Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn did it in a movie. Jen and Brad Pitt did it in real life. I may not be Jen and you may not be Brad, but "breaking up" with people is a normal life event. Indeed, relationships generally move through 5 stages: (1) Contact, (2) Involvement, (3) Intimacy, (4) Deterioration, and (5) Dissolution. Some relationships advocate minimalism. They (2) Begin and (2) End.
While I may not have the ideal answers for breaking up with your romantic significant others (is there really a "best" way?), I can offer--from a communication skill-base set perspective--some suggestions for disconnecting from categories of select people when you've determined it's appropriate time to do so. All cost-reward ratios have been determined, and it's simply time to take action.
In offering this advice, I'm assuming the person intending the "break" has already tried (if so inclined) to neutralize their prior dissatisfaction with the relationship. Conflict resolution before the break-up stage can repair and indeed, even strengthen the relationship.
However, if you're convinced it's time to bid adieu, consider the following interpersonal guidelines as solid maxims of practice. Note: There's no magical solution in communication. Rather, what we offer here are strategies for leaving both people feeling-if not thrilled about the disconnect-at least mollified. There's value there.
INTERPERSONAL PRINCIPLES: (DECODED: GOOD STUFF TO DO)
1. Avoid "You" statements ("You make me angry", "You humiliated me", "You don't care about our friendship", "You're at fault.") "You" statements cast blame and place your conversational partner on the defensive. A person's reactionary response is now triggered and your situation will most likely descend into a dreaded War of Words. Bet you've been there. Bet you hated. Bet you wished you'd handled the situation differently. Your win-price was too high. With this in mind, what's a better solution?
2. Aim instead for "I" statements. "I" statements identify YOU as the source of the message. When you "own" a statement, you take personal responsibility for it. That's maturity, wisdom, and exceptional emotional IQ rolled into one big wallop of interpersonal effectiveness.
"I believe", "I think", "I feel", "I need", and "I would appreciate" are good examples.
Own a house? A car? A belief and value system? Owning your thoughts, opinions, and verbal contributions can be equally empowering. Give it a whirl and observe your transformation into a creature of power. Additional perk: Your work colleagues and loved ones respect you more.
3. Word your feelings descriptively to ensure accurate meaning. For example, you may say "I feel bad when you ______." But what does "bad" really mean? Clarify the meaning; otherwise, your partner may be confused. "Bad" could mean embarrassed, hurt, angry, or uncomfortable. Word specificity is critical.
Often your partner doesn't decode how you necessarily encode. It's not their fault. It's not your fault. Surprisingly, you're both at fault. Communication responsibility is transactional. In other words, message success is mutual. While confusion can always occur, don't be quick to automatically ascribe total blame to the other (a common human tendency).
Example: You stop and ask for directions. Your guide advises you to "Turn right and go up a little ways on Elm Street." You become upset when the given direction ("a little ways") is three miles when you decoded it to mean 200 feet.
Solution: Either (1) allow for possible confusion and deliberately clarify in the first place ("From that red light, it's about ½ mile on the right.") or (2) deliberately seek clarification ("When you say ‘a little ways', what exactly do you mean?") .
4. Avoid the trigger words of "always" and "never". Speaking in absolutes is not only unfair, but worse, polarizing. "You never call me", "You're never on time for our appointment", "We always do what you want to do.", "I'm always the one who cleans." Chances are rare to slim "always" and "never" really occur. Using them doesn't make your argument stronger. To the contrary, it weakens your position by plainly revealing your bias and inaccuracy.
5. Acknowledge your individual right to have feelings, but accept that others are worthy of decent and respectful treatment. That said, be prepared for the possibility of negative reaction in break-up encounters. You may encounter silence, anger, disbelief, or guilt-tripping.
Since your intent in this context is to "break up" the relationship; mentally emphasize the apprehension you experience in the moment will eventually calm. Through the dissonance, focus instead on the positive end result of the current anxiety: the prospect of finding different and possibly better relationships. The current may be a negative, but the future is looking better.
6. Verbal statements and nonverbal cues must be aligned. Congruence is paramount. Successful transmission demands that nonverbal cues are consistent with the verbal message, especially during "bad news" messages. Smiling when you propose disconnecting is confusing at best; stupid at worst. Refusing to make eye contact while you tell your significant other of ten years you desire to move on isn't a protective defense mechanism. Let's call a spade: It's cowardly.
**POSSIBLE BREAK-UPS OF COMMON SCENARIOS **
NOTE: This list is not exhaustive. Take select lines that work for your situation and create your own personalized and applicable version. Mix & Match messages for your (1) comfort level and (2) unique circumstances.
SITUATION ONE: GROWING APART FROM A CHILDHOOD FRIEND
Last chance: "Susan, I appreciate your attempts to connect with me, but I'm just continually occupied with professional working engagements and the care of my three children. When next you visit Cincinnati, I'd love to meet for a seasonal lunch or holiday get-together." Even sending an annual thank-you card or special occasion celebratory gift keeps people in your life, but more on the peripheral. These options offer a "gray" alternative in the otherwise stark parameters of black and white. The first option is to maintain constant interaction. A second option is to have no interaction. A third option is to have limited interaction. What do you genuinely want? Work to make it happen.
Clean break time: Conduct a cost-reward ratio. If the costs of the relationship (time, negativity, stilted conversation, pressure to connect) are higher than the rewards (your time together), it's time to break. "Susan, we have shared many great times together and I will always cherish them. But our geographical distance is making it difficult to maintain a close bond. I remember you commenting how much we have both changed over the years; I have to agree. We now seem to have our different lives and conflicting ways of living them. I think it a good idea to keep our past memories, but move forward making new ones with those closer to us in distance and values.
SITUATION TWO: LONGTIME FAMILY DOCTOR WHO'S SLACKING
Last chance: "Doctor Smith, I appreciate your medical expertise and how you've scheduled me for an appointment at the last minute. But I've recently noticed that you're not returning my phone calls. In the past month, I've called your office three times and haven't received one call back. I know you're busy with patients, but I feel disregarded when you don't return my calls. This last week, I become uneasy wondering if I'm taking the right medication. Since I didn't hear from you, I had to call the pharmacist to see if they could assist me. I need for you or your support staff to return my calls within a 24-hour period.
Clean break time: "Doctor Smith, I spoke with you last month about the importance of returning my phone calls. You agreed that you would do so within a day's time and I appreciated your commitment. But this past week, I called two more times with important questions only to still not receive a callback. I'm saddened by this because of our long history together, but my medical situation is such that I need direct and expedient responses. My new doctor is Ludmilla Gates and her office will be contacting you this week to transfer my records to her office.
SITUATION THREE: A STEADY CLIENT FROM HELL
Last Chance: "Karen, I enjoy working with you to improve your public speaking skills because you are eager to learn and have made dramatic improvement during our time together. But I've recently noticed that many of the suggestions I'm making to improve your presentations are now aggressively questioned. This past week you adamantly stated that there's no way you'd ever consider adding information to your speech introduction. I'm interested in your feedback and am receptive to your ideas, but I need to feel that my proposed ideas are given some consideration. Is this something we can do? It's important to me to know this so we can move ahead collaboratively working to make you even more effective.
Clean break time: "Karen, last week we discussed your receptivity during our sessions and mutually agreed we would respectfully consider the suggestions for improvement offered. I'm sensing you're not feeling comfortable with my changes and I while I appreciate your right to feel this way, I'm concerned that perhaps I've contributed all I can to this endeavor. I've spoken with my colleague Suzanne Boys who has twenty years' experience working with speech clients and has much to offer. She'd welcome working with you and can be reached at the following number and email address."
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