Good Communication Begins Within

Person seen from side, with prosthetic leg and backpack sitting on rock by the river during a summer dayHave you ever asked yourself, “What am I trying to say here?” or, “Why do I sound like I’m making my case to a courtroom judge? This is my partner (or friend)!” A small sense of discomfort and being out-of-joint with yourself may be telling you to pause and reflect. It is worthwhile to do so because effective communication begins with self-awareness.

Differentiation is more than a marketing term about finding your value as compared to competitors in the field. In psychology, this refers to your sense of self-knowing your perspective, thoughts, values, feelings, and desires. It also means articulating your thoughts and emotional needs in a way that is congruent, exposing who you truly are.

The next level of differentiation is developing awareness of your partner as separate and different. Building on this, one can cultivate the ability to listen, hear, and respond effectively to differences. Yet another level of differentiation is creating an environment in the relationship that supports desired changes.

You may have heard it said, “How are they supposed to know what you need when you don’t know what you need?” Well, this is an oversimplification—while the responsibility for your feelings ultimately resides with you, sometimes it is exactly by talking through our feelings and perceptions that we uncover what is needed. And it may not result in a conclusion that you need this from your partner. To treat communication as a declaration of truth shrinks the conversation space and misses out on the potential for good dialogue to illuminate information and experiences that would otherwise go unnoticed. In other words, it is OK to learn new things about yourself and for yourself with your partner.

What is not as helpful is to try and impose personal feelings and interpretations on someone else. Stay on your side of the net; express “I” statements about how the situation or dialogue is feeling to you, what you think is important about it, why you want to talk about it—your main intention for having the dialogue. Refrain from “you” statements where you tell your partner what their thoughts, feelings, and truths are or blaming them for your differences.

Then ask open-ended questions: “Who does this happen with?” “What are you feeling when it happens?” “Where in our relationship did this start to be an issue?” “How do you respond when this is going on?” Questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no” are often leading and laced with our personal agenda about what is true.

Some of us grow up in “enmeshed” families—where there is a lot said and yet very little understood or changed about the issue. Stressed-out families may get polarized and have family members stuck in a role: the authority, the rebel, the hero. Try writing down the typical responses of each of these characters. For example: “I know what is best,” “Anything but the way it was last time,” or, “We just have to work harder.” Now exchange scripts. Try on a new role! You might be amazed by how right you feel after a while, voicing the other perspective from where you have been standing.

Why is this? Typically, there is some truth to each side of a situation and each person ends up standing for an aspect of the truth, rather than holding the complexities and trade-offs within and together. This can lead to antagonistic, stuck interchanges that ultimately preserve the status quo. Yet when we can engage in perspective-taking through careful dialogue and appreciation of difference, something new may emerge—a creative, third, or heretofore unknown point of view.

Imagine you had to describe your partner’s/friend’s/coworker’s inner experience so well that a stranger would know what it is like to be that person in the difficult situation. If you cannot make this complete description, painting a picture of facts and emotions and thoughts and concerns like a professional journalist would, then you have not asked all the questions that need to be asked.

For a moment, set your agenda aside and get curious. What if I were that person? What would it feel like? What would I think? What would I want to know? What would my dream outcome be? Now, this is not to mean that you drop yourself; rather, that you go to the other side of the mirror for a minute and know what it is like. When two people have this level of understanding, there is often more common ground than they originally thought when the difference arose.

Together, between the two of you, try to keep all of the intelligence and information with you as you think about your difference. Understand the dreams, the symbolic meaning underneath the issue for one another. Then, you may find your way to a solution that will last.

Murray Bowen, professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University and pioneer in family systems theory, defined differentiation as “the degree of resilience to the interpersonal contagion of anxiety.” Developing this resilience can be a lifelong process of growth, and it creates many benefits for us as individuals, family members, and partners. We become more confident in ourselves—without becoming rigid—and more able to handle stress together as a team. It may feel awkward to hold differences in this way, but it pays dividends in how rich and robust our lives and relationships can become as we continue to grow.

