Posted by: draknor | October 5, 2011

Effective Communication

I had a fight with my girlfriend today.

Our fights tend to follow this pattern: I need something from her (support, affirmation, appreciation, whatever it may be), but I wait and I wait and I wait, hoping she will just somehow magically know that I need it and how to give it to me.  Not surprisingly, this approach doesn’t usually work.  Now I maybe don’t always realize right away that I’m waiting for something from her, but eventually I figure out that I’m missing something. And by the time I figure it out, I’m already frustrated or angry — because hey, I’ve been needing this emotion or feeling and I haven’t been getting it!  Finally I reach the point where I actually say something, and by opening my mouth I start a whole cascade of mistake after mistake that  takes many tears & many hours to untangle from.

Let me sidetrack to say I love my girlfriend and that she’s a wonderful, caring person.  But no one is perfect, and even if she was perfect, she’d still need to figure out me — and that’s quite a challenge!  Both of us are living, breathing, changing human beings and our needs & responses change over time.

So here’s the first question — what do I keep doing wrong? And then the second question — why??  Both are good questions.  The first is easier to answer — I don’t have effective communication with her when I am “compromised” (eg feeling emotionally unstable or vulnerable or lacking).  Because I’ve been waiting & waiting for her to just know what I need (without me telling her, or maybe not even knowing myself!), my first words to her about it are usually along the lines of “You’re not giving me what I need.”  How do you feel when someone tells you that you aren’t measuring up?  Yeah — not a great way to start the conversation.  She immediately gets defensive (because I’ve essentially just attacked her), and from there we just spiral down. She gets sad, then I get sad that I made her sad.  Or she gets angry at me for blaming her, and then I get angry at her because “Hey, I’m the one with the emotional need here and you’re getting angry at me?!”

And she (and just about every book written for couples & managers & anyone dealing with tough emotional conversations) has told me that the more effective approach is to use “I statements”.  You know, those statements that say things like “I’m feeling really down right now” or “I need some support from you”.  It’s about turning the tables around so the focus is on me and my needs — not on her and any real or perceived shortcomings.  Intellectually I know this.  And my girlfriend is typically good at communicating this way.  So why don’t I use it?

Simply put — because I’m not trying.  I’m not thinking about it, I’m not practicing it, and thus when I’m in the clutch, I don’t have that tool in my ready-to-rock tool-belt.  And my relationship & communication suffers for it.

The only real remedy is to practice it.

To do that I need to have an awareness that I’m entering a situation that follows this pattern (eg me being frustrated and trying to say that I need something), and take conscious action to change my language to use I-statements.  Is that going to be difficult?  Hell yes.  Both parts — it’s hard to keep a level-head & awareness when feeling emotionally vulnerable, as well as to carefully compose your message in such a state.  However, I think the first part — maintaining the awareness — is most difficult.  If I can maintain the awareness, I stand a better chance of taking the extra few seconds to craft my communications in a way that will be received more effectively.

Wish me luck.  I’m going to need it. Here’s hoping a future blog post will tell how I accomplished this successfully.