In his "lifetime message", America's foremost marriage expert and award-winning author H. Norman Wright offers couples essential guidance in understanding and enhancing their communication styles in ten easy steps.
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How to Speak Your Spouse's LanguageTen Easy Steps to Great Communication from One of America's Foremost Counselors
By H. Norman Wright
CENTER STREETCopyright © 2006 H. Norman Wright
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDo You Speak the Same Language?
STEP #1: BE AN IMMIGRANT - DIVE INTO FOREIGN SOIL!
It was hard not to notice the young couple sitting at the restaurant table. They were looking at each other with rapt attention and it was obvious a strong chemistry was brewing. The noise from other tables didn't distract them. They talked together as though they were the only couple there.
As he spoke, her facial expression showed that she devoured every word. When she responded, he nodded in agreement, raised his eyebrows on occasion, and looked intently into her face as she shared with him. The depth of their personal attention to each other indicated a couple very much in love.
A man at a nearby table observed them. As they finished their dinner conversation and got up to leave, he stopped them. "Pardon me," he said. "Could I ask you a question?"
They stopped and smiled. "Of course. What is it?" "I couldn't help but notice the two of you talking together," the man replied. "You both seemed to be hanging on each other's every word. Do you feel you can communicate so you really know what the other person means? Are you really able to grasp what your partner feels and believes? Do you-"
The couple interrupted him with laughter. "Of course we do," the womansaid. "There's absolutely no problem in the way we communicate. We're on the same wavelength. That's one of the reasons we're so attracted to each other. Communication is no problem for us!"
Two weeks later the couple walked down the aisle of their church and committed themselves to each other for life, and they communicated happily ever after. Or did they?
Five years later, same restaurant, same couple, same man seated at a corner table, watching this couple talk: They speak but don't communicate. They interrupt each other, shaking their heads or rolling their eyes in disgust. At times they look angry. The husband glances around the room as the wife continues to talk to him. She raises her hands in a frustrated manner, and her voice begins to carry to adjacent tables. He shakes his head, and his eyes convey unbelief and confusion. Soon they leave their table and begin walking out of the restaurant.
The man observing intercepts them and asks, "May I ask you a question?"
The couple stop, hesitate, and look at each other and then back at the man with puzzled expressions.
The husband responds, "Well ... all right. What's your question?" "It's very simple," the man replies. Then he repeats the questions he asked five years earlier. "I couldn't help but notice you talking. Do you feel you can communicate so that you really know what the other person means? Are you really able to grasp what your partner feels and believes? Do you-"
The wife interrupts the man, exclaiming, "Communicate! I try, but he doesn't listen. Either his mind is fried, or he doesn't have the capacity to understand simple language. You'd think I was talking to a stranger. And-"
Her husband breaks in. "Half the time I don't even understand what she's trying to say. You'd think she's speaking a different language. We can't communicate! We talk past each other. I'm on AM, but she's on FM. She sees things so differently from the way I do. And she talks incessantly. On and on and on! I don't know what she's trying to say."
They begin arguing and the man quietly slips into the background as the couple walks away, each oblivious to the fact that neither is listening. Years ago they thought they could communicate, but now....
Meet Sheri and Fred
Let's consider another couple-Sheri and Fred. They've been married for twenty-two years. Sheri says:
After I married Fred, the relationship was okay. But then I felt pinned down or restricted by him. He is so mechanical and precise, he takes the fun out of everything. It's as though we both look at the world and even though we stand in the same place, we see something different.
Fred seems to have a clipboard and is making a list of the facts. It's one thing to be literal, but he is extreme. I know I'm not always the most practical, but Fred is overly so ... and "realistic"-at least that's the way he sees himself. I love possibilities and speculation, but he doesn't seem to see the value of either.
We have so many arguments over my answers. He'd ask, "What time will you be getting home?" and I'd say, "Around five o'clock." That wouldn't do it for him. He needed to know the exact time. If I buy something, it isn't enough that I tell him it was around forty dollars. He wants to know it to the penny.
For several years he wouldn't ask me for directions anywhere-I mean anywhere-even inside a building.
Fred wants a detailed, step-by-step map. I can find where I'm going with instructions like "It's a couple of blocks or signals down Seventeenth and you'll pass some kind of a school on the left, then in a little while you'll turn right and the store is, uh, let's see, two or three blocks on the right. Oh, you can't miss it." That's not good enough for Fred. He says it's not precise enough.
