Building a Strong Communication Climate
About the Guest
How is your communication climate these days? Are you and your spouse enjoying sunny skies or would “partly cloudy” better describe your conversations? Communication expert Tim Muehlhoff talks about the conditions that are conducive to great marital communication.
Tim MuehlhoffTim Muehlhoff (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, where he teaches classes in family communication, interpersonal communication, persuasion, and gender. He is the author of I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting, and the coauthor of The God Conversation, Authentic Communication, and Winsome Persuasion, which received a 2018 Christianity Today...more
How is your communication climate these days?
Building a Strong Communication Climate
Bob: Good communication is obviously important for a marriage to work well but there are times when effective communication can be difficult because emotions are involved and because we just don’t have all the components we need in place for good communication to happen. Here’s Dr. Tim Muehlhoff.
Tim: One component is what we call acknowledgement. I simply acknowledge you as a person and your feelings and opinions. Now that’s hard to do legitimately, especially if we feel like we’re hurried or “this is my anniversary dinner and I would like to get around to enjoying it and right now this is a huge hindrance. You’re being upset for some mystical Bermuda triangle reason.”
Sometimes I say to men “It’s like playing emotional jeopardy. Yes, I’ll take hidden emotions for ten, please!” You know? That can be frustrating.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, January 18th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Does communicating with one another ever get frustrating at your place? We’ll see if we can offer a little help today.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us.
I had kind of a blustery date night the other night. It just did not go well as a date night. Have you ever had those date nights?
Bob: It just went south. Have you had nights like those? Where you go out for a date…
Dennis: Oh yeah, especially when we were in the thick of raising teenagers! You go out with the idea of maybe a little connectivity, a little spark in the romance, a little warm time and then it turns south and starts heading to problem-solving.
Bob: Well, in this case with us this was a postponed anniversary dinner.
Dennis: Oh, you finally got around to that!
Bob: Yes. We couldn’t do it on our anniversary so it was… We kept looking for a time and finally we’ll do this, our postponed anniversary dinner. So we went out for a nice meal. The problem was I was leaving to go out of town the next day. I was preoccupied with what had gone on at work that day and I was preoccupied with…
Dennis: Thinking about what was about to happen.
Bob: …with what was coming up and what I needed to do to get ready.
Dennis: And Mary Ann, being the sensitive, perceptive woman that she is…
Bob: She was actually hoping for a little more connectivity, a little more emotional engagement…
…than occurred that evening. By the end of the evening I had kind of blown her whole expectations for what our night together was going to be like and, yeah, it was not a good night.
In fact I was thinking maybe she and I ought to take advantage of the special offer that we’re making for FamilyLife Today listeners and the two of us sign up for a Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway, one where I’m not speaking, and just take a weekend and work through some of these issues.
This week and next week we’re making available to FamilyLife Today listeners a special opportunity for you to attend an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. We’ve got more than four dozen of them happening this spring in cities all around the country. If you sign up this week or next week and identify yourself as a FamilyLife Today listener, just by using my name, either write “BOB” in the key code box on the registration form or when you call in say “I listen to FamilyLife Today and Bob told me to call,” you and your spouse can attend one of these upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaways. It’s a buy one, get one free. You pay for your registration and your spouse coming absolutely free.
So you can do that online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Again type “BOB” in the key code box on the registration form to quality for this special offer. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY and just mention that you’d like to attend a Weekend to Remember and that you heard us talking about it on FamilyLife Today and you will qualify for the special offer. It’s a buy one, get one free for an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaway.
These are kicking off in another couple of weeks and will continue throughout the spring. So if folks want to know when a conference is coming to a city near where they live, they can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com for more information or call us, again at 1-800-FL-TODAY.
If Mary Ann and I do get out to an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaway, maybe we’ll wind up at a getaway where our guest on the program today is going to be speaking.
Dennis: One of the speakers who speaks at our conferences is Tim Muehlhoff. He joins us on FamilyLife today. Tim, welcome back.
Tim: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Dennis: Tim is a doctor. He has a doctorate from the University of North Carolina in…Bob…communications!
Bob: I think we should just call him Dr. Tim. Kind of like Dr. Phil!
Dennis: Dr. Tim.
Bob: He can be our Dr. Tim!
Dennis: Think about getting your doctorate in communications and being married. (laughter)
What are you going to do with that? Well, you’re going to write a book, that’s what you’re going to do. Out of all the great times of communication you and your wife Noreen have had during the past, what, two decades? How long have you been married?
Tim: Twenty years.
Dennis: Twenty years. Well, you have three sons (and there’s another reason why the communication ought to be a challenge), ages sixteen, fifteen, and twelve. There is a lot of activity taking place in your family.
