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Communication is the foundation of all relationships, whether it occurs within our families, with friends or at work. How we communicate directly relates to the quality of an experience or relationship. Communication operates on two levels: internal and external. Paying attention to the messages we give and receive can assist us in knowing what emotional work needs to take place to create healthy productive relationships. Learning to understand our internal communication is vital to clearer communication with others.

Internal communication occurs in numerous ways beyond thoughts or internal dialog. The effects of our inability to communicate can sometimes be measured in aches and pains, or illness. It is important to consider all aspects of life when physical aliments are present. Physical aches, pains and illness can be our body’s method of communicating. When we are not in touch with our needs or attempt to ignore and discount their impact on us it can be reflected in our physical health. Choking on our words or throat problems may be related to not speaking up for ourselves. Breathing problems may be related to making ourselves small by not standing up for our beliefs or by holding our needs as unimportant. Bottled up and unexpressed anger may cause one’s heart to be sick.

Dreams are another form of internal communication. A dream may simply reflect feelings of overwhelming stress. Many times, however, dreams help us process emotions and feelings. For example, victims of childhood traumas will often have dreams where the abuse is replayed. Throughout their healing process these dreams change. Initially the victim or someone they trust takes a stand against the abuser. In a dream, they may express anger towards their abuser; they may vocalize how they feel in a way that was never afforded in person. As healing occurs, the dreams reflect an acknowledgement that the abuse has stopped and there is room for healing. This does not take away the fact that the trauma occurred, but it does free the individual stunted by the abuse. This internal healing is one way victims of abuse become survivors, enabling them to change their lives. They begin to stand up for themselves, make clear healthy decisions, take responsibility for their choices, and ultimately change their lives for the better.

Choices and behaviors are informational keys to what we need. Addictions to food, cigarettes, alcohol, or other substances often begin as a way of sucking down or stuffing emotions. Instead of speaking when we feel angry or hurt, we eat, smoke or drink. In the beginning the substance is used only when we are uncomfortable. If we continue to ignore internal messages, eventually the use can become habitual and necessary to managing our life. This is one example of how what begins as an unhealthy coping mechanism can grow into a physical and psychological addiction.

An individual is 100 percent responsible for his or her 50 percent of any relationship. It is imperative for each to speak their needs and wants in as clear a manner as possible. If others do not understand what we have said, it is up to us to repeat, rephrase or reprocess the information until clarity occurs. Articulating our needs may not be comfortable; however, if we are not clear it is difficult to move forward. When you have not clearly communicated, it is common to assume the role of a victim and blame others. We say, “I tried to explain it, but they just did not understand.” Or, “I tried to tell them how I feel but they just did not hear me.” I would suggest when we are not heard it is our responsibility to continue communicating until the message is understood. The other option is to walk away without being heard. If this happens regularly, it is important to evaluate the quality and sustainability of the relationship.

There are two primary keys to assuring messages are as clear as possible. The first is to use “I” statements: I am, I feel, I need, etc. This makes it apparent that you are the one responsible for what you are saying and what you are feeling. “I feel angry” and “You are making me mad” give two very different messages. The first message implies I am responsible for my feelings, whereas the second message states I am giving my power away and “you” have control over how I feel. No one has the power to make us do anything. How we react is our choice and responsibility.

The second key is to wait to communicate issues that are difficult until you are no longer experiencing the emotional reaction. This allows for a message that is clear, less intense and easier for the receiver to hear. Keeping these two ideas in mind can take the emotional charge out of interactions. Diffusing the situation or environment makes it safer and less likely to explode.

It is important to keep in mind our relationship with the person with whom we are interacting. For instance, if it is someone we are fond of or have an intimate relationship with, our words need to reflect this. If in one breath we are telling our family how much we love them and in the next we are screaming about the laundry, we send a mixed message. Generally when one screams about the laundry it indicates that they are not feeling taken care of or not being understood on some level. In addition, when we are listening it is important to hear the other person’s words in the context of the relationship. If we are the one being screamed at because of the laundry, it is important to understand that this is a symptom of a greater issue, and getting the laundry done is unlikely to solve the problem. The laundry is not the point; the point is that the person yelling is seeking an external solution to an internal dilemma.

Frequently in intimate relationships we expect our partners to “know” what we want or need, and then we get angry when they do not come through. We feel if we have to verbalize what we want it becomes less special when we receive it. We think, “If s/he really loved me s/he would know.” People are not mind readers. Often we do not express our needs for fear they will not be met. We are then left not knowing what to do next. Internally, it is healthier to take the risk of articulating our needs. One of two things will happen: we will get what we asked for, or we will not. If it is feasible for our partners to follow through on our requests, yet on a consistent basis they do not, then possibly we need to reevaluate the relationship.

Another vital key to successful communication is listening. Active listening means to listen for understanding while setting our personal agenda aside. Awareness of the issues and triggers allows us to be present for the other person and what they are saying. It might not always be painless or pleasant to hear another’s message or feedback, but it is imperative to a healthy relationship. We can argue details with our loved ones when they are expressing their anger, fear, sadness, or joy, or we can listen and respond to the overall message. Approaching interactions from this perspective also reduces the emotional charge and encourages open communication.

Typically, reactions are based 90 percent on history and 10 percent on what is going on at the time. For instance, if one is not comfortable around anger, when they perceive someone is angry they may stop listening, whereas someone for whom anger is not a trigger can remain present in the interaction. If we have grown up in a dysfunctional family and have not worked through the issues this can create, we are more likely to accept dysfunction in our lives. In fact, because it is familiar, we may not even acknowledge or recognize it as unhealthy. Responding by first reiterating what you have heard can accomplish two things: it provides time for you to collect your thoughts and process what is being said before you respond, and it allows you to clarify the message to assure you have indeed heard what is being said. Once the message is understood the response may be less charged and therefore more clear and relevant.

In most circumstances, it is better to speak what is on our mind rather than to suppress what we need and ignore its significance—even though we may have to wait until we are calm enough to do it appropriately. People are like teapots. We can handle only so much pressure inside before we explode. It is healthier to speak when we are beginning to steam than to wait until we have reached the boiling point. In this way, we take responsibility for ourselves and come to relationships as honestly as possible. In the end, the only way a relationship can grow is through a foundation of clear communication.

Gwen M. Hurd, LCSW, ACSW

Gwen M. Hurd is a graduate of the University of Chicago’s School of Social Science Administration. Gwen is a licensed clinical social worker. For the past 15 years she has worked in both clinical and administrative capacities.