The future intrigues me much more than what's going on at the present time. There are all sorts of surprises to be discovered. Fred looks at things today and wants to know if they work or not. I'd rather think of the possibilities.
Whenever we buy something that needs to be put together, Fred can't wait to get back into the box and find the instructions. He loves to follow them exactly. A friend of mine asked me to think of a word that would describe Fred. The first word that came to mind was predictable. I could set the clock by him. I can tell you what time he gets up, leaves the house, and what he has for lunch. He'll drive the same streets to work or the gym, even though we've got several options.
You can imagine what our communication is like. I don't have the same problem with some of my other friends. But at least I always know the subject we're talking about when Fred brings it up-he identifies it precisely.
This is Fred's story:
Someone asked me what attracted me to Sheri. Excitement! My life was fairly routine. She brought a lot of fun into my life. But after we married, it seemed to get old in a hurry. She seemed scattered and going in several directions at once. She was always looking for some new possibility.
When we plan a vacation, it really doesn't start for me until we get there. But for Sheri, it seems to start as soon as we mention it. She loves the unknown. And when she describes what we did and where we went, her perceptions are so different from mine that I wonder if we were on the same vacation. The word exactness isn't in her vocabulary. I ask her for something and I hear, "It's over there somewhere." It's as if she's talking a different language.
When I ask a simple question, all I want is a simple, clear, concise answer, not a hundred possibilities. She takes longer and puts things in a different order. That drives me up a wall.
She says I nitpick, but I think she takes an incident and blows it way out of proportion. It's amazed me for years how she and the women friends who are just like her can carry on a conversation. They start a sentence and never finish it but jump to another one and don't finish that before jumping to the next and the next. And yet, they seem to understand each other. I've tried. I mean I've tried, but it's beyond me. I learned to say, "Sheri, I want to hear what you have to say, and it helps me if you could condense it and finish a sentence before going on. I'll stick with you better." At least that worked.
I've learned that Sheri's mind and body might be two different places. We could be watching a movie together and I'm really into it, but I'll ask her a question and she's thinking about something else.
We have different definitions for words such as "No," "Later," "Sometimes," and "I'll get it done."
Language Barriers in Business-and the Living Room
The problem isn't limited to married couples. Let's listen in on two people discussing a business deal.
George: I don't understand it. I worked and worked on the proposal for weeks. I did my homework, covered every angle, and made what I thought was a great presentation.
Frank: Well, what happened then? Why did they go for the competitor's proposal?
George: I can't figure it out. It's got me stumped. Especially since I have a copy of the other company's bid. It's no different from ours. In fact, we came in a bit lower in cost. I don't understand it.
Frank: There's got to be a reason. How did your presentation go?
George: I felt it went well. It didn't take long. They didn't ask many questions. I made it very clear, and they seemed polite and interested. I thought I had it sewed up. I was so sure I had it, I waited around until after our competitor's presentation. I thought they would want to sign then.
Frank: Why? What made you think they were ready?
George: The other presentation was three times as long. It was complicated and confusing. I don't know why they spent so much time in there. I was sure we were on the same wavelength, and they would go with us.
But George was not on the same wavelength with his audience when he made the presentation. Oh, what he presented was good, but he failed to connect with his listeners. Why? Because he wasn't speaking their language! They were much more comfortable with the other person's presentation, and a rapport was established. That's why they signed.
A husband and wife sit in their softly lit family room, listening to the sounds of an orchestra coming from the stereo. The room is comfortable and a few pleasant smells from dinner linger in the air. They sit across from each other, looking at the plans for remodeling one section of their home.
Bob: If you'll look over the new design and room arrangement, you can't help but see that I've focused on the suggestions that you mentioned the last time we looked these over. I just can't see what's bothering you about these changes now.
Jean: I don't know. I just keep getting the feeling that something in this room is missing. I can't define it. We need to get a better handle on something.
Bob: I think you're just stuck in your own point of view. You remember something from your home when you were a kid, and you'd like to see it here. Look at it from a different perspective. Then you'll see how this arrangement will be so much better than what you're talking about.
Jean: No. I don't think you have the proper feel for what this room can express. You need to get in touch with this arrangement from my point of view. Don't you understand what I'm telling you?
What do you think? Will they understand each other? Or are they speaking two different languages? Think about it. Read it again. Do you catch the difference in their words? (Chapter 8 will explain this.)
Two college students are talking over dinner. One says, "You know, I really feel comfortable talking with the new college dean. What a difference between him and the old one. This guy understands me. I can just tell it. We really seem to speak the same language."
