In last week’s blog, I offered some tips on how to approach difficult conversations with your partner. Beginning a dialogue with empathy is an important part of effective communication. It is equally important to recognize how what you say is received by your partner.

Address the “Interpersonal Gap”

The Interpersonal Gap is the difference between what someone intends in communication and how it is received (as described by John L. Wallen in the 1960s). One of you says something with a certain intent; you’re trying to communicate something to your partner. That message is affected by several factors. The lens and the language of you, the speaker, affect it. The message is impacted by the medium it flows through (think of trying to communicate in writing or over a bad phone connection). Additionally, it then filters through the lens of your partner. It hits your partner with a certain impact. If you or your partner has ever been triggered in conversation (reacting with a strong emotional response), then you know how much your filter (or your past experiences) can affect communication. The difference between your intent as the speaker and the impact on your partner as the listener is the Interpersonal Gap.

To address that gap, you need to take apart what happened. First, if you notice the reaction doesn’t match what you expected, that tells you there’s a gap. Each of you should slow down and go through the message again. Get clearer about what your intent was in delivering the message. Figure out what filters or sore spots were hit and why. Hear from your partner about what the impact was. Follow up on this until you really understand each other and understand what went wrong in the communication. Do your best to give your partner the benefit of the doubt in these situations. Some of the earlier strategies I discussed, like laying your cards down first and empathizing first, can help you do that.

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