There is something rather ironic about the fact that the philosopher most credited for work in the field of language-based communication is an Austrian philosopher with a speech impediment.
In his time, Ludwig Wittgenstein put out two bodies of work observing language and it's use as a tool for communication. In the first work, he proferred that language in communication is used to paint pictures in the mind of others; a way of expressing the pictures we have in our head. The better we are at painting, the better we are from the giving end of the communication spectrum. This is why on reading a book that makes it easy for you to paint in your head, you likely fall in love with the writer for their use of great imagery.
On the receiving end, there is also a task in deciphering what message is sent to us, and again, we are able to do this to different degrees. For example, your partner might say that they need some space— hopefully, you understand that they have no intention of joining a space program and most obvious, physical space isn’t what they are referring to. On most occasions, the need for space is in reference to a partner feeling stifled in a mental or emotional sense.
A lot of the time we read this as rejection because, in our own world, we are so awesome that there can be no such thing as an overdose of our awesomeness. If I may be permitted a pun, more often than not, we get the wrong picture. But we shouldn't grieve much, this problem doesn’t start with us as listeners. In the limitation of language, words often cannot express what we exactly mean. With this, and the speaker's inability to succinctly grasp the picture in their mind, conflict is almost inevitable.
On his second body of work, he realised the analogy of picture was good, but it left some space for further explanation. This time he used the analogy of games. For example, you say to a worried friend after an exam, “don’t worry, you will do well.” You have no way of knowing they haven’t drawn more doodles on the paper than they gave answers, but to meet their emotional needs, you play the reassurance game. Your friend might misread the game and go on to tell you how they only attempted two question from five, but that is hardly the point you tried to make.
In relationships, it's never helpful that we often fall prey to the trap of assuming our partner should know better and instinctively understand the pictures we paint or the games we play. In addition to this, there is the problem of our emotional states while communicating.
For example, on a happy day, you are more likely to absorb a critical comment than you are on a day when you've been particularly stressed. When we find ourselves in bouts of anxiety and depression, our ability as speakers and listeners is also impaired.
Most times, we often find ourselves very trusting that our partner would be experts at managing emotions— even when we can see they are barely holding it together themselves. This expectation can sometimes be a tall order that forces our partner to silence because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. (The famous example of a lady asking if she looks fat in a dress is probably most appropriate here.) However, outside of straightforward issues like physical appearance, we can find ourselves hesitant to express the fact we feel our partner behaves inappropriately in public; we fear this might rub off them the wrong way, emotionally. In adult relationships, such barriers have to be broken. In the sense that we lower expectations and prepare to be hurt sometimes. We tend to fiddle with the assumption that any negative feeling generated from a partner is a sign that things aren’t going as they are supposed to. On the contrary, conflict in communication is not just normal but also a necessity for certain types of growth.
In our egotistic and paradoxically self-pitying ways, we often consider ourselves undoubtedly lovable, with our jagged edges and broken corners.
This mentality often makes us deter any line of communication that tries to get us to change our habits. We get the picture that our partner doesn’t love us just the way we are, that this disqualifies them or at least puts a dent in their CV for the job. Adopting a more elastic mindset— that there are parts of us that need to be changed— and making room for our partners to communicate their grievances can also go a long way. Not to mention, when giving room for our partner to help us improve also means they are more likely to give us room to help them on the two-way street that is communication.
Watch this video that emphasises better, the limits of language in communication
Lastly, the hidden communication killer for so many is the assumption that because you know how your partner thinks, you always know what they mean. It is understandable why we do this: As a species, we are built to identify everything by association. This makes it difficult to take some things at face value without assigning other values to it based off the person you imagine your partner to be. This can create a constant filter that channels all their statement through one lens, ultimately leading to a complete breakdown in communication. We do this a lot because we fail to realise that people are dynamic and by result, contradictory. We are always changing and we need our past selves to sometimes be let go of to allow us mould into newer selves. Overall, communication like any other skill requires some level of mastering. It is a building-block process that requires units of patience, understanding and once in a while, forgiveness. Oh! There's one other thing: Empathy. Lots and lots of it.