*Once everyone had ordered dinner, our host, in the name of conversation, presented the table a question: What is the one thing every relationship must have to survive?

“Trust,” a female guest quickly answered. “If you don’t trust the person, you don’t have anything.”

“Emotional and physical space,” testified another woman. “That’s vital.”

The gentleman sitting at the end of the table put his right hand over his heart. “I have to feel it in here,” he solemnly declared. Whatever that meant.  

A sense of humor was mentioned as essential.  Everyone seemed careful not to lean on physical looks or sexual compatibility. Too trite.

“Love!” someone else finally blurted, in a tone smug enough to imply the others silly for not introducing it out the gate.     

Then the host mentioned communication.

The table went quiet for a second, as if giving the word a quick mental pat down. “Communication goes without saying,” Ms. Trust reasoned, oblivious to the  sheer irony of her sentence.

Then again, the notion that communication skills are simply inherent to a relationship is typical of the surreal consideration (or lack thereof) paid to communication. It is simply supposed to be there. Part of the kit.

Alas, quite often, communication ends up being like the dazzling, action-packed Saturday morning TV toy commercials that used to hypnotize me back in the Stone Age, when I was a child.  Crammed between episodes of “Secret Squirrel” and “Space Ghost,” colorful, larger than life advertisements relentlessly hawked toy tow trucks and space ships and miniature gas stations that could do all this fantastic stuff.

The toys always seemed so fabulously self-contained and automatic–and then, in the nanosecond before the commercial ended, the announcer’s dynamic voice, for the previous 59 seconds WAY UP HERE in dizzying exaltation and ballyhoo, would suddenly drop to  sea level  and  in a somber, detached timbre,  utter, “Batteriesnotincluded.”

I’d sit there in the middle of the living room floor in flannel pajamas, legs folded Indian-style, gaping at the TV and thinking about the catch. Needing batteries isn’t a big deal, really,  I told myself.  Except that without them, G.I Joe’s infantry vehicle or Big Bruiser tow truck is just gonna sit there, unmighty and  mute.  

Communication is the batteries in a relationship. To communicate is to give a liaison its engine.  No association,  whether it be romantic, platonic,  personal or business, can exist in  meaningful fashion without the mutual exchange of ideas and points of view.

Without respect, there can be no trust.  Without trust,  there can be no love.  And none of these things are possible without communication.

“We need to talk,” goes the relationship mantra.  Sounds easy enough, except you have to know how.  It is a delicate process that  begins long before one opens one’s  mouth.

It starts with giving serious thought to feelings–yours and theirs. You can’t adequately express feelings you are unsure of. Thus, the key to communication is being in touch with self. If you constantly feel misunderstood in life, then perhaps it isn’t that no one “gets” you; maybe you aren’t in touch with what you really feel and aren’t making yourself clear.  

I was the king of this. For so long I wasn’t always sure of what I wanted for me, and on the occasion I did know, I was afraid to tell anyone. The  frustration was akin to a pillow being held over my face.

At some point I noticed how I felt after I’d taken the time to express myself. Didn’t matter that anyone agreed. Saying precisely what was on my mind is what removed the pillow.  

That was more than 20 years ago. I’ve since learned that the essence of  real communication is the willingness to share yourself–to come clean and be vulnerable.

In the process of trying to do this, I stumbled upon a crucial component to the act:  listening.  Patiently, with an open mind and heart.  Otherwise, you end up just talking and not hearing anything.  That’s an orator.  Certainly, I’ve been that. But I’m getting better at listening.  Communication skills aren’t inherited, but developed. And despite the incessant rumor, no gender is better at it than the other.

In fact, at dinner that night, the idea of communication as an indispensable facet of a partnership didn’t find much favor among the women at the table. I believe most women think they just have the communication thing covered.  Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the fact that historically men have been so bad at conveying our feelings  that it makes  women feel like masters of the art.  

I’ve discovered that communication, sincere and succinct, has  medicinal qualities.  It releases stress.  And, it is sexy.  Name something  more entrancing and seductive than honest, engaging dialogue with someone willing and able to share themselves without fear of how they will be judged or sound.  

By the way, there is only clear communication.  Don’t be fooled by substitutes, as in double talk and eloquent jive disguised as emotional sincerity. Bronzed bullshit is still bullshit.

Every conversation I have presents me with yet another opportunity to become more proficient at communication. Personally, I think that alone is something worth talking about.  

Apparently,  our dinner host felt the same way, but he wasn’t saying.  He didn’t have to.  The canny, mischievous grin on his face in the shadow of  the table’s spirited discourse on the subject said it all.

Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love  (Simon & Schuster),  has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].