His friend replies, "Yeah, I know what you're saying. He shows an interest and lets you know that he's really tuning into you. He does seem to speak our language."
There it is!
There what is? One of the greatest secrets of effective communication and conversation. Follow this principle, and you'll be amazed at the results: Speak the same language as the other person!
What does that mean? Am I saying you should find people who talk in the same manner you do-that these are the only ones you can really communicate with? No, I don't mean that at all. That would limit you to a select few. Instead I'd like to show you how to be flexible and learn the language of those with whom you come in contact. That allows you to effectively communicate with almost everyone.
COMMUNICATION AND A FOREIGN LANGUAGE
Have you ever traveled in a foreign country? There are two types of travelers: the colonizer and the immigrant. The colonizer wants to visit another country but sees it from his own perspective instead of experiencing it from the inhabitants' point of view. As he enters the country, he looks for signs in his own language and seeks out people who speak his own tongue. He endeavors to find the familiar and fails to venture into uncharted territory. He doesn't branch out and learn any words in this foreign language.
In fact, this traveler becomes irritated when he can't read signs for the bathroom or understand the menu. Instead of asking for help or learning a few helpful phrases, he becomes upset. He's dependent on others from his country who can interpret for him and guide him around. When he talks to local residents, he approaches them in his own language. They either respond with puzzlement or say a few words they've learned and point him in some direction.
Our traveler ends up creating an unpleasant experience for himself and can't wait to get back to familiar territory. He returns home with the attitude that people in that country aren't very friendly. They weren't interested or helpful. If they had been, they would have provided messages in his language and learned his language in order to help tourism.
Quite often colonizing nations do this. They transport their own language, customs, and monetary system to another country and force the people there to become like them. The immigrant traveler is different. He's somewhat of an adventurer. He prepares for his trip in advance by orienting himself to this foreign culture. He reads books about the culture, customs, and history of the country and attempts to learn everyday phrases of this new language. In order to converse with the native population, he may even take a class in their language before he leaves. When he arrives at his destination, he's eager to discover all he can. He looks for historical sites, tries all the new foods, reads as much as he can in the language of the country, and uses his newly formed verbal skills where possible. He may even enjoy living with a family of that country for a while in order to fully capture the flavor of this new world.
As the immigrant attempts to speak this new language, the people respond in a helpful manner. They help him pronounce strange words. Often, if they're adept in the traveler's language, they'll begin to speak it in order to make him feel more comfortable. They seem delighted that this person has made an attempt to learn their language, and both of them can laugh at some of his mispronunciations. When the immigrant returns home, he's bursting with enthusiasm and stories of his experiences. He says the people were so friendly, so open, and so interesting. They were delightful.
But wait a minute! Both the colonizer and the immigrant went to the same country. They encountered the same people. Why the difference in response? Simple. The immigrant was willing to learn about the culture of the people and to speak their language. As he attempted to speak the way they did, the people responded positively to his attempts and tried to make it easier for him by speaking his language in return.
I'm reminded of a cross-cultural snapshot one of my friends described to me. On a brief trip to Haiti, he found himself alone in a room with a young Haitian man who seemed wide-eyed with excitement about meeting an American. The Haitian obviously longed to open a conversation. His hands opened and closed. His eyes burned with a desire to weave his thoughts into understandable words. He seemed to have a thousand questions on the tip of his tongue. But my friend didn't speak a word of Creole and the Haitian didn't speak English. So eventually, after a few smiles, nods, vague gestures, and self-conscious shrugs, the two men strolled awkwardly to different corners of the room, and they parted almost certainly for the rest of their lives.
That little experience paints a powerful analogy in my mind. You and I know men and women who live together ten, twenty, fifty years or more but never learn to speak one another's language. They sit in rooms together, ride in cars together, eat meals together, take vacations together, and sleep together when the sun goes down. But for year after empty year, they never learn how to get beyond vague gestures and a few surface phrases.
Yes, it's true that many couples speak a language that's different in structure, style, and meaning, which can result in "crossed wires" or mixed messages.
Don't worry, though. This isn't a fatal condition. It is just a matter of "rewiring" or learning about your spouse's language style. This can make the difference between marital health and marital anguish. Seldom do husband and wife have the same language, but they can learn a new one. Remember, you can't rely on your native tongue if your spouse doesn't speak the same language.
Excerpted from How to Speak Your Spouse's Language by H. Norman Wright Copyright © 2006 by H. Norman Wright. Excerpted by permission.
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