How does good dialogue and communication feel to you? What are your effective behaviors when this is happening? What qualities and attitudes are helpful? Please share your questions and comments below.


  1. Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Aronson.
  2. Bader, E. (n.d.). Utilize the initiator-inquirer process in couples therapy. The Couples Institute. Retrieved from
  3. Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2010). Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find—and keep—love. New York: Penguin Group.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Melinda Douglass, PsyD, Communication Problems Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • linda g

    October 1st, 2014 at 9:29 AM

    I have often told my husband that if he could only read my mind then he and would get along perfectly!@
    But I say that laughing because there is nothing in the wedding vows that states that you have to be able to read your spouse’s mind, and I am ptettty sure that I can’t readd his! So why I expect him to be some superhero and read mine is beyond what any partner should feel as if they have to do.
    There is a great lesson in all of this in that we have to learn to speak up, speak our minds, and be clear as to what our ideas and expectations are. If we can’t articulate then how is someone esle supposed to figure out exactly what it is that we need?

  • Zane

    October 1st, 2014 at 3:45 PM

    I do find that when I try to see the situation form the other side and put myself in her shoes that there are times when I understand maybe a little more deeply what she is feeling and how what she is feeling can be the truth in her eyes.

    I am not saying that I will then agree with it but once I allow myself to see things from her side then it becomes a little easier to face the issue not so much in anger but in a way that encourages us to actually talk it through instead of clamming up and getting absolutley nothing resolved.

  • Buck

    October 2nd, 2014 at 3:45 AM

    My mom and dad always made being married look so easy but now that I am actually married myself I see how hard they must have had to work on things behind the scenes.
    Love does not automatically happen and everything fall into place, and now I know that while we were all just goofing off and being kids, they were doing thr hard work of providing for us and having a stable home life for us to enjoy and experience.
    My only wish is that maybe they wouldn’t have always made things look so easy so that the rest of us could have had a better idea of just how hard they were working and we could have appreciated it and learned from it a little more.

  • mena

    October 2nd, 2014 at 1:35 PM

    I know that I have a real problem with differentiation in that I say one thing but might be thinking or feeling something totally different. Not sure whay I react this way in certain situations but I think that a lot of it comes down to the fact that I don’t want to disappoint anyone and I am afraid that If I say what I really think or feel then they won’t like me as much as they will if I just agree with them.

  • Marie

    October 2nd, 2014 at 8:52 PM

    I specifically asked for help in our communication in couples counseling. I know we have difficulty with this every day and it has to change to enable us to move forward – we’re stuck in old habits and cannot work through our issues until we communicate better. I feel our therapist isn’t much help in assisting us. I feel I get more guidance and specifics out of the columns here. I am not sure how to articulate this to him without sounding like I am telling him how to do his job.

  • Hammond

    October 3rd, 2014 at 1:44 PM

    I know that this will probably get the boo-hiss from the ladies but I kind of think that if this person is my soul mate then she should know what i am thinking before I even have to say it.
    Asking a little much?

  • paulette

    October 4th, 2014 at 4:58 AM

    you have to think about the fact that you need to be truthful with yourself before you can expect another to be truthful with you

  • Claudia

    October 6th, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    I do not ever wish to be part of a relationship where I feel like I am not listening to my spouse and he is not listening to me.

    And yet we have a whole lot of frineds who seem to get stuck in these kinds of relationships, where everything is always very one sided and no one is paying attention to the others needs.

    When you find the right perosn in your life I think that you will see that communication is definitely a two way street, and that there always has to be a little bit of give and a little bit of take.

    Kind of the best advice about marriage as a whole when you think about it.

  • metoo

    November 21st, 2014 at 10:51 AM

    “where there is a lot said and yet very little understood or changed about the issue.” that is soooooooooooooooooo my family!!! That is why i pretty much avoid them now nothing ever changes with them.

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