***Note from Bob Aronson. Dr. Priscilla Diffie-Couch is a cousin who understands the power of words. She has contributed several blogs to Bob’s Newheart about a variety of subjects, but all revolve around mental and physical health issues.
Living in the 21st century with all of its stresses like the high cost of healthcare, raising a family and trying to make ends meet has resulted in higher stress levels for many. That stress wears on us and negatively affects our quality of life. Dr. Diffie-Couch says it doesn’t have to be that way. She offers a partial solution — communication. If you do it thoughtfully you likely will feel a whole lot better and the best part of it all is that it is free. You have nothing to lose by trying what she suggests — and you may have a whole lot to gain.
By Dr. Priscilla Diffie-Couch
Human communication and health are two topics I have been passionate about most of my life. So much so that I got three degrees in one and have spent most of my adult life digging deep into the other. Both are topics of such depth and expanse that no human being could come close to mastering the limitless scope of either. One facet that has especially fascinated me is the effect one has on the other, particularly, the impact that communication has on human health.
You can’t study the science and art of communication without being exposed to the needs and motives that drive human behavior. So you’ll find a bit of that as well as my own personal philosophy of life as you read here what flows from mind to page.
Research now tells us that human beings who are most social live the longest. Once you look into how that happens, you discover that, like everything else of value in life, it is not the quantity but quality of that interaction that has the most pronounced effect on human relationships and thereby on human health.
What it takes too many of us too long to learn in life is that a satisfying relationship can never be something one party feels and the other does not. It can be judged only in the eyes of both beholders. Just as you cannot make other people love you, you cannot make them feel good about the way you choose to communicate with them. Discovering how to meet the needs of someone else when you interact often requires a delicate dance until you match your own footsteps with theirs. But it is never as simple as that. There also has to be a meeting of minds and a link from the hearts. Reaching a level that makes for comfortable satisfying communication with people close to you can take years, even a lifetime. Sadly, if we don’t practice them with each interaction, we too easily forget the steps and we have to relearn them again and again.
We are all aware that uncontrolled stress can take a heavy toll on our health. It can precipitate heart attacks, suppress our immune system, rob us of rejuvenating restful sleep, and even shorten our lives. And there is nothing more stressful than unsatisfying communication with people who mean the most to us.
No two human beings are alike. The needs they bring into a communication moment will never be the same. We’ve all known people we care about deeply who are so needy that it strains our powers to provide. Some spend their lives immersed in such insecurity and unexplained longing that you can never tell them often enough the affirmations they need to hear. No matter the number of times you praise some people, withhold it or disagree with them once, and you will have failed to meet their needs. Efforts to interact satisfactorily with those people can extract costs on the health of all parties concerned.
Their constant state of unmet needs leads some to ceaselessly seek ways that they can prove their worth. The most common of these is to stake a claim on being “right.” Seldom is something so simple that someone can flip open a book and point to a passage and proclaim, “See. I was right.” Seldom are matters of fact at the heart of interpersonal disagreements. Shouldn’t you just agree to disagree and let it go? That is almost never satisfying communication among close friends and loved ones. Doing that leaves you to talk about things and people and the weather. The very feature that distinguishes an intimate relationship from one with a stranger is the freedom to express complex, sensitive thoughts. And express differences of opinion.
Few things in life are easily separated into two distinct categories: right or wrong. There is little satisfaction to be derived from being reminded of that. Butting heads with those you love will result in far fewer bruises, ego included, if you both understand some fundamental principles of persuasion. Clearly, speaking loudly does not sway minds. And even the softest ceaseless repetition will not help you prevail.
There are some steps that help increase mutual communication satisfaction. First, pick the right time and the right place to bring up touchy topics. Use qualifiers that make your words less bitter in case you have to eat them. “It seems,” “Based on what I have read,” “Having dealt with this issue many times,” or simply, “My opinion on this issue is.” Declamations of certainty don’t invite open discussion. They don’t warmly welcome alternate views.
Pick one issue and stick to it. Mirror others’ objections. Work to understand them and see where common ground can be reached. It may require repeated efforts but don’t give up in pointing out genuine areas of agreement. If you feel the need to refer to your special knowledge of or experience with an issue, do so without fanfare and without expecting to rule because of it. The most inexpert among us can sometimes offer the most worthwhile, insightful observations.
Avoid attacking the person’s character with the claim that you are refuting his or her opinions. When you do, you will not only be side-stepping the real issue, you will be kindling a fire where there should have been nonthreatening illumination. Ask yourself, if I alienate someone close to my heart, what does it gain me to be right?
Some of us with well-developed social skills settle into a narrow relationship mode with selected others in our lives. Falling into predictable patterns may be partly due to meeting expectations and partly due to the ease of habit. You’ve experienced this behavior firsthand or witnessed it in others. Someone will be a jokester with one cousin and almost austere with another. Cordial with one aunt and curtly blunt with another. Open and receptive to differences with one sibling while leaning toward condescension with another.
Behaviors, based on what we think others believe about us or expect of us, can be adjusted. Though it takes two to establish such patterns, one of them can begin to change their static nature. What works well for many is to ask a simple question while showing genuine interest to hear the answer. “If you had to sum up your philosophy of life in ten words or so, what would you say it is?” The answer can enlighten you both and lift clouds away from a stifling or oppressive atmosphere.
