Healthy Communication for Enhancing Relationships

We wanted to examine ways to improve relationships, not only with our significant others, but all relationships in our lives. Healthy communication is obviously one of the most important aspects of maintaining and nurturing relationships with others. The book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen has some insights on how to improve communication, listening and understanding skills.

According to Stone, Patton, and Heen one very important way to keep communication open is to try to see someone else’s “story” or point of view. Instead of arguing over differences in opinion try to move from “certainty to curiosity.” “There’s only one way to come to understand the other person’s story, and that’s by being curious. Instead of asking yourself, ‘How can they think that?!’ ask yourself, ‘I wonder what information they have that I don’t?’ Instead of asking, ‘How can they be so irrational?’ ask, ‘How might they see the world such that their view makes sense?’ Certainty locks us out of their story; curiosity lets us in” (Stone, Patton and Heen, 1999, pg. 37). These authors also recommend that instead of thinking that you have thought of certain difficult situations from every angle to instead begin to think about what you don’t know about yourself. Are you clear on why you feel hurt? “The process in with we construct our stories about the world often happens so fast, and so automatically, that we are not even aware of all that influences our views” (pg. 38).

Stone, Patton and Heen suggest in order to stay curious about another person’s story it is important to realize that more than one story can be right. These authors claim that part of the stress of staying curious can be relieved by adopting what they call the “And Stance.” The “And Stance” is to not determine which story or opinion is the right choice, but instead to choose to embrace both. “Don’t worry about accepting or rejecting the other person’s story. First work to understand it. The mere act of understanding someone else’s story doesn’t require you to give up your own. The And Stance allows you to recognize that how you each see things matters, that how you each feels matters. Regardless of what you end up doing, regardless of whether your story influences theirs or theirs yours, both stories matter” (pg. 40).

Stone, Patton and Heen also address why we each see the world differently to create our own “stories.” According to these authors our stories are “built in unconscious, but systematic ways.” “First we have different information. Because we notice different things about the same situation, we may see a situation completely differently. A 4 year old watching the homecoming parade commented that it was the best “truck parade” he had ever seen. Others watching the parade did not even notice that the floats were pulled by trucks. We experience the world – sights, sounds, and feelings. Second, we interpret what we see, hear, and feel; we give it all meaning. Then we draw conclusions about what’s happening. And at each step there is an opportunity for different people’s stories to diverge” (pg. 30). We also know ourselves better than anyone else can. We know our intentions and have access to different information about ourselves than the other person does. We are influenced by past experiences. We also apply different implicit rules. One person might feel that “Good friends can get angry with each other and not take it personally” another might feel that “you should always show appreciation to others no matter what” (p.39). One can see how quickly and easily a conversation can become complicated.

“In difficult conversations, too often we trade only conclusions back and forth, without stepping down to where most of the real action is: the information and interpretations that lead each of us to see the world as we do” (pg. 31).