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.

  1. Very good advice Lili—KTN, a very helpful way to conduct ourselves. Thanks for sharing

    Bonnie E

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks to you, Lili, and others who share similar messages, I’ve started recognizing what an awful person I must be to live with, and realizing that I really need to change. In analyzing why I’m mean to my spouse, I’ve identified a number of factors. One is that it’s learned behavior – it gets passed from generation to generation unless we stamp it out. Another more subtle reason is that I get frustrated with having to explain so many things that I think my spouse should know or be able to figure out. I suppose I assume that she thinks the way I do and has had the same experiences I’ve had or something. And, unfortunately, instead of handling the situation with humor or just by simply explaining, I react with sarcasm. Ouch! Gotta change!

  3. Laura says:

    Where I sometimes struggle is in keeping remarks True. Not that I’m a liar, but sarcasm and irony have become a big part of communication in today’s world. Of course, this also becomes a problem with being kind. It’s so easy to say what you don’t mean and expect to be understood – and then get frustrated or upset when you’re not. I find it helpful to focus on the actual words you say to make sure they communicate your meaning – and not rely on tone or other means of delivery to communicate your meaning. This has helped me be nicer because it is much harder for me to say something overtly rude.

  4. Stan says:

    Funny the things that stick in our minds. I still remember a few things from seminary, mostly from my junior and senior years (thanks to two, phenomenal teachers).

    The KTN principle really is a good one. I ought to run that by my kids. They’re generally pretty good, but… we all know how kids can be at times.

    It’s very interesting that a mere 15 minutes of chat can give a trained ear a 90% accuracy for predicting longer-term marital survival; that’s more than a little telling. It gets me wanting to try it.

    The 5-to-1 ratio is something my wife and I had heard in a marriage class presented by a couple of BYU professors who live in our stake, and they applied that to parent-child relations as well. I think I’ve done okay in the marriage setting, but… I still need work on giving my kids more positives (I *know* I’m nowhere close to 5-to-1 with some of my older kids).

    Thanks for the post. 🙂

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