Tim is also the Associate Professor of Communication at Biola University in Southern California and, also, Tim and Noreen speak at our Weekend to Remember marriage getaways and have been on the team for a number of years. He’s written a book called Marriage Forecasting.
Now I want to ask you, for Bob, where’s the hope here? Because marriage forecasting was a little chilly…
Bob: Cloudy and a little chilly…
Dennis: …on Bob’s date. What advice are you going to give to Bob in the midst of a very practical situation like that?
Tim: Well, you know communication theorists have believed that there are communication climates that are just as real as anything that happens outside your door. And a huge part of a communication climate is expectations. So heading into that dinner, whatever your wife’s expectation for that dinner, really set the climate. When that started to go south, when she started to realize that she had a preoccupied husband that really affected the communication climate.
Just like, let’s say, you were trying to have that dinner outside and the temperature really started to shift, rain started to come in, the temperature really started to get cold, that would really affect your ability to enjoy dinner. Well, when the communication climate started to go south and it started to get chilly, absolutely. That shuts down all communication as if you’re trying to have dinner outside.
Bob: Here’s the thing. I could tell that she wanted engagement at a level that was more than we were having. I just couldn’t unplug enough to get there. I don’t think I’d done the right preparation on my own getting ready for this thing. I was just trying to squeeze this whole thing in to an already crowded schedule and hoped that we could find an island. But we got to the island and we couldn’t forget where we’d just come from or where we were going.
Dennis: Tim’s written a book called Marriage Forecasting and in that book you have a concept that would apply to Bob right here. It’s kind of being all there or “all in.” What’s the exact term you use?
Tim: It’s called mindfulness.
Tim: It can be “fully present in the moment” which is really hard for all of us. If you have teenage kids, if you have toddlers, if you’re a business person who travels a lot, it’s really hard. Add to it all of our technology. I’ve had times when I’m having lunch with my wife and I feel that vibration, knowing that I just got a text message.
Dennis: Oh, it’s not from holding her hand.
Tim: Of course it is, Dennis. Of course it is! But you know you’re never fully there and you’re always letting your mind wander and that’s just part of the technological age that we’re in. We have to really fight against that. Mindfulness is this idea that I try as much as humanly possible to actually be there. One of the things that we need to say to ourselves is a concept I actually got, not from a communication textbook, but actually from one of my favorite sports books.
One of my favorite sports books is a book called For the Love of the Game, Michael Sharra’s book. It’s a great story about a baseball pitcher called Billy Chapel who’s finishing his last game and he’s pitching a perfect game. As he’s getting closer to finishing this perfect game and the fans are going crazy, he’s realizing the magnitude of everything. So he literally says to himself over and over, “clear the mechanism, clear the mechanism.” In the movie that’s based on the book, it’s really cool. Suddenly the crown noise dissipates. Suddenly all the distractions really go to the background.
I really, literally, sometimes when I’m with my wife, have to say to myself silently, “clear the mechanism.” When it comes to work, hey, listen, clear that out of here. Thinking about things I need to do once I get back home, “clear the mechanism.”
So literally it’s that inner dialogue that’s saying, “Hey, listen. I’m with my wife right now. I don’t need to be thinking about work. I don’t need to be thinking about deadlines. I’m celebrating an anniversary with my wife. As much as humanly possible, I need to be fully present.” And, do things that communicate to my wife that I am here.
That could be things like taking her hand, eye contact. You know, 63 to 93 percent of all communication is non-verbal. So, again, if I’m looking over my shoulder at the CNN updates or the ESPN, that’s what kills me. That music to Sports Center comes on and my wife could be saying the most intimate thing to me like “Honey, I think I realized that as a child I was abducted by aliens” and the theme music comes on…
Tim: “Oh, but honey, wait.” And it doesn’t even matter what it is. It could be Yiddish shuffle boarding. And it’s like, “Did Yon get the red one?” You know! So again I have to say to myself “clear the mechanism.” If I don’t, you really notice that communication climate.
Bob: I have a friend of mine who said he used to, and I don’t know if he still does this or not, but he used to, on his drive home, he had a spot where he would pull off the road and just take five minutes to clear the mechanism. He’s stop and he’d think about “what’s my wife been doing all day? What have the kids been doing all day?” He would start to preplan. I thought about if I was going to a business meeting, I would kind of think about the environment. I would get ready for it.
Tim: That’s good.
Bob: But we don’t do that in our marital communication or as we reengage the home front.
Dennis: And I would add to that. I don’t want to get super spiritual here, but I’d encourage a man or a woman at that point to just pray. Ask God to help you clear the mechanism. Because if God exists, and He does, and if the Holy Spirit does energize us to be all there and to be transparent and be connected, then He can do that.
Now I want to ask you. That was good advice for a man who probably can clear the mechanism a little easier, perhaps because of how he’s wired, being a little more segmented in how we approach life.
