Because I recently wrote an article about the importance of allowing ESL clients to express themselves in the course of therapy in their own language, I started thinking more about how the issue of language is so central to most forms of counseling, and even more so in couples and family counseling. I am not talking about couples of different linguistic background, but couples and families who speak the same language. What’s there to talk about, some might wonder!?
Well, it occurred to me that even though two people might speak the same language –their native language- they may have some very different understandings of what is being said, thus allowing room for misunderstandings and tensions.
This difference in understanding something other than what the speaker meant is easily observable in the counseling session when a husband reports that he needs to spend a little bit more time studying for his degree, and the wife understands that she will no longer be his top priority. The members of a couple speak the same language but somewhere along the way, there’s a gap that allows for miscommunication and misunderstanding. Is it the tone that might change the meaning of words? Nonverbal cues? What is this gap and how do we, as counselors, manage to help our clients become aware of this issue and aid them in finding a good solution to better, more effective communication.
Now, this idea is certainly not new, so a few months ago I attempted an experiment. I decided that instead of just listening to my husband talk and assuming I understand what he means, I will make a point of asking him for further clarification. I do this not when I ask “what do you want for dinner?” –although I probably should since the answer most of the time seems to be I don’t know- but when we talk about work, us, etc. It may sound like a very arduous and redundant process but it’s not. I am not rigid in my attempts and I usually don’t request a formal definition of the words he is using; rather, I ask for clarification…and it works. As a result of my little experiment I am now able to truly understand his meaning of words and indeed, there are many times when I am surprised of just how incorrect my understanding would have been should I have relied on my own assumptions.
Misunderstandings and lack of communication are some of the main reasons why couples come in for counseling. So many times our clients are completely unaware of the dynamics of communication and the fact that even though they may speak the same language, they really don’t have the same understanding. Approaching a couple’s communication from this perspective and helping them actively become aware of this phenomenon might actually help widen their horizons of understanding.
Diana C. Pitaru is a counselor-in-training, and a student at Walden University. Her theoretical interests are in Gestalt, Art, and Narrative therapy while focusing on multicultural issues and eating disorders.