That's not what I meant!
How often has a disagreement started when someone misunderstood you and reacted to what they thought they heard? I find that this is a very common trigger for fights in couples, especially when there are other strains in the relationship.
When we’re calm, we might misunderstand something we hear but instead of reacting, we will ask a question, or just dismiss it. In more rational moments, it’s easier to see that our partner couldn’t possibly have meant what we thought we heard. Then it makes sense to question it and figure out what was meant.
Communication skills seem to be rarely discussed in our culture. It’s often assumed that if you speak the same language, then you can communicate. But language is not as clear as that and a person’s personal, cultural, and family backgrounds all affect how we say and how we hear things.
It’s important in any relationship to have permission to say something like “I don’t understand.” or ask for clarification from your partner. It can also be useful to understand why you’re reacting to something that was said with the best of intentions.
I encourage couples to have conversation about their intentions as well as about what they’re hearing. These types of discussions can be very useful to understand our “hot buttons” but also to just get two people in the habit of talking about communications.
Deborah Tannen has written a number of popular books about communications such as “That’s not what I meant!” and “You just don’t understand!” Though I don’t agree with everything she says, I think she offers some great insights into how to communicate better and how to make conversations more effective.
-Agree with your partner that it's ok to ask for clarification when you don’t understand something, and get in the habit of doing it.
-Learn to ask for clarification before you react.
-Notice how your family/cultural training is affecting your interpretation of what you hear.
-Have regular discussions with your partner about each of your family/cultural training about communications.