Communicating with Text Messages; Don't Text While Driving!

I wonder how many therapy sessions have been spent focusing on the heated arguments that patients have had via text messages. People will engage in lengthy back and forth conversations with their significant other, family or friends that could last for hours. In all the countless times that patients have told me about or shared with me these strings of texts, never once has it gone well.

I believe that texting serves a valuable function, such as coordinating plans, locating each other when you are meeting up, scheduling an appointment, or sending a short "thinking of you" or a funny message with the requisite emoji. Other than in these instances, I find that attempting to have a serious conversation over text messaging is not fruitful. Ditto for Facebook, social media, and possibly even email. These mediums of communication are simply too apt for misunderstanding and an exacerbation of anger and hurt feelings. 

Something gets lost when you don't see or hear the person you are speaking with. Non-verbal communication and tone of voice give us such important information about the other person. We can learn a great deal from someone's body language and the way they sound that is much more comprehensive than you could possibly get from just reading the words that were sent to you. In the absence of such data, people are likely to "mind-read" and interpret the other person's intentions without having access to all the crucial information they would need to truly understand what is being conveyed.

It seems to me that people feel freed up to express difficult thoughts and feelings when there is some distance between them and the person they are talking to. This indirect means of communication may feel easier for many than to talk directly to the other person about how one feels or what one believes. It may be easier to yell at a stranger who cut you off in traffic when you are safely hidden inside the comfort of your car. But when you are face to face with the person who has upset you, that is often another story. Yet, direct and honest dialogue is undoubtedly the most effective means of communication and conflict resolution. 

I encourage patients to learn and practice direct communication skills. I empathize with how scary this can feel for people, but I help teach them that ultimately it is more empowering, healthy, and mature and will usually yield the most positive outcomes. Most of us did not grow up learning how to communicate effectively. In school we took algebra, social studies, and biology but we probably did not take classes in feelings, relationships, conflict management, and communication skills-the things we will benefit from knowing for the rest of our lives. But adults can still learn these skills. Some people may feel pulled into the drama or comfort of shooting off an unfiltered text message or long missive via Facebook, perhaps as a way to discharge one's discomfort with the feelings they are experiencing, but I would strongly suggest that taking time to think and sit with one's feelings rather than impulsively engaging in these behaviors is likely to benefit everyone in the end.