4 areas of communication breakdown in the presidential debate

Watching the 2nd presidential debate, I thought both candidates made some great points and showed they are both good public speakers and smart men. At the same time, there were some major points of communication breakdown going on during the debate, from rude interruptions other to outright insults. While this type of attacking makes more sense considering the debaters are opponents, their pitfalls are a good example of what not to do when when you communicate with your spouse.

Communication breakdown #1: Talking over each other

The most clear instance of communication breakdown was the shocking amount each debater spoke over and interrupted each other and the moderator. While what you have to say always seems urgent–and you may be itching to respond to something your partner said (especially in defense)–you must let your spouse finish before speaking. Interrupting breaks down communication and escalates the conversation into an argument.

On the flip side, it’s a good idea to talk in short segments. This makes it easier for your spouse to digest fully what you’ve just said and leaves room for thoughtful responses. In Power of Two we call this back-and-forth style of talking “braided dialog.” In addition, the longer you start monologuing about a subject, the more likely you are to repeat yourself, get confused, and get heated.

Communication breakdown#2: Repeating the same point

In preparing for the debate, both candidates had extensive coaching and strategized about the points they wanted to make. They knew what they wanted to say in response to every possible question. While this is good practice for a high-stakes debate, it doesn’t work for a conversation with your partner.

Knowing what you want to say–and having key points in mind–is useful for starting out. It gives you a plan to carefully word your concern and hit the most important areas. At the same time, the discussion should grow organically from there, with each mate responding to new information from the other. If you are not changing what you’re saying, you are not having a conversation.

Also, we tend to repeat ourselves when we don’t feel like we have been heard. Therefor, acknowledging your spouse’s point of view with a simple “Yes, I can see that,” before adding your own opinion is crucial for a satisfying conversation.

Communication breakdown prevents effective problem solving.

Communication breakdown #3: Speaking for each other

How many times did a candidate say “Mr. Romney wants…” or “Mr. Obama thinks…”? This violates the cardinal rule of effective conversations: stay in your lane. Don’t talk about what the other person thinks, wants, or does. Only speak about yourself. You have probably heard the advice  to speak in “I” statements and avoid “you” statements. In fact, it’s a good idea to even stay away from using “we”.

Why is this so important? As well as we think (and do) know our spouses, they always remain their own independent person. Telling them what they think crosses the boundary of “self” and questions their own personhood. Even relatively innocent or true statements can become triggers of rage when we feel like our individuality is threatened. The alternative: ask your spouse what he or she thinks or wants instead of presuming.

Communication breakdown #4: Spinning the topic

While the Town Hall Debate format is supposed to let the candidates address citizens’ specific concerns, there were few instances where Obama or Romney actually answered the question that was asked. Instead, both of them used the general topic to talk about their own platforms, sometimes veering way off topic in order to get across what they thought was important.

When you’re having a conversation with your spouse, it’s important to listen carefully to what he or she has to say and to respond directly to concerns and questions. Answering questions is the only way to move forward in the conversation and shows your spouse that you are listening and have respect for his or her concerns. Otherwise the “conversation” turns into a monologue.

Communication breakdown #5: Sarcasm and body language

Snide comments, eye-rolls, sighs, laughing…all these indicate that you are not taking your spouse seriously and can discourage her or make him angry. While it can be hard to control body language, keep in mind that up to 90% of communication is non-verbal and your spouse is definitely taking note. Make gentle eye contact, lean forward to show interest, and keep a neutral or pleasant expression. Our expressions and mental state are in a feed-back loop, meaning that the more calm you keep your appearance the more calm you may feel, and visa-verse.