How does a woman clear the mechanism? I’ve been involved in conversations with Barbara. She’s preoccupied and sometimes, especially early in our marriage, she couldn’t tell me what about. It may have been somehow I’d disappointed her or discouraged her or hurt her earlier in the day and she was upset but couldn’t tell me why she was upset. So to clear the mechanism for her was very difficult.
Tim: That’s where I would have to help her process. Because you’re right. Sometimes it’s hard for people to articulate exactly what is going on. “I know I’m upset but I can’t tell you exactly why I’m upset.” Now at that point you have a choice to make. Sometimes we just get frustrated. We say, “Well, this is ridiculous. You don’t’ even know why you’re upset at me and that’s making me more upset.”
Dennis: Oh yeah. Sure!
Tim: At that point there’s something we call communication spirals. I actually like that phrase because it can spiral out of control. We can get into a negative communication spiral . So I look at my wife, let’s say, who says “I’m upset with you but I’m not even sure why.” I can look at her and say “Well, that’s just ridiculous. Well, how about this. I’ll watch Sports Center. Get back to me when you figure it out.”
Tim: Okay. This is ridiculous!
Dennis: That works real well.
Tim: That’s not going to work well. It really won’t. I again have a choice to make, to sit with Noreen. One is to acknowledge the fact that she’s upset.
I remember some old advice I got from a marriage counselor saying feelings initially aren’t right or wrong. They just are. So I would look at my wife at this point and say, “You know, you are upset. You’re disappointed. Even if you can’t figure out why you’re upset or disappointed, those initial feelings are legitimate to you.”
We’re going to talk about the components of a communication climate. But one component that communication theorists feel is the most important component is what we call acknowledgement. I simply acknowledge you as a person and your feelings and opinions. So as that point simply acknowledging that your wife is upset without trying to figure it out…
Dennis: Without trying to fix it…
Dennis: That’s what’s caused the spiral in my relationship with my wife. Because as a man you try to fix it and she’s not ready to be fixed.
Tim: Or I become impatient with it. “Honey, come on. Tell me what’s wrong. Well, honey, I don’t know. Well, come on. Did I do this or did I do that?” This is a form of fixing it, right. Because I’m trying to speed her along to get to the root of why she is impatient.
We kind of have to back off a little bit and to ask probing questions. Try to get into the reasons why she might be upset. Now that’s hard to do legitimately, especially if we feel like we’re hurried or “this is my anniversary dinner and I would like to get around to enjoying it and right now this is a huge hindrance. You’re being upset for some mystical Bermuda triangle reason.”
Sometimes I say to men “It’s like playing emotional jeopardy. Yes, I’ll take hidden emotions for ten places.” You know. That can be frustrating!
So acknowledgement, though, is hugely important, to acknowledge whatever emotion my wife is feeling at that time. To get her the freedom to express what she needs to express. We’re going to need communication tools to do that, questions to ask. The freedom for her to have the talk stage, where she feels like she can express it and I’m not impatient for her to get around to it.
Dennis, I would go back and, not to over spiritualize it as well, no doubt during that time I need to stop and pray and say “Lord, your Word says I’m to put other people’s interests above myself and right now I’m not. I’m getting frustrated, annoyed with my wife, and no doubt, she’s picking up on that. So Lord give me patience right now. Help me to put my wife’s needs above my own and let me love her through patience and acknowledging her.”
And, by the way, the Harvard Negotiation Project said that any attempt you make to acknowledge another person, eye contact, nodding, questions, will often be seen as an affirmation and that that person will see that you are working to understand them and that no doubt they’ll see that as a very affirming form of communication.
Dennis: There’s a proverb that I’m thinking of right now. I don’t remember the address of it but it says “A man of many words comes to ruin.” And in marriage, over the years I wish someone would have pulled me aside in the first decade or two, of my marriage and put their arm around my shoulders and maybe their hands around my neck, perhaps, and looked me in the eye and said, “You know, young man, you really need to do what Tim is talking about right here. You just need to acknowledge her and affirm her.” That it’s okay that she doesn’t feel good or she didn’t get sleep or she’s frustrated or she’s disappointed and just say, “Boy, I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry.” And mean it. Don’t fake it because, if you fake it, that’s not going to work either. But to be able to look your wife in the eye and let her know it’s okay to have those feelings.
Bob: As I was thinking about what we were going to be talking about today, I was thinking how many of our communication challenges come from the fact that, as you say in your book, we don’t have the right tools in the tool box or how many of the communication challenges come because our heart’s not really in the right place in the first place? You know what I’m saying?
Bob: Because I have found that if my heart is as it ought to be, just as you said, I’m focused on preferring my wife above myself, where I see the responsibility I have as a husband to minister to her and connect with her, if my heart’s there, even if I’m clumsy with the tools, it usually works out okay. But if my heart’s not there and I try pulling the tools out of the toolbox, and just say I’ll try this technique or that technique, she can usually see through that. You know what I’m saying?
