When I took Randy Fujishin’s Improving Relationships Through Communication course as part of my Communication Studies certificate in Fall 2007, it expanded my understanding of communication and gripped my interest with a preoccupation that has continued to this day.
People ask me what led me to pursue a master’s in counseling psychology. It’s a challenging question to answer, because there are so many reasons. But I think the interest was first ignited in that elective communications class in 2007. The intersection of communication and relationships continues to fascinate me, challenge me, perplex me, and frustrate me.
The other day, a friend made a very insightful observation about the “culture shock” of communication in relationships. Just like the culture shock we experience when visiting another country for the first time, there is a similar disorientation (and orientation) that happens in those first months of getting to know someone new. We are so used to our patterns, our ways of thinking and communicating, our views on the world, that we experience a shock to the system when we discover that another person is, in fact, a different person. It’s like discovering that both 2+2 and 1+3 equal 4. The end result is the same, but the process of getting there is different. Or even discovering that 2+2=4 and 3+4=7. Two different and equally correct end results.
Successful, healthy, growing relationships are predicated on a willingness to experience that culture shock and walk through it. What makes sense to you may not make sense to me because it’s different from how I’ve always thought about it. But as I learn to understand why it makes sense to you, then I can appreciate a new way of thinking about it.
In my experience, it is incredibly sad when one or both parties in a relationship are not willing to embrace the “culture shock” of learning how to relate to and communicate with the other person. It is a kind of rejection that chooses ignorance over insight and willingly pushes others away rather than drawing closer in an effort to understand.
The initial culture shock wears off, if you give it time coupled with a patient heart and an open mind. But to truly become a “native” of someone else’s culture takes long-term effort and a willingness to be surprised later on down the road as unexpected new information is gained. Relationships have the potential to be life-long learning processes – if you are just willing to sit with the process, even when the unknowns are uncomfortable or even scary, and embrace the changes as they come:
“One certainty I can guarantee you about any relationship is this — relationships change. No healthy relationship remains the same forever because people change. We get older, more experienced. We learn new things about ourselves and life in general. Our comfort zones expand to encompass new territory, and things that used to frighten or intimidate us no longer pose the same threat. Because we have changed, the morning of a relationship is much different from the afternoon of the relationship. It changes still in the twilight of life, because people change. Whether it is changing jobs, changing diapers, or changing opinions, each of us will continue to rethink, readjust, and reshape who we are.
Flexibility will make your journey through relationships more enjoyable and successful. Your willingness and ability to bend and adjust are essential in providing your relationship with the room to grow and develop as it should. Without flexibility, you will suffocate and strangle the bond that holds you and your loved one together.” (Fujishin, 2003, pp 6-7, emphasis added)
One of my favorite take-aways from that Improving Relationships class was the 80/20 rule. For better or for worse, I’ve used this rule to give friends perspective about their relationships and to maintain my own perspective. In fact, I’m such a fan of it, that I started to wonder if I’d just made it up, or reinterpreted it to mean what I wanted it to mean, and there wasn’t actually any basis to it. So, when I was doing my reading for class today, and I got to a paragraph that talked about the 95/5 rule, which is basically identical to the 80/20 rule, only even more optimistic, I felt like this kernel of knowledge that I’ve been carrying around for the past 8 years, dispensing to whoever will listen, was finally validated.
Here is Professor Fujishin’s definition of the 80/20 rule:
“Although no relationship is perfect, I believe that 80 percent of a healthy relationship is working at any given time and only 20 percent of the relationship is not. I call this my 80/20 rule. The trouble is that we tend to focus our attention on the 20 percent that is not working and ignore all the wonderful aspects of a relationship that are working. We sabotage the relationship by choosing to focus on the negative. A healthier choice is to concentrate more of our attention on the 80 percent.” (Fujishin, 2003, p. 5)
Here is my textbook’s version:
“Couples with relationship difficulties can be helped if they focus more on the areas where things are going well — what remains good about the relationship. Many couples focus on the 5% where they disagree and fail to note the 95% where they have been successful or enjoyed each other. Some couples respond well when asked to focus on the reason they got together in the first place. These positive strengths can help them deal with difficult issues.” (Ivey, 2014, p. 174)
This has become so ingrained into how I view relationships that when people toss around justifications like “incompatibilities vs. compatibilities” or that “checklist” they have to determine the right person or “different ways of communicating,” I kind of feel like this.
And then I want to ask them, “What is the percentage of incompatibilities to compatibilities?” and “What if they only fulfill 80 out of the 100 requirements on your checklist?” and “Since when did you expect everyone to communicate the same way you do?”
And then I start spouting Tolstoy: “‘If one loves, one loves the whole person as he or she is, and not as one might wish them to be'” (Tolstoy, 1998, p. 610), and people give me funny looks. Whatever. That quote was definitional for me the first time I read it, and it has continued to be the lens through which I seek to view my relationships.
When I was reviewing Randy Fujishin’s book for the 80/20 rule, I came across another section that goes hand-in-hand with the 80/20 rule. It speaks to this same principle of recognizing that no one is communicating perfectly all the time, and then reorienting your focus to the positive rather than the negative.
“Most people think in terms of how communication affects them personally. They ask, ‘Is that right or wrong (from my point of view)?’ ‘How does that affect me?’ ‘What will others think of me?’ ‘What do I think?’ ‘What do I feel?’ and ‘What should I say or do?’ The focus of these questions is on them. Is this necessarily bad? No. We need to evaluate the communication of others and explore our responses to the words and behaviors of others. But it is unhealthy to overemphasize a self-centered stance to all communication, especially when you remember that we are all imperfect human beings with a limited time to live and love. When we always ask self-centered questions, we tend to see more negative than positive, more wrong than right. This affects how we see and feel about ourselves. Instead, we need to disengage from ourselves and focus more on others, shift the spotlight from ourselves to others. When we replace our self-centeredness with other-centeredness, our inner questions change correspondingly. Instead of asking how everything affects us, we ask questions such as: ‘How does that affect him?’ ‘How does this make her feel?’ ‘What does he think?’ ‘What does this say about her?’ ‘How does he see this situation?’ and ‘Who is this person?’ By shifting our focus of attention to others, we tend to forget about ourselves. In this forgetting is freedom from our usual preoccupation with ourselves. James MacNaughton said, ‘Maturity begins to grow when you sense your concern for others outweighs your concern for yourself.'” (Fujishin, 2003, p. 18, emphasis added)
And yet the paradoxical question remains: why do I still struggle so much to communicate well in relationships?
Because it is a process. Because it is culture shock, over and over. Because I am self-absorbed. Because I am learning, and will always be learning. And until I find someone who is willing to sit in the unfamiliar spaces with me and learn alongside me and be patient with the process — until I find that person who will struggle with me, I will continue to find myself in situations of struggling against. Against unrealistic expectations. Against ideals of perfection. Against unwillingness to understand or be understood.
After all, relationships are like one continuous lesson in communication. And the key to success starts with a willingness to learn.
Fujishin, R. (2003). Gifts from the Heart: 10 Ways to Build More Loving Relationships (2nd ed., pp. 6-7). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Ivey, A., Ivey, M., & Zalaquett, C. (2014). Intentional Interviewing and Counseling: Facilitating Client Development in a Multicultural Society (8th ed., p. 174). Pacific Grove, Calif.: Brooks/Cole Pub.
Tolstoy, L. (1998). Anna Karenina (p. 610). Oxford: Oxford University Press.