“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou

When Communication Breaks. Communication is fundamentally about bridging differences to form a connection of understanding. But sometimes an understanding is never reached. Sometimes those differences turn into disagreements, and sometimes those disagreements come loaded with hostile threats — at least it can feel that way. Most of the time, these misfires are politely ignored or stepped over, but they always cause some form of distance we may not really want in our relationships. Have you ever experienced a pleasant conversation that took a sharp turn? Perhaps it was a complement from a friend that felt more like a slap in the face where the sting burns a littler deeper because this friend still thinks he just gave you a complement. Or perhaps you’ve been surprised by the defensive posture of a loved one in need, when you offered a solution because you sincerely wanted to help.

What’s most heartbreaking about these kind of exchanges, about stepping on these relational land mines, is the surprise. It’s never our intention to cause insult or inflict damage. In fact, it’s usually the exact opposite. Our friend thought he was giving a complement; our advice was offered as a sincere effort to help. Taking a couple steps back, I believe we are taken off guard by a widely practiced, yet subtle communication deficit… I call it negative defined value.

Negative Defined Value. By “negative defined value,” I mean defining the value of a specific idea, thought, or point of view, not by it’s own merits, but by the criticism of something else compared to it. Criticism is easy. It’s much more difficult to put intangible value into finite words — to bring a shapeless void to life, to inspire, to ignite a light that dispels darkness. But that’s exactly what genuine communication does. It’s the difference in saying “you neglect other people’s needs” when we really mean “I need a hug from you” or saying “that is nothing compared to this“ when we mean “I have something that’s been valuable to me and I want to share with you.”

For most of us, we have no intention to criticize; we fall into the trap of talking negatively about alternative viewpoints as an attempt to draw distinctions. Naturally we want to show the unique benefits of our idea, but when we go down this path, the sad reality is we actually don’t share anything positive about what we value. Instead our criticism becomes the main topic of discussion while we put our listener on the defensive (even when they have little to be defensive about). A critical startup is an attack, no matter how subtle; it frames our value as opposition rather than something with substance and worth of its own. I’m a guilty as the next guy; even with this post, I find myself at a greater loss than I hoped. It humbly teaches me there’s lots of room for growth in areas of creativity, vocabulary, specific vision, articulation, listening and understanding.  But it also galvanizes my belief the better we do this, the more distinctions will make themselves apparent by the contrast.

Practical Steps Forward. You can join me in a little personal experiment if you want.  See if you can catch yourself engaging in this “negative defined value” and count how many times a day — not for an exercise in guilt, but one in greater awareness and hope for the future. My vision for the coming year is to grow in sharing my thoughts, ideas, and perspectives in ways that do not come at the expense of something or someone else. The good news is we get better at the things we practice, right? So here’s to practice… Cheers!

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I spent 10 years as a wedding photographer, and it allowed me to see the joys of young love over and over again. I’m so thankful for that time because love is one of the most beautiful things in the world. As we all know, however, not everything that blooms matures into a deeply rooted relationship that goes the distance. Sadly, I’ve seen a few weddings I’ve photographed end in divorce already. Statistically speaking, it’ll happen to half of us — it’s a frightening thought!

So if you’re a bride or groom to be, how do you know if your marriage will have what it takes? How do you build it to last? I believe everyone has the potential; here’s my advice how to get there.

Take some time to thoroughly examine the following. Be sure both of you know how to 1). communicate your feelings, 2). fight fair, and 3). and are capable of following through with commitment. If you have these three relational ingredients, I believe you have everything you’ll need for a beautiful marriage — you’ll have a lifetime of discovering treasures together.


your feelings with vulnerability

Do you know yourself well enough to have a good handle on your feelings in most circumstances? Can you easily share how you really feel with your fiancee? If so, great! If not, why? If there’s anything you’re afraid of, that’s a red flag. Honestly look at what is holding you back and ask yourself if you want to bring that into your marriage with you? Sharing your feelings and giving names to the experiences you share together is what intimacy is all about. The fruit of which is a deep internal rest in knowing you are seen, accepted, and cherished just as you are.


without blame or attacking words

All relationships have inherit conflict. Avoiding it isn’t what makes a good healthy connection — it’s the dealing with it honestly with no attacking or blaming statements. What throws most of us off track is the heat of the moment. When we have strong emotions, we often stop communicating what we feel and jump right into reacting to what we’re feeling. Feelings are vulnerable center; not the defensive retaliation to protect them. For example, if someone starts pushing our buttons, we might say, “Cut it out. Stop irritating me!” We might even attach a feeling word disclaimer and say, “Stop it, I feel like you’re being rude and insensitive.”  Although all of these statements may be laced with feeling words, it’s far from being honest with how we actually feel or does it give access to the other person to see us clearly. Digging deeper, expressing how we feel might look more like this, “I’m feeling hurt and annoyed; I need some space for a little bit.” Practice this now, for it sets the path you’ll find yourself years later.


