Tools of Communication
Our family recently went skiing in Park City, and as we drove along the windy roads towards the resort, I couldn’t help but marvel at the breathtaking mountains. Despite their beauty, they appeared incredibly steep and dangerous. These were mountains we wouldn’t dare walk up or down on our own – but slap on boots, skis and a snowsuit, and we flew down at thrilling speeds.
As soon as we were given the proper tools, the impossible became doable, enjoyable – even glorious!
Tools are an important part of the everyday experience.
One of my favorite tools: the internet. It’s so convenient. I can order whatever I need, and with two little ones in the house, that means the diaper shipments come in surplus!
Imagine the scene: I’m changing my daughter’s explosive, horrific diaper. I open the drawer of the changing table, only to discover that every last diaper has been used, with not a straggler left. I open the wipes drawer hoping to find a lone diaper. Nothing.
I look behind me. There, in my baby’s closet, is a shining, brand new box of diapers calling my name.
I look at my baby and then back at the closet, over and over again. Leaving her unattended, even momentarily, is not an option. So, I pick her up – while trying not to dirty myself – and bring her towards the closet, only to find that the box is still sealed shut.
Try opening a box with no tools. No box cutter, no knife, not even a set of keys. Add a soiled baby to the picture, and you’re sitting on a time bomb. In moments, the whole room will begin to reek.
I struggle to open the box and mutter to myself, “Never! Never bring a box upstairs without opening it first!” I manage to open the box and change the baby, eventually, but how much easier would this process have been if I simply had a tool?
Problems are no sweat with tools. And such is life. When we have tools, anything is possible.
Tools, however, are not just objects. Other types of tools can be even more useful, such as the tools of communication. When we learn to communicate with healthy tools, harmony between people becomes attainable.
Life is not just about acquiring such tools, though. It’s also vital to discover the instructions for how to use these tools. The same is true in life’s relationships, particularly marriage. In marriage, one can have the best dress, venue, and caterer around for the wedding, but if we do not have proper instruction on how to communicate with our spouses, it’s going to be very hard to navigate the twists and turns of life’s mountains.
The following are three basic tools of communication that can help bridge the gap between two people in a relationship.
Whenever we speak about sensitive topics, it is always best to start with genuine positivity. This is not to butter the person up, but rather it helps to begin the conversation in a positive mindframe.
Next, after addressing the difficult portion, always end with a positive thought so that the person maintains his or her personal dignity and walks away feeling respected.
For example, suppose your spouse usually leaves his socks on the floor, and you are beginning to resent it. Perhaps start with, “Honey, I know how much you always want to help me around the house and are usually the first to wash dishes. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that you leave your socks on the floor, and it’s starting to frustrate me. Do you think you could make a better effort at picking them up? I’d really appreciate it, and I know that you want to help me out because you always do. Thank you.”
The basic formula is: positive, negative, positive.
Beginning with affirmative wording allows the other person to actually hear what you are saying, rather than immediately putting up a wall. Suppose you started the same sentence with, “You left your nasty socks on the floor!” Your spouse’s internal response may be, Oh boy, here they go again. I can ignore the next few sentences until they moves on.
Sometimes, people express concern that if they start with a positive statement, the other person knows that negative is on its way shortly. We must take care to deliver the positive in a way that the other person is not anticipating an immediate negative. This is an art that is best described by John and Julie Gottman in The Soft Startup. They recommend making your positive startup brief and to the point for a more effective reception from your spouse.
Dr. Meir Wikler writes in his book, Ten Minutes a Day to a Better Marriage, that when we use “you” statements such as, “You are insensitive, lazy, rude, etc.,” the other person automatically becomes defensive, and may put the blame back on you.
When we talk about our own feelings, however, it becomes very difficult to dispute or invalidate them. He therefore makes a communication rule that we should use only “I” statements when addressing sensitive topics.
Here is the basic formula:
I feel ________ when _________ happens, because ________.
Put all together: “I feel frustrated when you don’t follow through with the errand you committed to because I take it off my mental list, and then have to perform it myself at a later, inconvenient time.”
Never say “Never” (or “Always”)
When we use definitive words such as “never” or “always,” they become another instinctual cue for the other person to become defensive. Wikler describes these words as generalizations that usually yield a negative response. A better technique is using the phrase, “Sometimes ____ happens” or even, “I recently noticed this type of behavior.” When we say, “You never help me,” or, “You always talk back,” the person can’t even hear the problem itself because he or she is too busy preparing a retort of “I know I don’t always…”
For example, “I noticed that you have at times been distracted by the phone when I’m trying to engage in a conversation with you, and that is hurtful to me.”
These communication techniques sound easy in theory, but when actually trying to implement them, the experience can be difficult, awkward, or unnatural. However, they can and should be practiced regularly. If, during a quiet moment, we mentally visualize and exercise these tools, then they will become more fluid when the experience actually presents itself in real time. Although we may feel silly practicing alone, it is well worth the effort. When we successfully use these tools to communicate, the other person is more likely to hear what we are actually trying to say, rather than shutting us out.
I’ll never forget the satisfaction I felt when a student of mine approached me and thanked me for sharing these concepts with her.
“Sarah, I was sitting at the Friday night table with my husband. There was this one sensitive issue between us that we just couldn’t seem to work out, or even discuss without some sort of explosion. But then I was in awe after I used these three simple techniques. For the first time, magically, before my very eyes, I watched my husband respond calmly to my feelings on this issue. We came to a mutual understanding, and moved on. No harsh words were exchanged, no lingering hurt feelings remained. I was blown away at the effectiveness.”
The techniques are simple, and they work. Using these three tools enables communication with others to become magically doable, and dare I say, even glorious.