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Communication Breakdown: Say the Words, Ask the Question

When are you most misunderstood?

One of what would appear to be the simplest rules of communication - speak your mind - would also appear to be one of the most difficult to enact. The English language is admittedly clumsy, at best - the Inuit have more than 20 words for ‘snow', while we have one; the French, the same for ‘love' and we have, well, one. Yet, rather than making the most of the directness associated with the language, we are more often mired in euphemism, innuendo and just plain oblique reference.

When coaching patients on their communication skills, I typically invoke the mantra, "Say the words; ask the question." A humorous, but nonetheless sweeping, example of how we make ourselves misunderstood, as well as how misunderstandings occur, was recently demonstrated to me by a couple with whom I am working. The husband in this couple expressed his frustration at his wife who, while standing at the counter making sandwiches would often ask, "Have you thought about lunch?", rather than simply asking, "Do you want mayonnaise on this?" Say the words, ask the question.

We are most misunderstood when we are not direct. There are any number of reasons for our engaging in this way; the most prominent being to avoid confrontation or conflict. The second is to avoid rejection, whether the potential for that rejection is real or perceived. Another, less savory, intent may be to be sneaky or to get away with something - the ubiquitous white lie or sin of omission that we've considered previously.

Avoiding confrontation and conflict is at the core of many, if not most, of our interactions. The problem here is that the potential conflict that we perceive is often considerably less than the one that would actually occur. And, conversely, the conflict created by not being direct is often greater than any the original interaction might engender. It's rather silly when you think about it, but, if you pay attention during the course of your day, you will be amazed at how many times you will actually catch yourself skirting an issue, rather than being direct about it.

Avoiding rejection is another big motivator for our being indirect and it is often driven by our inability to say, "No.". Many of us harbor a fear of rejection associated with saying, "No.", so we often end up saying, what I call, "Yes (with conditions).", which creates a situation that is itself fraught with a subtext of conflict and tension.

Then, of course, there is what Orwell referred to as "doublespeak" in his novel 1984; that whole, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman.", ethic that seems to have become an unfortunately ubiquitous communication style. Shades of truth, rather than saying what you mean and meaning what you say.

All of this brings to mind a little experiment that one my supervisors had us do in graduate school. He asked us to spend an entire week saying, "No." to everyone (wherein saying "No." was not going to jeopardize anything or anyone) and to keep a journal of our experiences.

Lo and behold, most people responded positively to what, in most of our minds, would be an egregious gesture of boundary setting. The lesson learned here is that our perception of potential outcomes, if we were to be direct in our communication, is often considerably more fraught with drama than is actually the case.

Returning to our mantra, "Say the words, ask the question.", if we spent more time speaking up and saying out loud what is on our mind, rather than living in our heads and making up stories about what is going on, then we'd presumably have a much better time of it.

Rather than wondering whether or not you're going to lose your job, what would happen if you went to your boss and said, "Is my position safe or should I start polishing my resume?". Rather than wondering whether you're boyfriend is going to break up with you over something or other, what would happen if you went to him and asked, "Is this a deal breaker?". Rather than aggravating over having to take your sister to the airport and managing your schedule around that, what would happen if you said, "Yes, and we have to leave an hour earlier than you might have anticipated because I need to pick up the kids from day care before 5:30."

Sounds simple, right? -- try it out - spend some time being absolutely direct in your communication and see what happens. One suspects that, after the initial discomfort of having to think things through, you will be understood more often and engender far less misunderstanding in your relationships than you might expect.

Use your words.

© 2009 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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