to a lifetime of integrity building

Before you say “I do,” ask yourself the really hard questions. Are you capable of following through with your commitments? Ask the same of your partner. Is integrity carved deep into his or her character? Does he or she have a tendency to back out of things when they get too hard? If you know how to commit to one another, you’ll develop the foundation for your love to grow and you’ll be able to endure anything life throws at you. I’ll have no doubt that you’ll be one of the successful ones. Your wedding day will just a drop of goodness compared to the oceans of joy you’ll share as you grow old together. May you have 50 or more increasingly beautiful years!

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“You’re just like your father.”
“How hard is it for you to think of someone else for a change?”
“Can’t you do anything right?”

We’ve all heard phrases like these, or perhaps we’ve even said some ourselves… Words like these are powerful and strong enough to start a fight, one that usually ends bitterly for both sides. But it doesn’t always have to be this way. There are tools for identifying and moving beyond destructive conflict patterns and I’d like to share a few I learned during my college studies. Let me also add, that all relationships will have conflict, the goal isn’t to avoid it, but to work through it.

The first and most important aspect of relational conflict is perception. The Lens Model Theory states each person see conflict through a different “lens” or “perspective.” This means what both people see (verbal acts or behavior) may be interpreted radically different depending how each person ascribes meaning to oneself, the other, and their combined relationship.

To complicate matters further, there’s the False Attribution Theory. It states we attribute causes of our behavior to external factors (i.e. “I failed the test because the teacher was unfair”). And we attribute causes of other’s behavior to internal dispositions or character flaws (i.e. “He failed the test because he is lazy and didn’t study”).

With this information in mind, it’s safe to admit our view of others is “off the mark” – especially when compounded with an emotionally charged conflict. Simply checking our perception of the situation and asking the other person, “This is how I see things, is this right?” can help disarm a destructive conflict before it begins.

But what if you are currently in the midst of a serious conflict or trust has eroded to the point where even a question like this would be seen as hostile? Let’s take a look at some common destructive patterns and possible alternatives: Gottman’s 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The name comes from the statistically probability that if these patterns are present in your relationship, the end is near.


Criticism is a generally broad accusation or attack; a sharp and negative attempt to point out fault in another. An example would be,

“You are the most selfish man I know! My mother is sick, maybe terminally, and you can’t stir yourself to drive 30 miles for her birthday. Great. Now I get to tell my Mom that I’m married to a narcissistic jerk! Could you think of someone else for a change?”

We often use criticisms to get someone’s attention. We want the other person to know how awful we feel or to make the conflict important enough to resolve. But it rarely works out that way…

A much better way would be to “turn criticism into a constructive complaint.” By using an “I” statement, we can state how we feel, describe undesirable behavior and ask for specific change. A constructive complaint also leaves out blame and the idea that there is something wrong with the other person.

“I am upset that we are not going to see my Mom together. I have asked you three times to clear your weekend so we could both go see her. Next weekend is her birthday. She is sick and I want to see her, and I want you to come with me. I am frustrated and impatient with the excuses you’ve given me. I hope you will come. I don’t want to have the kind of marriage where I have to see my folks by myself.”


Defensiveness is basically denial; a tactic that tries to ward off an attack (usually the initial criticism) by deferring blame. It is also an effort to protect oneself “against pain, fear, personal responsibility, or new information (Wilmot and Hocker, 2001).” Defensiveness also creates a readiness to strike back and start a criticizing cycle.

Listen to this exchange in an example from Wilmot and Hocker (2001)…

BARBARA: Every time I try to talk to you about my day, you launch off into complaints and whining about how bad life is for you. You never listen to me. [Notice that Barbara is in fact attacking, criticizing, and blaming.]

MARK: If I didn’t get my two cents’ worth in you’d talk all evening. All you ever do is complain. I decided two weeks ago that every time you come home with some “poor me” tale, I’ll match you. Besides, I have a right to be heard too. You aren’t the only important one in this family.

BARBARA: If things are so rotten for you in this relationship, why are you sticking around? All I’m asking for is a little empathy, but I guess that’s beyond you.

Defensiveness drops away when a person can approach the other with a desire to listen and learn about oneself and the other (Paul and Paul 1998). This kind of approach says, “Teach me your perspective and I’ll share with you mine and we’ll both walk away better for it.”


Stonewalling is withdrawing from the conversation (while still being physically there). It withholds “good things” from the other in attempts to get them to “shape up” or “do what I want” in a destructive way. Stonewalling or withholding is common when hostility is sensed or trust hasn’t been built up (Yankelovitch, 1999).

