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Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
To be human is to communicate - either verbally, with body language, using the written word or pictures, with music or with touch and in many more ways that will be as individual as the people involved, writes life coach Jan Aitken.

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken

For many, the primary method of communication is verbal.

Loosely speaking, verbal communication is relatively straightforward, especially if speaking to someone who converses in the same language. Most people can be polite - well, most of the time - to people they encounter in daily transactions. However, in the "bigger" relationships there is more scope for communication to seriously derail and for things to spin out of control in a truly spectacular fashion, often very quickly!

I'm sure you can all imagine how adults in a relationship (professional or personal) would ideally communicate: they would understand their own needs, social and cultural biases, moods and emotional triggers clearly. They would speak with confidence and without anger or in an accusatory tone, would always wait for an appropriate moment to speak, question or add their two cents worth. They would have faith that they would be listened to and actually "heard" and not feel the need to rush or force an issue, they would never raise their voices, become unreasonable, dramatic or inappropriately emotional.

Maybe verbal communication is not that straightforward after all.

Unfortunately, as The Book of Life points out, many of us are only adults by chronological age rather than maturity. Instead of communicating directly and calmly, people often send out a variety of mixed, indirect and very unhelpful messages about what is going on and what is important. Those signals end up confusing, enraging or boring partners/children/bosses and colleagues. People can inadvertently make it difficult for them to be understood and, at the same time, resent others being misunderstood ... and so begins the loop of miscommunication.

The Book of Life suggests there are four common behaviours that get in the way of sound communication within our closest relationships. Let's take a look.


A common belief, particularly in love relationships, than that the other person should automatically understand what you want/feel/desire/are annoyed about without us needing to tell them! We carry with us a powerful idea that others should be able to read our minds.

Fix this by taking the time to explain what is important to you and why. People aren't mind readers!


People get so scared that they won't be understood or that they will be rejected that they behave in ways that are guaranteed to confirm and exceed their worst fears, creating a self -fulfilling prophecy. Rather than lay out their fears and worries calmly, people are more likely to lash out, get bossy and controlling or perhaps silent and stern. Maybe they immerse themselves in work or try to numb the pain with food or alcohol.

What a partner witnesses is the outward behaviour, rather than the underlying cause of the distress - and so assumes that you are angry, needy, sullen or self-indulgent etc. You lose the "audience" you so desperately need. It's helpful in a relationship if a couple can complete the following sentence: "When I'm feeling anxious, fearful, rejected , I sometimes try to cope by ..." (Fill in with as much detail as possible.)

This can give a partner a crucial guide to how their other half is feeling. They are putting into words what they usually express through misleading behaviour.


People want their partner to turn their mind generously and sympathetically to what is bothering them, but instead of explaining, they often employ indirect - and sometimes dramatic - strategies. Even an act as apparently dismissive as storming out of a room can be a plea for understanding (though delivered in a way that is certain to fail).

Understanding why someone has behaved in unhealthy ways is the first step to changing that behaviour.

Think about the following behaviours and what you really mean when you indulge in them:

1. Nagging

2. Suddenly losing your temper

3. Being critical

4. Having a very long bath

5. Flirting with someone else

6. Staying on the phone

Are there other behaviours that fall into this category?


Sulking is one of the varieties of indirect communication. People refuse to say what is bothering them and at the same time perversely hope that those around them will understand what's wrong and be wholly kind and sympathetic to their cause.

When someone asks "What's the matter?" and the reply is "I'm fine. Nothing's wrong", what is truly meant is: "You should already have understood what you've done wrong and/or what's upsetting me. I'm hoping you'll now notice and apologise with great kindness but I'm going to make sure you don't so that I can prove how unkind you are."

This simply leaves the people involved confused.

Try to recall a particular occasion of sulking and explain: a) why you got upset; b) what you felt; and c) why it was so hard for you to talk about it directly.

When people are very young, they don't have the capacity or context to understand and explain what is upsetting them, so resort to saying nothing, to "hating silently", having tantrums and stamping feet.

Ideally, when faced with a miscommunicating partner, people would do their utmost to read between the lines. They would understand that sometimes people can't say what is actually wrong and so behave in ways that send muddled, unkind, indirect messages about their inner state. They would appreciate that behind the tantrums are desperate and disorganised attempts to be understood.

But when they are feeling a little stronger, they realise that the burden is ultimately on both parties to learn to communicate and explain what is going on in a way that is slightly more sober, serene, kind and compassionate. People don't always get it right, but practice makes perfect, and clear communication makes for healthier relationships.

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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There was a time, the era of 'Boomers' at that, when communication was so oblique it needed to be decoded. In some cases it was due to people reluctant to own their thoughts and feelings. So you would get "People might say", not
"I say". The familiarity of out of the room stormers is a sad memory. Of course, the Exit is a plea for understanding. It is followed by isolation and loneliness, as those remaining bridle with collective offence. Break the cycle. Go to the stormy petrel.

Body language comes with imaginitis. How could one possibility know that feet toeses pointed toward each other indicate attraction to the owner of the other foot?





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