Yet another strange anomaly is too common among intimates. Some people were born with repair kits in their hand. Their mission in life is to fix all the imperfect people they know. They see others as covered with lint and they can’t wait to start pick pick picking away. It can be a little help with our grammar. Or correcting those niggling little details in our stories we never get quite right. Especially annoying are those who assure all who will listen that we must be confused about our facts. Often these well-intentioned folks can be disarmed with a lengthy pause and a warm smile and a simple “Thank you. I’ll work on that.” Recognizing my leaning in this direction, I try to keep reminding myself that “It takes only a moment to notice in others what it takes a lifetime to see in ourselves.”
One of my most constant personal goals is to never stop learning, not only about topics of great interest to me but about the most mystifying subject of all: myself. Beyond that, I am committed to improve upon what I find when I look deep inside every day. Few of us would deny the benefits to be derived from self study, self-improvement or the difficulty of sticking to this task. Even those of us who relish that challenge too often fail to see the need to do the same with others in our lives.
How often do we interact with others on the false assumption that we know what they want to hear, what their needs are, what their immediate concerns are, even what they are thinking. As one philosopher warned, “When you try to read others’ minds and motives, you sometimes miss by inches, but mostly by miles.” Every satisfying encounter is a process of discovery, both about yourself and the one you would hope to impact, inform, impress, amuse, or persuade.
In intimate communication, the demands are even greater than in the world of casual conversation or the kind we rely on at work. The filters we use with close family and friends when we send and receive messages are fundamentally the same as those we use elsewhere: our experiences, our knowledge, our environment, our feelings, our needs, our biases, etc. But these filters have to be much more refined and focused in intimate communication.
All these filters affect the words we choose when we speak and the way we interpret when we listen. We cannot ignore these filters if we hope to function as and be perceived as sensitive communicators. Yes, we have our facial and body expressions to aid us when we interact face-to-face. Actually, non-verbal carries the bulk of the weight in effective listening: touching, nodding, laughing, leaning, smiling, tone, volume, pitch, pauses and countless other little things. Too many people believe they have mastered the art of sensitive listening. Yet, it is one of the most prized and least developed skills on earth.
When not face-to-face, our obligations to choose our words with care increase multi-fold. It is especially easy to get careless in this age of electronic media. It goes without saying that being clear is a challenge when we have no give and take. Selecting just the right words cannot be done without a view to the reader.
Most important of all, when we write messages, we have to give careful consideration to the “tone” of the words we choose. Cocky and confident have similar meanings but are markedly different in tenor and tone. Connotations are built into countless words. In and of themselves, they can be negative, indifferent, condescending, hostile, or irreverent regardless of your intent. The possibilities are endless when it comes to the ways of skirting around saying someone is lying. We can refer to their stories, unsupported claims, or disingenuous declamations. My all-time favorite is “He is practiced in the artistry of shading the truth.”
Regardless of how short the written message, we must allow ourselves sufficient time to read and re-read it with a view as to not only whether it is clear, but how it will make the reader feel. Far too often, when we relate to close loved ones, we are least attentive to the kind of proofreading that matters most. Before excusing yourself by saying you were swamped and didn’t have enough time, think about the hours and days and even years it may take to make amends for something said in haste. I am reminded of my uncle’s clever poem about a speeder who ended up in an early grave: “But, oh, just think of the time he saved.”
As we age, we tend to limit our circle of close friends to those with whom we can have satisfying communication. That is wise. Dealing with family makes such decisions more difficult, but there are some whose world view and basic values are so opposed to our own, we may have to settle for infrequent, even superficial interaction, to save our sanity and avoid unnecessary stress.
We all know that love is not something to which we are entitled. It is something we have to earn every day with word and deed. None of the intimate communication problems I have identified here are simple to correct. The factors that contribute to each are complex and multi-faceted. It is too easy to create a new problem in our attempt to eliminate another. That doesn’t mean we stop trying. The first thing we have to remember is that none of our interactions have a distinct and separate beginning and end. Relationships exist on a continuum that cannot be taken out of context and treated as independent events.
The most fruitful approach is to begin by looking into the mirror. There we see the person closest to us over whom we have the greatest control. If you have to wonder, “Does this apply to me?” It probably does. The more successful we are in recognizing and improving on our own shortcomings when we relate to others the more changes we will begin to see in them. Therein lies the real power of effective interpersonal communication that contributes most profoundly to our own health and to that of the people most precious in our lives.
An award winning high school speech and English teacher, Priscilla Diffie-Couch went on to get her ED.D. from Oklahoma State University, where she taught speech followed by two years with the faculty of communication at the University of Tulsa. In her consulting business later in Dallas, she designed and conducted seminars in organizational and group communication.
An avid tennis player, she has spent the last twenty years researching and reporting on health for family and friends. She has two children, four grandchildren and lives with her husband Mickey in The Woodlands, Texas.
Bob Aronson has worked as a broadcast journalist, Minnesota Governor’s Communications Director and for 25 years led his own company as an international communication consultant specializing in health care.
In 2007 he had a heart transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. He is the Bob of Bob’s Newheart and the author of most of the nearly 300 posts on this site. He is also the founder of Facebook’s over 4,000 member Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI) support group.
You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.