The most effective way to gain trust in a relationship is to lay down your own defenses, share something vulnerable or give information that could hurt you. By allowing your loved one to ability to hurt you, you acknowledge your mutual interdependence and call them to be responsible for their own actions without blaming or criticizing them. They suddenly realize they can hurt you and are forced to ask themselves if that’s what they really want…


Contempt “… is any statement or nonverbal behavior that puts oneself on a higher plane than [another] (Gottman, 1999).” This can be expressed directly in words or actions or in nonverbal cues and tones (even when all the right things are being said). Contempt includes put-downs, name-calling, hostile corrections, mockery, sarcasm, ridicule, hostile joking, and attack on the personhood of the other. The damage of contempt goes deep, it is where human beings stop being human to us. And we start to believe they deserve any harsh treatment they receive from us or anyone else.

Now What?

Think about how you’ve seen these patterns play out at times in your own life. Hopefully this short article helps name and identify the common pitfalls of conflict and gives practical alternatives to build up rather than tear down. Of course it is usually takes much longer to actually practice avoiding these patterns in real life, but I know if we do so, we’ll find it easier and easier to resolve previously unresolved issues and build stronger relationships. And that’s definitely something worth celebrating!


Gottman, J. M. (1999). The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.
Wilmot, W. and J. Hocker. (2001). Interpersonal Conflict. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2001
Yankelovich, D. (1999). The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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  • Communication is a dynamic process — it continuously changes, evolves, and moves on
  • Communication is systemic — it occurs in particular situations or systems that influence what and how we communicate and what meanings we attach to messages
  • Communication has two levels of meaning — the content or literal meaning and the relational level which defines each person’s relationship to one another
  • Meanings are created through human interaction with symbols — symbols are abstract, arbitrary, and ambiguous and require mediation and thought with interpretations

Martha tells George that she is worried about her friend. George gives a minimal response cue, saying only, “Oh.” To Martha, this suggests he isn’t interested, because women make and expect more of what Deborah Tannen (1986) calls “listening noises” to signal interest. Yet, if George operates according to norms of masculine speech communities, he is probably thinking that, if Martha wants to tell him something, she will. Masculine rules of speech assume people use talk to assert themselves (Bellinger & Gleason, 1982). Even without much encouragement, Martha continues by describing the tension in her friend’s marriage and her own desire to help. She says, “I feel so bad for Barbara, and I want to help her, but I don’t know what to do.” George then says, “It’s their problem, not yours. Just butt out.” At this, Martha explodes: “Who asked for your advice?” George is now completely confused. He thought Martha wanted advice, so he gave it. She is hurt that George didn’t tune into her feelings. Both are frusterated.

The problem is not so much what George and Martha say and don’t say. Rather, it’s how they interpret each other’s communication–actually, how they misinterpret it, because they fail to understand that each is operating by different rules of talk. George is respecting Martha’s independence by not pushing her to talk. When he thinks she wants advice, he offers it in an effort to help. Martha, on the other hand, wants comfort and a connection with George–that’s her purpose in talking with him. To her, George’s advice seems to dismiss her feelings. He doesn’t offer sympathy, because masculine rules for communication define this as condescending. Yet the feminine speech community in which Martha was socialize taught her that giving sympathy is a way to show support.

Talk about troubles or personal problems, is a kind of interaction in which hurt feelings may result from the contrast between most men’s and women’s rules of communication. Nancy might tell her partner, Craig, that she is feeling down becuase she did not get a job she wanted. In an effort to be supportive, Craig might respond by saying, “You shouldn’t feel bad. Lots of people don’t get jobs they want.” To Nancy this seems to dismiss her feelings–to belittle them by saying lots of people experience her situation. Yet within masculine speech communities, this is a way of showing respect for another by not assuming that she or he needs sympathy.

Now let’s turn the tables and see what happens when Craig feels troubled. When he meets Nancy, Craig is unusually quiet because he feels down about not getting a job offer. Sensing that something is wrong, Nancy tries to show interest by asking, “Are you okay? What’s bothering you?” Craig feels she is imposing and trying to get him to show a vulnerability he prefers to keep to himself. Nancy probes further to show she cares. As a result, he feels intruded on and withdraws further. Then Nancy feels shut out.

But perhaps Craig does decide to tell Nancy why he feels down. After hearing about his rejection letter, Nancy says, “I know how you feel. I felt so low when I didn’t get that position at Datanet.” She is matching experiences to show Crait that she understands his feelings and that he’s not alone. According to the communication rules that Craig learned in a masculine speech community, however, Nancy’s comment about her own experience is an effort to steal the center stage from him and focus on herself.

Julia Wood

Gendered Lives

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