Interpersonal Communication: It's not about the


My husband does not like coffee.

I love the “idea” of coffee.

Remember those International House of Coffee commercials where the couple would connect over a romantic cup of coffee – their slogan…”celebrate the moments of your life”?

I still imagine those results over a cup of coffee.

So, the other day, as we strolled through town, we came upon an adorable coffee shop.

I asked my husband, “Do you want to stop for a cappuccino?”

What do you suppose was his reply?

(Keep in mind my opening comment.)

“No thanks.”

What do you suppose was my reaction?

Of course, I was mad!

I was angry because, the implication to me was, that he doesn’t love me enough to stop for a cappuccino! (I know, it sounds crazy to some of you, but it happens to all of us, so read on...)

Meanwhile, he was thinking, “What’s wrong, all I said was that I don’t want a cappuccino?”

Georgetown University linguist, Deborah Tannen would say that this is an example of gender differences in communication. Whereas, this does seem to be representative of a generalization of gender differences, I think that it represents communication style differences that can be attributed to both males and females.

What does this mean?

All communication encounters have a content message and a relational message.

The content message is the literal meaning of the message. In this situation, the content message was, simply, is coffee wanted (yes or no). The relational message was what each of us interpreted the message to imply about our relationship. To me this was that my husband did not care enough about me to stop for a cappuccino.

Content and Relational Messages

Some people tend to focus on the content message; others focus more on the relational message. What each of us focuses on at a given time will depend on a variety of context factors, including our history with the other person, our interpretation of nonverbal cues, and our current state of mind. During this encounter, I focused on my interpretation of the relational message, whereas, my husband responded to the content message. As a result, we each ended up in bad moods and our afternoon was ruined.

How could this have gone differently?

If we recognize that individuals have different communication styles, then we can adapt how we speak with them for improved clarity. Knowing that in this type of situation, my husband tends to focus on the content message, I can then phrase my comment to meet both our needs. For example, the better question in this scenario would have been: “I would like a cappuccino, would you mind if we stop in here?”

How can this help me?

Think about how recognizing content and relational messages and an individual’s propensity to react to one or the other can significantly improve your ability to communicate by reducing misunderstanding and conflict.

Share your experiences

How can understanding your own and other’s communication style alter the way you communicate at home and in the workplace?

When have you experienced conflict as a result of content message versus relational message interpretation?

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