It’s Not Just Communication

Years ago, I met with a husband and wife who had been married for about ten years and who had four children. They were ready to file for divorce, but their bishop had made them promise to meet with a counselor a few times before doing so. Not exactly a promising beginning. Nevertheless, I asked them what, if anything, might save their marriage. They both agreed that their problem was communication. After our initial meeting, I met with each spouse individually and then we had another session all together. I began by telling them that their problem was not communication. They were surprised and rather indignant. “Yes, it is!” they protested. “No, it’s really not,” I maintained. “Well, what is it, then?” they challenged.” My answer: “You’re mean to each other.” I continued, “You’re actually communicating quite effectively, but the substance of your communication is pretty nasty, and it’s destroying your marriage.”

Of course, communication is important in all healthy relationships, but sometimes “communication issues” become a convenient cover-up for just not being nice to each other.

I attended four years of seminary during high school (the LDS/Mormon Church encourages students to participate in a scripture study class during high school years). I honestly don’t remember much from those classes (a sobering realization, considering I later taught seminary for 5 years in Las Vegas). But I do remember, I think from my 9th grade class, that a teacher, whose name and face I have long forgotten, wrote the letters “K – T – N” on the board one day and said, “We should never say anything unless it meets these three criteria: kind, true, and necessary. I won’t claim to have adopted that as a policy right away and I don’t claim to be perfect at it still, but it stuck in my mind.

I used that with my own children as they were growing up. Sometimes when the dinner table (or any other setting) got too negative, I would remind them, “Hey, guys, KTN. Nobody say anything that isn’t KTN.” Such dictums were followed by long periods of silence. Then one child would venture, “Well . . . uh, no, forget it.” We needed more practice. Sometimes the kids would challenge, “What if it’s true and necessary, but not kind?” My answer, “Then we’re being lazy. There’s always a kind way to say it.” Another challenge, “What if it’s kind and true but not necessary?” Wrong again; if it’s kind and true, it’s always necessary; no one hears enough kind and true things about themselves.

Psychologist John Gottman studies marriage. He found that by just listening to a couple talk to each other for an hour, he could predict with 95% accuracy if they would stay married or divorce within 15 years. Just 15 minutes of observation only reduced accuracy to 90%. He based his prediction on the ratio of positive to negative communication. The ratio he looked for was 5 to 1 positive communications—respectful, caring, kind, gentle.

I’ll never forget a line from a M*A*S*H episode, years ago: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can tear my heart out.” Think about it. And start counting.