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Be inspired every day with Living North
Couple sitting on a bench
Health and beauty
June 2022
Reading time 7 Minutes

Living North columnist Dr Maurice Duffy explains why, in order to help our relationships, it is so important that we improve our communication skills

George Bernard Shaw once said, ‘the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’ Almost all conflicts; fights, arguments, etc are caused by poor communication.

Whether you are pitching a new idea, selling to potential clients, motivating teams, or just getting along with your partner – it all requires good communication skills. I remind myself every morning, nothing I say this day will teach me anything.

So, if I am going to learn, I must learn by listening, because two monologues do not make a dialogue. Quite often we hear what we want to, rather than what is being communicated to us. The same is also true in our relationships.

Read More: Dr Maurice Duffy Explains Why it’s Important to be Honest With Yourself and With Others

Bob and Sarah are dating. Bob sees that Sarah is unhappy and asks Sarah what is bothering her. Sarah replies that she wants Bob to be more caring. Bob promises that he will be more caring, and Sarah feels better. 

The next week, Bob buys Sarah flowers and takes her out to dinner. He feels good about it and Sarah seems to be enjoying it as well. A few weeks later, Sarah and Bob get into a big fight because Sarah accuses Bob of not following through on his promise to be more caring. Bob resents this because he felt that he was very caring and has shown it.

What was the problem? Bob and Sarah had different definitions for the word ‘caring’. Bob’s definition of caring was buying flowers and taking his loved one out to dinner. Sarah’s definition of caring was for Bob to ask daily about how her day went.

I had the opportunity of meeting with and studying with Dr. John Gottman. John is ‘the guy that can predict divorce with over 90 percent accuracy’ and his life’s work on marital stability and divorce prediction is world-renowned and featured in the #1 bestseller Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

After watching thousands of couples argue in his lab, he was able to identify specific negative communication patterns that predict divorce. He called them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and they are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt.

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When you criticise your partner, you are basically implying that there is something wrong with them. You have taken a problem between you and put it inside your partner’s body. Using the phrase: ‘you always’ or ‘you never’ are common ways to criticise.

When you attempt to defend yourself from a perceived attack with a counter complaint you are being defensive. Unfortunately, defensiveness keeps partners from taking responsibility for problems and escalates negative communication.

Stonewalling happens when the listener withdraws from the conversation. The stonewaller might physically move away, or they might just appear to shut down. Typically, they are overwhelmed and are trying to calm themselves.

Contempt is mocking your partner, calling them names, rolling your eyes, and sneering in disgust, of all the horsemen, contempt is the most serious. 

Read More: How to Be a First-Rate Version of Yourself

In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Dr. John Gottman notes: When contempt begins to overwhelm your relationship, you tend to forget entirely your partner’s positive qualities, at least while you are feeling upset. You can’t remember a single positive quality or act. This immediate decay of admiration is an important reason contempt in our communication ought to be banned from marital interactions.

So, what are the top tips when it comes to communication? 

1. Aim for a respectful and compassionate quality of connection, so that everyone can express themselves, be heard and understood.

2. Listen more than you speak.

3. Understand the other person first. When another person feels you understand them, they are far more likely to be open to understanding you.

4. Begin with empathy. Refrain from immediately telling your own similar story, interrogating with lots of questions, interpreting the other’s experience, or giving advice.

5. Make requests that are practical, specific, and positive.

6. Respond rather than react.

7. Be present and ensure your body is geared for listening.

8. It is important to make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.

Read More: Three of the Best Romantic Podcasts

I often use the simple word to explain how to communicate: Think. T stands for: is it TRUE or is it your viewpoint? H stands for: is it HELPFUL? I stands for: is it INSPIRING? N stands for: is it NECESSARY? Silence is a source of great strength. K stands for: is it KIND?

So, before you speak, think: Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? Will it hurt anyone? Will it improve on the silence?

Words are, of course, the most powerful stimulation used by humans. Words that we say to ourselves inside our brain are often cruel and unkind. You can change your world by changing your words to yourself and others because words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble. 

When we speak, we are repeating what we already know, but when we really listen, we can see into the soul of another person and when our two souls touch that’s when communication is at its most impactful.

Read More: How Self-Awareness Can Help You Reach Your Potential

Most people tend to believe that because they were at a particular event or in a certain conversation their account of the situation is correct. They generalise their perception of reality to be true for everyone and assume that what they saw is what really happened.

That is why focusing on intention is a very bad way to keep score on the effectiveness of your communication.

In reality, the only way to see how well you communicate is based on the response that you get from others. If other people are not open to your ideas, it does not matter how good your intentions are, you are not a good communicator. It is not up to people to understand your message, it is up to you to make it clear and acceptable.

Dr Maurice Duffy is Visiting Professor at Sunderland, consulting coach to the NHS, the Australian cricket team, Durham Cricket Club, international golfers, rugby and many sports people, and also coaches many senior FTSE 100 business leaders and politicians around the world. Find out more at or follow him on twitter @thebeaksquawks

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