Communicate What You Feel: How to be Understood

The Importance of Communication in Relationships

Good communication is of fundamental importance in intimate relationships. The ability to accurately differentiate between the internal experiences of feeling, thought and sensation is basic to this process.

The astonishing diversity of the English language allows many opportunities for misunderstanding. One example of this lack of precision is how the word "feel" can be used to express a number of quite different internal experiences.

It can refer to emotion -- "I feel upset about what just happened." It is often used colloquially to refer to a thought or belief: "I feel that the world would be a better place if . . . " It can also be used to refer to physical touch or bodily sensation: "I feel feverish." "This tabletop feels smooth."

Since "feelings" are central in intimate relationships, it is vital that we have a workable approach to speaking plainly, if we are to be understood by those who are important to us.

The Awareness Continuum: How It Works

Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, based his approach to clear and accurate communication on precise reporting of in-the-moment awareness. He believed that sharing one's present-tense awareness was the quickest route to self-knowledge and true intimate communication.

He stated that all internal experience could be categorized as arising from sensation, emotion, or thought. Clear communication requires that the person speaking about his experience accurately denote which category of information is being transmitted.

A way to practice these distinctions is to make statements beginning with variations of one of three phrases: "I see . . . "; "I feel . . . "; or "I imagine . . . ". Perls called this exercise the Awareness Continuum.

"I see . . . " refers to information taken in by the senses -- sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell. "I feel . . . " communicates internal states of emotion -- anger, hurt, sadness, joy. "I imagine . . . " describes mental acts -- thinking, believing, or imagining.

The person practicing the Awareness Continuum simply speaks aloud (or writes) his or her awareness of the moment-by-moment internal experiences that come to the forefront of conscious attention.

As an example of the Awareness Continuum, here is my current internal experience as I am writing these words:

I see the computer monitor on which these words are appearing; I feel the computer keys under my fingertips; I hear the clicking sound as I type. (Sensory Awareness)

I'm enjoying the process of describing the awareness continuum; I'm happy it's Friday afternoon; I'm worried that my son's birthday card won't reach him in time for his birthday. (Emotional Awareness)

I'm thinking about what to write next; I'm thinking that this writing needs to be particularly clear and understandable. (Awareness of Thoughts)

Although this exercise is artificial -- we don't usually speak this way to our loved ones! -- it is a useful way to practice the skill of speaking about our internal experience with precision.

In an intimate relationship accurate communication about emotions is of the utmost importance. We often make guesses about what our partner's mood or emotional state is -- based on observing minute non-verbal cues like a raised eyebrow, a certain look, a gesture or their tone of voice.

When these guesses are inaccurate (as they often are), elaborate chains of misunderstanding may develop as our incorrect inferences lead to responses which only amplify the confusion.

One way to sidestep this potential dilemma: when in doubt as to what your partner's mood or feeling is -- ask! And hopefully, they will share what's going on with them so that it is understandable and clear.

Experiment with the Awareness Continuum -- use it as a template to become more precise in your communication about your internal experience. I think you will reap the benefits of having fewer misunderstandings and more clear communication in your primary relationships!

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