Tim: I do, Bob. I totally agree with that. I would add a third one to what you listed. Have the right tool and your heart has to be in the right place. But I would add a third one to that. The setting has to be right. You can have the right tool, your heart can be in the right place, but if the setting isn’t right then I’m sure that’s even going to work.
The book of Proverbs says that “a word spoken in the right circumstances, at the right time.” They actually compare it to a fine work of jewelry, Proverbs 25:11
Bob: Apples of gold in a setting. Perfect.
Tim: So that’s what the whole book is about, what Marriage Forecasting is about, taking a look at your marriage as a communication climate, building it up so that we can have productive conversations. Sometimes couples need to actually refrain from having a conversation until the climate is strong enough and then have the conversation.
Dennis: I was just thinking the same thing, Tim. In my marriage I would say the number one thing Barbara and I have argued the most about is schedule. Just simply making decisions about where we’re going to spend our time, whether it be vacation, what we’re going to do on the weekend. And in the mist of competing demands, which are many, I know on more than one occasion I’ve written Barbara an e-mail to say “sometime in the future let’s discuss “x” or the possibility of doing this speaking engagement or perhaps going here on a getaway.”
I then begin to measure with her how ready she is to have the discussion. I know for her any discussion around schedule creates pressure for her. It means getting ready to leave the kids that was back when we had children at home or it means getting the house ready for us to leave, to be able to go on vacation for a few days. It’s not that I don’t help with those things. I do.
Bob: Wait. Why do you have to get the house ready if you’re going on vacation? Why does the house have to be ready?
Dennis: Really. I think that way too, Bob. Seriously!
It’s how a man thinks and he’s seeing it as a very binary choice, yes or no. But I’ve had to learn there are times to engage my wife around a schedule decision if I have any hopes of getting g a yes, especially if it’s something I think she’s ultimately enjoy but right now she can’t even entertain it. Sometimes it’s not necessarily making your marriage strong enough to absorb the discussion. It’s back to picking the right time and really measuring what the climate is it at that point.
Tim: And not just waiting and hoping things improve. Picking a time and saying “okay, we’re going to talk about this because I know this is a delicate issue to talk about so let’s wait and I hope things will improve so that we can talk about it. But actually setting out and saying, “I’m going to actually work on our relationship and improve the climate” so that when we do sit down to talk about it, we have the best chance of having a productive conversation because I have systematically set out to improve our communication climate, based on the four components that make up every communication climate.
Again, a lot of study has been done on what comprises a communication climate since the world of Jack Gibb in the early 1960’s. We actually have a lot of work that has been done on what composes a communication climate and how we can actually systematically improve it and strengthen it.
Dennis: You know, really quickly, we we’re going to have to unpack these later. What are those four components?
Tim: The four components are first, acknowledgement. How much do we acknowledge each other’s viewpoints and emotions? Second, would be expectations we have of each other. Third, would be the level of commitment between spouses. Lastly is trust.
Dennis: And all those are really skills that have to be built between a couple over a lifetime.
Bob: Well, there are relational dynamics that have got to be present in a relationship. Your conversation in marriage, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” So is your heart right toward your spouse and then are those dynamics present? Are those a part of how you’ve learned to communicate with one another.
You go into a lot of detail on this in your book Marriage Forecasting, Changing the Climate of Your Relationship One Conversation at a Time which we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today resource center.
If our listeners are interested they can go online to get a copy. Our website is FamilyLifeToday.com or they can call us at 1-800-FL-TODAY and ask for a copy of the book Marriage Forecasting. Again, the website, FamilyLifeToday.com or call toll free at 1-800-FL-TODAY.
Let me also remind our listeners and encourage them to come out for one of our upcoming FamilyLife Weekend to Remember marriage getaways. We’re going to be hosting more than fifty events in cities all around the country this spring and if listeners sign up this week or next week and register for an upcoming event, we’re offering a buy one, get one free opportunity for FamilyLife Today listeners and it’s good just this week and next week. So let me encourage you again to go online at FamilyLifeToday.com, register online. And the way you identity yourself as a FamilyLife Today listener is by typing my name in the key code box online. Type “BOB” in there. That’s all you need to do.
Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. We can answer any questions you have about the event and we can get you signed up over the phone. Just mention when you can that you listen to FamilyLife Today and you heard about our special offer. And again, it’s a buy one, get one free offer. You pay the regular registration fee for yourself and your spouse comes absolutely free. The toll free number, one more time, 1-800-FL-TODAY or register online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Now tomorrow we’re going to continue to talk about how we can improve the communication climate in our marriage with our guest this week, Dr. Tim Muehlhoff. I hope you can be back with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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