How to Avoid Relationship-Wrecking Communication
In the previous two articles, we discussed the first two of the 5 most Common Relationship Communication Mistakes: Case Building and Story Telling. The first choice we are faced with in communication happens so fast… we don’t even know we are making a choice. But, here it is, deciding whether we want to build a case against somebody, or build a connection with them.
The second mistake is Story Telling. This is when we tell ourselves a story about an some thing that happened (without checking the facts) — and the believe it. We see our lover come to bed with flannel pajamas on, decide that that’s the end of our sex life and no longer find us attractive, and then begin pouting about it. We believe our own story about the other person, forgetting the fact that it just snowed for the first time today and winter has set in.
The third mistake is Message Assuming. There are two sides to this mistake. The first side is we assume we actually understand what the person is saying in the way that we intended. The second side is assuming that the person we are talking to… actually understands our message in the way that we intended.
If I talk about a desk to a student of mine, they may associate the word with the place where they are held captive six hours a day. To me it is the place where great thoughts and ideas come to life. So, just the one little word ‘desk’ can evoke a tremendously different emotional response in two different people.
Then imagine trying to have a complete conversation with hundreds of words. Really, it’s a wonder that our communication ever succeeds at all.
So what can we do to avoid misunderstanding? We can ask the other person to repeat what they understood. That way we can hear from them directly what’s going on in their mind.
The communication method of nonviolent communication has four distinct steps that help avoid misunderstanding: state the observation, say how it makes you feel, say what need of yours it meets or doesn’t meet, then make a request. The most useful request to make is to ask, “Would you be willing to tell me what your heard me say?”
I watched Paul teach the Language of Peace in the Jefferson County jail one day. He role-played a situation with a woman, whom I will call Cecilia, who was very upset with her ‘cell-y’ or cell mate. The cell mate was touching and moving Cecilia’s things which offended her.
Paul was role playing Cecilia and Cecilia was playing the cell mate. Paul, as Cecilia, said, “When you move my things I feel very frightened because I have a need for autonomy for me and safety for my things. Would you be willing to tell me what you heard me say?”
“Yeah, you said I’m an asshole for touching your things.”
Paul responded, calmly, “Thank you.” After all, she had answered his question as he asked. Paul continued, “Well, really I feel angry because I have a need for protecting my belongings. They’re all I’ve got with me here. Would you tell me what you heard me say?”
“Yeah,” she threw back at him, “you want me out of your cell.”
“Thank you,” replied Paul. And then he tried again. It took almost eight rounds of trying to express feelings and needs for the woman to repeat the actual words he was saying to her. We all cheered when she finally repeated it. What was even more interesting is that she wasn’t even role playing herself, but was responding in the way she imagined her ‘cell-y’ would hear the requests.
Without this process, though, Paul would have moved on to his next statement, never knowing whether or not the other person understood what he was saying.
Another technique for avoiding the Message Assume mistake is the 40 word rule. Some people think that saying more words will equal better understanding, but it doesn’t work that way. Often, more words equal a bigger and messier misunderstanding.
Here’s the rule: Never go more than 40 words without checking in with the other person to check for understanding: “Would you tell me what you heard me say?” And always thank the person for their effort in answering the question. When it’s really important that you are understood, going slowly is the only way to go.
And here’s an assignment: three times over the next few days, after making a statement, ask the person who’s been listening, “Would you tell me what you heard me say?” You’ll be amazed at the difference between what you said and what they heard.