detail-oriented person tends to focus on small details. When this person receives information, her thoughts center around specific details, but she may not necessarily remember complete concepts. This is the person who tastes a piece of chocolate pie and asks the pie maker if there's a hint of nutmeg in the pie, or what type of crust was used.
Many people are married to their "perception-oriented" opposite. In my marriage I'm the concept person and my wife is the detail person. I see a movie, a tire sale, shoes, and all I remember is whether or not I liked that thing. Any details can bog me down. This can be frustrating to a lovely lady who asks for details from someone who has none to give. My wife, on the other hand, can become so focused on details that she misses the point of those details.
Say, for example, that I've looked into a potential business opportunity and for a variety of reasons decided it wasn't a good idea. The odds are that when I tell my wife about it she's going to ask why I decided it wasn't a good idea. That question, to a concept-oriented person, can seem like she doesn't trust my judgment, but in reality all she's seeking are details. Details are what she understands best, and for us to communicate properly I need to provide some details.
It's good to find out what "types" you and your spouse are, so you can understand why they ask certain questions and if they're personal or if they're simply an offshoot of each other's personalities.
Speak Their Language
There's an old adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words." This doesn't mean that instead of speaking audibly you turn your marriage into a giant game of Pictionary, but rather that you develop the skill of using word pictures to communicate. In their book The Language of Love, Gary Smalley and John Trent define a word picture as "a story or object to activate simultaneously the emotions and intellect of a person. In so doing, it causes the person to experience our words, not just hear them."
I learned an important lesson about communicating this way when my soon-to-be wife and I were planning our wedding. (Really my wife planned it, but I did respond yes or no to a few questions, so I take partial credit.) During the planning phase she was having a hard time finding a photographer. One night, as she was stressing about this problem, I insensitively and ignorantly said, "Just pick somebody. All he has to do is take pictures."
My fiancée could have easily responded with anger at my lack of understanding, but instead she chose to respond by speaking my language, which is what a word picture ultimately does. She looked at me and said, "Imagine if you could only do one fantasy football draft in your entire life. That's what planning a wedding is like for me." To that point I could have cared less about photographers, but after her poignant explanation, I understood the importance to her of finding a good photographer, so this became my mission. She'd taken something that was important to her, rephrased it in a term and situation that was important to me, and then communicated that truth. Every year my buddies and I get together for our annual fantasy football draft, and I always think about photographers, normally around round seven or so, but never before round five.
Installing these three guardrails for communication will take some of the mystery out of the process as well as equip you to solve small problems before they become huge problems. At worst, maybe they'll save you from wasting precious moments arguing about the difference between 50-50 and half and half.
Aaron Sharp is the author of What Does God Say About That?: Money, Politics, Homosexuality, the Environment, Heaven, Hell, and Hundreds More (Bethany House). He and his wife, Elaina, live in Texas.
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