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Good conversation: Whose responsibility is it? How ease of communication can predict your relationship success
by Janet Jacobsen
Oct. 2002

by Janet L. Jacobsen

Almost all of us (91%) think we’re good communicators, according to a national poll, but we also think that lack of effective communication is the number one cause of divorce. A recent survey found that while men and women are definitely talking to each other, we aren’t so confident that we’re communicating well.
A poll of Americans’ perceptions of their communication skills, conducted in 1998 for the National Communication Association, found that while 62% of us say we are “very comfortable” communicating in general, only 42% of us believe we are “very effective” communicators. In other words, we’re comfortable with what we have to say, but not as confident that we are really being understood.

Men most comfortable
Not surprisingly, we are generally more comfortable and confident about speaking with our own sex than with the opposite sex. But when it comes to inter-acting with that other gender, men have the advantage. More men (58%) report being very comfortable talking to women, than women report being very comfortable talking to men (52%). And while 49% of men think they communicate very effectively with women, only 42% of women think they communicate as effectively with men.


This figure says that more than half of each sex do not rate themselves as “very effective” in talking to the opposite sex, and only a little more than half of us feel “very comfortable” in such conversations. How do we manage to date and develop relationships at all if conversing is such a problem for so many of us?!


Starting a conversation with a stranger makes about 20% of us downright uncomfortable, yet people do continue to meet, date and form relationships. While we might be tempted to say, Well, sure, it’s the good communicators getting all the dates, there’s really more to the story than that.

Matching styles
In fact, while hardly anyone feels confident and comfortable talking with everyone, almost everyone has someone that it’s easy to talk to. Some of us are open to sharing a lot about ourselves; others aren’t. Some of us want lots of interaction and feedback; others are happy with a fair amount of quiet. If you think of your closest friends over the years, the odds are good that their communication style was a fairly good match with yours.


So why then do we try to form romantic relationships with people who have radically different communication approaches? The first reason, of course, is that relationships - in the early stages, at least - are moremotivated by hormones than by logic. Still, we do emerge eventually from the fog of physical chemistry and wonder whether this is really the right relationship for us.
Here’s a test:


1. Are you as comfortable talking with this potential partner as you are talking with your best friend?
2. Do you feel as confident in talking with this person as with your friends? This doesn’t require perfect communication; if you think about it, you’ll probably remember lots of screw-ups and misunderstandings with your friends over the years. The bigger issue is whether you were “punished” for the problems.
With our friends we tend to assume good will on all sides and laugh off such difficulties, while for some reason many of us in romances see every little communication breakdown as a crisis and a deliberate breach of faith.
3. Of course, to get empathy and appreciation in communication, you have to be willing to give the same. If the quality of communication in your romances is significantly lower than it is with your friends, the first place to check is with your own behavior. Are you giving your new love as much support, understanding, and benefit of the doubt as you give your friends? It’s not realistic to expect to get what you don’t give.

It’s how you talk, not what you say
Certainly what we talk about in a romance will be somewhat different than what we talk about with our friends. But our ease and expectations in communication should be at least as good in our romances as in our friendships, and preferably even better.
If your comfort and confidence in communicating with a romantic partner doesn’t measure up to your communication with your friends, or isn’t steadily improving in a positive direction, beware of that relationship. If ease and growth in inter-acting with each other aren’t there early in the relationship, they can be mighty hard to develop in the long run.