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The Oversimplification of All-Purpose Communication

When problems in a relationship become too difficult to handle, it's a common recommendation to implement communication skills in order to address and reduce the problem.

I call this "all-purpose communication." The "all-purpose" tag is frequently used in marketing to describe one product that claims to do and treat not just one thing, but everything! For example, there is the shower soap that is a shampoo, conditioner, body wash, facial soap, and moisturizer all in one. There are cleaning products that not only clean--but also disinfect, polish, shine, and seal. Such products are meant to make life easier and reduce having to purchase individual products that only do one thing.

As important as the skill of communicating well is in relationships, utilizing "all purpose communication" isn't the magic solution for every problem.

Imagine this scenario:

Partner 1: "We don't seem to have the same kind of emotional connection we used to have." 
Partner 2: "Maybe we need to just talk to each other more. That might help"
Partner 1: "It's more than that. Like...I feel sometimes you just don't understand me when we talk."
Partner 2: "Well we just need to learn to talk better." 
Partner 1:  (long sigh) You just don't get it. You totally missing the point. I'm saying that you don't care enough for me. When I'm talking to you, you're in another world. And now, you think that the way forward is just to learn to talk better?" 
Partner 2: (voice raising) "Why not? We're apparently not talking well now. Otherwise, why would you bring this up?" 

All-purpose communication--the "let's-just-talk-this-out-type" of communication doesn't get very far. In fact, it only seems to make the problem worse.

Instead of all-purpose communication as a skill, a couple can learn and implement specific communication skills.

For instance, when one partner complains about a lack of emotional connection in the relationship, the partner isn't looking for a general "chat" about it. She/he needs to express her/his feelings and needs. She/he needs the other parter to listen.

Expressing feelings and needs are a specific form of communication. Listening is a specific attribute of good communication.

When one partner feels angry at the other and uses name-calling or threats, a specific form of communication in this situation would be to utilize clean communication--communication without criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling.

Keep this in mind the next time you or your partner say: "We need to talk." Think about what skills you need in this situation.

Just resist the urge to apply "all-purpose communication."

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