I believe in the possibility of communication.
But communication can’t solve all of your problems.
You don’t have to look far online find someone saying “communication is key” or “you need to communicate” or some other trite advice to fix the problems ailing you. This sort of meaninglessness is everywhere. You’ll hear it about dating better/being a better relationship partner, why you broke up, why your marriage is or isn’t working, about expressing your sexual preferences, the pathway to general relationship happiness, how you succeed in your career, and more.
This makes communication seem like some sort of cure all. But is it?
No, not really.
Accepting the premise that we can’t not communicate, the realization that “communication is key” doesn’t solve our problem because communication can be shitty too. Sometimes, [bad] communication is exactly the problem. We can’t just call it communication when things go great. Bad communication is communication too.
Communication isn’t key. Communicating well is key. “How do we do that?” is what you should be asking yourself.
Communication can’t solve all your problems, but it is your best hope.
Focus on better communication, not more of it. Quality over quantity.
Another email, another text, another conversation may be exactly what you don’t need when the prior ones haven’t worked. Sometimes, it’s the volume of communication (in that there is too much) that’s the issue. Lack of communication can also be a problem, but people feel overwhelmed by messages and information these days. How many unread emails do you have? Or how many text messages or notifications on your phone have you ignored? How many times would you just rather not have that conversation, but instead sit back in peace and quiet? It’s better to focus on the quality of the interaction as the goal. Better communication, not just more of it.
Don’t spend time on bad communication if you don’t have to. It’s a waste. Walk away, if possible, or do something to make it better. If you see a communication problem, try to point it out if you can. But pointing out communication problems is really hard, a lot harder than it sounds.
Another approach to improving communication quality is to be proactive: say that nice thing that’s in the back of your mind, tell someone that you appreciate them, or ask that question you’ve been wondering about. Do something to make it better. We all have the power to start making communication better at any given moment and there are plenty of ways to do so.
When it comes to better quality communication, it’s worth mentioning distractions, especially technology. Technology can enable good communication, it can also be a hindrance to it. It’s easy to sit there and scroll through your app of choice instead of engaging with the person across from you. Even normally, our attention is pulled in many different directions at once. This is a challenge. Technology amplifies that and it can result in communicating being worse than it might otherwise be. It’s not that technology is bad and you shouldn’t look at your phone when having a conversation with others, but rather, to be better aware of when your technology, or someone else’s, is dragging down your conversation.
Though certainly its centrality to relationship formation and maintenance is undeniable, communication certainly isn’t the only factor in a relationship. Many things go beyond communication: physical realities (maybe you’re physically together or apart), biology (people’s dispositions, stature, mannerisms), random chance (the randomness of interactions and language, for example), as well as — depending on the type of relationship — things like financial realities, identity matters (class, race, gender, sexuality, and so on), not to mention relationship history and context. We communicate about many of these things, they impact and shape our relationships, but they are beyond communication.
Interactions don’t just come from nowhere. Even prior to its initial bubbling, a conversation has already been influenced — but not determined — by any number of factors. These external forces can and do exert pressure on relationships and sometimes, no matter the amount of talking or listening, more communication won’t solve the problems, discrepancies, or disrespect might exist in that relationship.
Back in the old days, say 100 years ago, there was this idea of communication as a “magic bullet.” This idea pervaded for many decades and even persists today. The concept behind this idea of communication being that whatever you said, whatever the message was, went straight into the source or receiver as if to be a magic bullet.
Of course, this isn’t how communication works.
The idea that communication can fix all your problems — or that simply “more communication” is all you need is rooted in this way of thinking about communication. The mere fact of communicating isn’t a magic cure all.
We think to ourselves, “Well I talked to them!” or we assume they got the message. But different interpretations and different meanings is baked right in to the process of communicating. It’s not only communication when it’s a success. You’re communicating when things aren’t going well also. That’s entirely the point — how to make it better is the question.
Communication isn’t electricity. You don’t flip a switch and it turns on. You have to work at it. It’s a process. Making it better is how to increase your chances at success and there are many ways to communicate better. We don’t always reach our desired goals or even acceptable outcomes. That’s just how it is.
Trying to communicate better is all we’ve got. It’s not a magic fix, but it is your best hope.