How to Talk So He'll Listen and Listen So He'll Talk[1]

by Paul W. Schenk, Psy.D.

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Harry and Emily had been married for more than a decade when their therapist referred him to help determine if he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Harry certainly had some of the common hallmarks: he seemed easily distracted, frequently misplaced things, and often forgot things Emily had asked him to do. She offered a wonderful example to anchor her frustrations. Just a few days earlier she had asked him to get a can of spray paint from the basement. Without hesitation he had gone to get it. He returned a few minutes later carrying a tape measure and started to walk past her to another part of the house. She asked in angry disbelief, "Where are you going?" He told her he was going to tackle a needed household repair. Now convinced he had again forgotten something she had asked him to do, she vented, "How could you forget the can of spray paint?!"

Emilyís anecdote was a classic ADHD story, yet medication had not resulted in any improvement for Harry. What did I think might explain the communication problems the couple was having? How might they find solutions to them?

The kind of problems they were having are far from unusual. If youíre like most people, you probably have memories of times when your spouse forgot to relay a phone message or stop at the store to pick up something on the way home. Yet while the occasional forgotten request can be excused or overlooked, if miscommunications accumulate over time you might begin to feel ignored, unimportant, or unloved. Finding a solution to these glitches takes on added importance if they begin to occur too often. Why? We all operate from certain expectations about what we think of our spouse "should" do. If yours forgets to do something that you think he should have done, youíll probably feel resentful towards him. A little "should" may only produce a little resentment, but a lot of little unmet "shoulds" can accumulate to become a lot of resentment. When you finally reach your breaking point, all of your pent up hurt, disappointment and resentment can feel like the emotional equivalent of what happens when someone discharges a huge buildup of static electricity.

In recent years I find that parents are better educated about the many ways that their children can experience communication problems as part of a learning disability, ADHD, or some other factor. Often, though, they forget to consider that their own marital miscommunications can stem from similar origins. While many marital disagreements arise from differences in priorities, values, or interests, sometimes the source is more subtle. Correctly identifying what is causing a pattern of miscommunications is a critical first step. Why? When things donít go as planned, we make assumptions about what went wrong. Just because an assumption is very logical doesnít mean it may not be faulty. Faulty assumptions about why your spouse did (or didnít) do something will lead to faulty conclusions. In turn, these can adversely impact your beliefs about what is important to him or how he feels about you.

Because I have the ability to get lost on one-way streets, my wife and I have a long and sometimes humorous history of miscommunicating about where we will meet. Following a family outing to a baseball game one afternoon we agreed to meet outside the menís restroom after all of us took a bathroom break. Twenty minutes later you can imagine the kind of mood we were both in when we had still not found each other. Take a few seconds to notice your own assumptions about what went wrong before you continue reading. . . .She thought I had wandered off looking for her instead of doing what we had agreed to do. I thought she couldnít remember to follow a simple direction. Neither had happened. When we had agreed to meet, we didnít realize the menís room had two exits. I had followed the flow of men in one door and out the other. She and I had been waiting at different exits.

A common miscommunication woe is the "Donít forget to call " mistake. Jim was going to call his wife when he arrived back at the hotel about 9:00 after a dinner meeting. Busy with other activities, Sandra didnít notice until 10:00 that he had not yet called. She assumed he had forgotten, which fueled her periodic fear (again) that what was important to her didnít really matter to him, and by extension, that she didnít really matter to him. Angry and hurt, she called him on his cell phone. It turned out the restaurant had not been able to seat his group until well after their reservation time, and he was still there. He had been so focused on the meeting that he had not noticed the time either. His apology helped, but not before her faulty assumption had done its damage.

When I met with Harry and Emily, her perspective validated that he had given a good description of the difficulties they had been having for a long time. From their history and the anecdotes he had given me during the first two sessions, I acted on a hunch and asked them to read an article I wrote two years ago for Family Circle called, "Thereís More Than One Way to Learn." [Angela, does FC ever list a web site reference? I have that article on my web site.] While most people are able to learn well with their eyes, ears and/or sense of touch, it is thought that about 15 to 20 percent have a notable weakness for one of these styles. When the weakness remains unrecognized, it can have serious impact on family and business relationships. Look at the box below for a glimpse of how this can sound in ordinary conversation.

In order to have better communication with your spouse, first you have to recognize your particular styles. Language mirrors how you think. If you have a natural preference for thinking about the world in visual ways, it will be reflected in the words you use when you speak:

C Look at me when I talk to you!
C I canít get a clear picture of what youíre saying.
C Show me.
C Whatís your perspective?

Conversely, if you have a natural preference for thinking about the world as a kind of internal dialogue with yourself, the words you use will also reflect this preference:

C How does that sound to you?
C Are you listening to what Iím saying?
C I donít like the tone in your voice young lady!
C Tell me more.

Some people more naturally think about experiences with a focus on feelings, touch and movement (kinesthetics). Here are some examples of how their language shows up in conversations:

C I donít have a good feeling about that.
C I canít get a grip on what youíre saying.
C Walk me through that one step at a time.
C What does your gut tell you to do?

