Stress Management, Part Two -- Communication

Creating Better Connections with Your Loved Ones
When people complain of stress in their lives, it usually involves one or more of the following problems: frustrating relationships, over-commitment of time and/or energy, lack of lifestyle balance, or a sense of just not having the life one wants to have.  A surprising amount of the stress experienced by the average person ends up involving problems in interpersonal relationships.  For that reason, this article is focused on how to improve your communicatio -- and therefore your connection -- with the important people in your life. 
People are both the joy and bane of our existence, and in the end, our only real reason for living.  When our connections with them are healthy, life feels more satisfying and we feel more content; we work together more effectively, sometimes with awesome results.  When the connections are frayed or broken, we are more alone and feel less understood; we may feel as though we are too frequently engaged in frustrating battles of will.
The answer to these ills lies in communication.  Communication at its simplest involves two parts: expressing and listening.  Most people focus their energy on expressing themselves.  If communication isn’t going well, most of us generally pursue one of three remedies:  We may try to express ourselves more forcefully; this takes the form of talking more loudly and interrupting the other more often, perhaps even becoming verbally aggressive.  We may choose to withdraw, which is to quit the discussion when there is an impasse.  Or, if we're able to keep our wits together, we may focus on expressing ourselves more effectively.  This involves thinking before speaking, taking the other person's needs and feelings into account, and staying focused on the goal of the conversation.
Hopefully it's obvious that the third option is the most effective for getting your message across to others, but this whole discussion has yet to address the single biggest impediment to effective communication.  This is the omission made by the most people, which has the most devastating results in any communication effort.  Because of this problem, the best expressive skills are doomed to failure.  Without this, nothing else about communication matters, or can be effective.  What is this magic bullet to failed communication and frustrating relationships?  Listening.
This doesn’t mean just allowing the other person airtime.  This means devoting your entire attention to trying to get their message and making sure you’re getting it correctly.  It means asking for clarification when you need to, and encouraging the other person to help you understand where they’re coming from.  It means momentarily setting your position, your retorts, and your concerns to the side.  You do this because you make it your mission in life to really “get” what the other person is feeling.  You don’t have to agree with what they are saying, or even like it, but you do need to understand what they’re trying to say, and why it is important to them.
If you practice this, remarkable changes will begin to happen.  Once you have demonstrated that you genuinely want to understand someone's point, most people will begin calming down and sharing their feelings from a deeper level.  They will begin talking with you instead of at you.  They can begin to focus on trying to connect rather than trying to win.  If they can feel caring from you instead of challenge, they may choose to trust you and draw you closer, rather than feeling attacked and erecting defensive walls.  The interaction can become one of sharing and intimacy rather than strife and competition, and you’ll both feel closer as a result of the increased sharing.
You may be thinking this is all well and good, but that it's just not fair since you’re making all the effort and the other person gets all the goodies.  This brings us to the best part:  When you truly open yourself to what someone else is trying to say, you will generally find them much more receptive to your thoughts and feelings.  If you’ve been genuine in your interest in them, they will automatically be more interested in what is important to you.  Think about it… don’t you feel more inclined to be nice or considerate to someone who has been nice or considerate to you?  Most people naturally warm up and want to reciprocate when they are treated well.
Perhaps the toughest part of this is being willing to set aside your pride and be the first to offer to listen.  The next toughest part is practicing the discipline to stay in listening mode, rather than going into reaction mode when you hear something you don’t like.  If you decide to practice caring, involved listening, the benefits to you are at least equal to those of the person you’re communicating with.
For your efforts, you will have the satisfaction of behaving in a more caring and effective manner with others, which will boost your self-esteem.  You will understand others more deeply, which will help you to work with them more effectively.  Increased personal knowledge of others, by the way, results in a more intimate connection for both of you.  You will experience less conflict in your own life as a result of improved communications.  People love to be listened to (Don’t you?), so more people will like you and admire you because you make them feel valued.  When you make others feel cared for, they become more interested in whether you feel cared for.  They are then more likely to partner with you in dealing with a problem, rather than getting locked up in a winner-take-all struggle.
The information in this article needs to include one qualification: The strategies you see described here work very well in relationships in which there is a basic foundation of mutual support and respect, regardless of the amount of conflict that actually occurs.  These strategies will not help if you are in a relationship that is abusive or otherwise controlling; in these cases, the controlling person is invested not in connecting, but in prevailing (at your expense), and could use your good intentions to manipulate you.  If in doubt, it is best to seek the assistance of a therapist in working toward a more balanced connection with such a person. 
Improving the health and quality of your important relationships may be the single biggest source of stress relief at your command.  If you keep this high on your priority list at all times, the rest of your challenges will be much more manageable.
 Copyright © 1998, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.
Related articles:

Self-Help for Intense Anxiety 

Sleep Well -- Self-Help for Insomnia

Stress Management Series, Part One: Introduction

Stress Management Series, Part Three:  It's All In Your Head 



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