By Preston Morgan

Communication is like the small tablespoon of salt in the recipe for bread. For the unlucky ones who have made bread without adding salt, the bread tastes horrible. Even though it may look like a perfect loaf of bread.

This has often made me think of how such a small thing can impact the entire recipe of something. Several years ago, I witnessed a couple who overlooked and misunderstood that “tablespoon of salt” in their relationship by failing to have healthy communication.

The couple — we’ll call them Bob and Janet — appeared liked an average rural couple from the backwoods in the Midwest. Bob was generous and good-natured, yet at times came across critical and irritable. Janet was calm and even-tempered, yet worried easily and was temperamental. One evening, they invited me to have dinner with them. We were having small talk when their cat entered the room. The evening took a drastic turn. Good-natured Bob immediately reached for the cat and spanked it, and even-tempered Janet snapped at Bob’s behavior. In what seemed like an instant, this delightful couple erupted into quarrel. They soon forgot that I was in the room as they exclaimed their feelings and opinions about having a cat in the house. This argument soon evolved into their personal views about their youngest son’s problems. Within a few short moments, Bob was yelling, Janet was crying, and I had just happened to be the guest that witnessed this fight. Needless to say, it was a short dinner visit.

This argument has puzzled me for years. I wondered simply why neither one was listening to the other. Both were saying what they thought, expecting the other to listen. Ultimately, I questioned why they could not communicate well with each other. Is it because of some differences in how male and females communicate, or is it because of their personality?

Research has shown gender to have some influence on our communication. However, personality differences have proven to be a greater influence. Several decades ago, two researchers, Robert McCrae and Paul Costa, developed the Big Five Personality Traits. The first is neuroticism, which is how likely one is to experience unpleasant emotions, such as anxiety and insecurity. The second is extroversion, which is one’s preference for social interaction. The third is openness to experience or simply being receptive to new experiences. The fourth is agreeableness, which is further explained by being good-natured and cooperative. And the fifth is conscientiousness, which is a big word for self-discipline and organization. It is important to note that these personality traits not only include the positive sides (some were listed with the trait), but also the negative.

Let me explain this by using Bob and Janet as an example. Bob has an agreeable personality trait where he is good-natured, but also can be irritable and critical. Janet has a neurotic personality trait, which is that she appears even-tempered, yet can be temperamental and emotional. This knowledge of personality differences is key. If Bob was to learn that his critical and irritable personality clashes with Janet’s emotional and temperamental personality. This would help explain why they do not communicate well.

Personality differences and gender communication differences help couples understand more of their relationship. One method I have found to be effective in improving communication is meta-communication. Simply put, meta-communication means communicating about communicating, or talking about how we talk. Honestly, it may seem weird at first, but have an open discussion about how your significant other prefers to communicate, or what is meant when he/she says a particular phrase. An example of this is a couple talking about how what one thought was sarcasm was not sarcasm to the other.

Again, with practice and patience of both parties, their communication or “salt” will help the relationship be a healthy loaf of bread.

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