As I find is also true of many adults with ADHD, Harry had a very good visual memory but a lousy auditory memory. He could remember detailed scenes from a movie but not the name of it. He could give good directions with landmarks, but not with street names. (Turn left just past Kroger, then take a right at the fire station.) He filed information in his brain according to mental pictures. His ability to remember what he heard was much weaker than his ability to remember what he saw. Unfortunately, Emily was his complement. She was a strong auditory thinker: she stored memories as words and retrieved memories with word cues. She was great at remembering the names of movies and the actors and actresses who starred in them, but had much more trouble remembering the scenes. She had a much easier time remembering dates.

Harry and Emilyís communication problems arose from this simple, though very pronounced, difference in their preferred way of thinking. His strong channel was her weak channel and vice versa. English seems like a single language. But as Harry and Emily began to clearly understand, good communication between spouses can be much harder than it seems when what looks good to him sounds better to her. If I began to ask you in psychologese about your childís favorite transitional objects, your eyes might begin to glaze over. If, instead, I ask you to tell me about your childís favorite blanket or stuffed animal, our conversation would continue effortlessly. Someone who is a visual thinker can have trouble understanding the (foreign) language of an auditory thinker, and vice versa.

Because Emilyís ability to remember spoken instructions came so easily for her, even with this explanation she just couldnít understand how he could be so forgetful when she asked him to do a simple task. For years she had been quietly assuming that her forgotten requests reflected a lack of caring on Harryís part. I got an idea that might help her change her understanding of what had happened. I went to the closet for one of the educational tests which I use with children. On each page of the test booklet there are several items pictured such as different kinds of chairs. After looking at it for five seconds I turn the page and ask the person to point to just the ones which she saw on the previous page. Emily did fine for the first three test items I presented, though the rules of the test did not allow me to tell her how she was doing. When she missed one picture on the fourth, Harry asked if that had been her first error. On the fifth page she couldnít remember any of the pictured items. She commented that sheíd been distracted thinking about what Harry had said just before I showed her the fifth page. On top of that, she got frustrated with herself for not being able to remember any of the items, items which a typical 10-year-old can remember.

I almost didnít need to draw the parallel for her. The 60-second experience had done most of the work. I had given her a simple task involving short-term visual memory, just as she had given Harry a simple task involving short-term auditory memory when she had asked him to get her the can of spray paint. Each task had involved their weakest channel. Both had been distracted by information from their strongest channel. She had been distracted by something he said; he had been distracted by something he saw in the basement which had reminded him of the repair job he had been meaning to do. Once distracted, both had forgotten the original information, and both had become frustrated when they realized what they had done.

If you find it easy to think in all three modes Ė visual, auditory, and kinesthetic Ė then you can listen to your spouse regardless of which kind of "language" he or she uses. But if, like Harry or Emily, you are not naturally fluent in one of these three languages, youíll have a harder time communicating in that language. It will be harder for you to follow what your spouse is saying. Similarly, your spouse may have trouble understanding what you mean if he or she is not naturally fluent in the particular language you are using.

One of the easiest ways to identify how each of you think is to tape record a meal time conversation. Later, have each person in the family make three columns on a piece of paper: visual, auditory, and touch/feel/movement. Then replay the tape. As you listen to your part of the conversation, jot down any words you hear which indicate one of these three styles. When youíre finished, notice if you have a lot more words in one column than the others. If you do, it suggests that you naturally use this style of thinking about the world, and you may find it harder to understand what others are saying if they use a different style.

If you find you and your spouse have been speaking different languages, there is an easy solution that can help you dramatically improve your ability to understand each other. If you ever studied a foreign language in school, then youíre already familiar with the steps. My older son, Michael, has been studying French in high school. When our family traveled to France this past summer, his brain went through a three-step process: he would think Ė in English Ė about what he wanted to say, do the mental translation into French, and then speak the resulting sentence. Fortunately, to make the translation from, say, visual language to auditory language, you only need to learn a few dozen phrases. For example, "I see what you mean," translates as "I hear what youíre saying." "That doesnít feel right to me," translates visually as "That doesnít look right." It will take some practice to get used to doing the internal translations quickly, but I promise youíll be pleased with the results.

Some words are neutral, and can be understood regardless of style. Some examples include: think, understand, be aware of, believe, sense, know, am sure of. These words require no translation. For example, instead of saying, "How does that look to you?" or, "How does that sound to you?" you could say "What do you think about that?" This way your spouse and think about how it looks, sounds, or feels. A language neutral response may take the form of, "I am sure/believe/know your idea will work well."

Just like translating from English into a foreign language, this process of using different words to express yourself may seem a bit awkward and artificial at first. With practice, however, I find that couples (and parents) can learn to be "bilingual" in this way to communicate more effectively with family members. Experiences like Emilyís 60 second test can help a spouse replace, "How could you forget?" with real strategies that solve the challenge, "How can you remember?"


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[1] An edited version of this article appeared in Family Circle, November 1, 2002, 26-29.

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Dr Paul Schenk, Psy.D is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Atlanta, Georgia, USA since 1979, where he maintains a diverse practice providing evaluation and therapy for families, couples, and individuals. Dr. Schenkís special interests include the evaluation and treatment of sexual abuse in children and adults, the evaluation of ADD and learning problems in children, adolescents and adults, and the clinical uses of hypnosis for the diagnosis and treatment of a variety of problems. He is the author of Great Ways to Sabotage a Good Conversation [available at] Email: