So much of the distress we experience in life involes other people; or more specifically, other people not doing what we would like them to do. My boss didn’t give me the raise I deserve, my friend didn’t call me back, my boyfriend didn’t buy me a card for my birthday, my roommate didn’t wash the dishes, my wife won’t stop nagging me. This very keen awareness of what other people are not doing can prevent you from effectively communicating in a way that improves the situation. To get your needs met, the most important thing you have to do is be able to ask for what you want and it is not as difficult as you might think.
When a client comes in really upset about what someone else isn’t doing, the conversation often goes something like this:
Client: I am really upset at my mother for picking on me. She never treats me well.
Me: You sound very unhappy with your mother’s behavior, what would you like her to do differently?
Client: She is always nitpicking and nagging about the smallest things, it makes me so angry.
Me: I can see why you wouldn’t like that, what would you like your mother to do differently?
Client: She needs to stop being so petty and always complaining about everything. She just ends up making everyone miserable.
Me: I understand that you don’t like her behavior and you would like her to stop complaining, but what would you like her to do instead?
Me: What would you like her to do instead of nagging and complaining?
Client: I don’t know….it would be nice to have her be more supportive.
Me: That does sound nice, how would things change if she were more supportive?
Client: We could all be happier and I could spend more time with her, because she wouldn’t be driving me crazy all the time.
My client in the above scenario was so upset about her mother criticizing her that she had a very hard time identifying what she wanted her mother to do differently. It took 3 tries to get her to stop focusing on what her mother was doing wrong, and get her to articulate what she did want, which was more support. Knowing what you want from someone is very different from knowing what you don’t want, and a very critical step in effective communication. The assumption many people make is that what they want is obvious to everyone. My mother should know I want her support. I shouldn't have to ask. But other people can't read your mind. If you don't tell others how you feel and what you want, they likely have no idea how you are interpreting their behavior. You mother may have no idea she sounds critical, she may thinks she is just being helpful. Let’s see how the rest of this scenario plays out.
Me: So it sounds like you’d like to have her in your life more and would really enjoy her support.
Me: Have you ever told her that?
Client: No, not exactly
Me: Why not?
Client: It would just cause a huge fight. She never listens to anything I say.
Me: Why don’t you pretend I am you mother and tell me how you feel about the situation.
Client: Mom, I hate it when you are always negative and picking on everyone it makes everyone in the family very upset. I really wish you would stop.
Me: Ok, I can see why she never listens to you.
My client’s assumption was that if she stated how she felt, it would cause a conflict. The assumption that talking about how you feel will just lead to an argument is very common, and a major reason many people keep things bottled up inside until they reach their breaking point. In all fairness, it is a pretty accurate assumption if you lead by telling the other person what you think he/she is doing wrong. Telling someone they are wrong generally just raises his/her level of defensiveness, shuts them down, and prevents them from really hearing you.
Many experts will tell you the right way to effectively communicate is by sharing your feelings. However, I feel upset that you are not listening to me—again, just makes the other person wrong. It is important to communicate your feelings honestly, but doing so, without justifying them by blaming the other person, can be quite difficult. Just stating what you feel—I feel sad, I feel hurt, I feel angry—can leave you feeling vulnerable. What if the other person doesn’t care how I feel? What if my feelings aren’t valid? Telling other people what they did wrong is a way that we validate our own feelings and view of the world. The problem however, is that it isn’t an effective way to get people to listen to you or to get what you want from the situation.
So what should you do differently?
Alternate feeling statements with statements about what you want.
1. State what you feel. Stick to single word descriptors and wait for a response.
2. Then tell them what you want, not what they did wrong. Be as specific as possible and give examples of what you would like them to do differently.
Keep going back and forth between these two steps. If it is important to address a specific behavior they are doing directly, then place the emphasis on how it is making you feel and not their behavior being wrong, and always provide concrete examples of what you want them to do differently.
Daughter: I feel frustrated. (feeling)
Daughter: I really love you and would really like it if we could spend more time together. (want)
Mom: I would like that too.
Daughter: I need you to be more supportive of the way I do things. (want)
Mom: I thought I was being supportive.
Daughter: Sometimes I feel criticized (feeling); it would be nice if when I cook dinner, you told me that you what I did well instead of what was wrong with it (want).
Mom: I loved the dessert, best apple pie I ever had.
Just remember, asking someone to stop doing something you don’t like such as criticizing you, is distinctly different from asking them to give you more of what you want such as support. The first scenario, makes them wrong and shuts them down, the second one empowers them to help you and provides an opportunity for them to feel good.
We don’t control how other people respond to us, but we do influence others greatly with our own behavior. If you know what you are trying to achieve from the conversation, i.e, what it is you want, then staying focused on that goal will go a long way to helping you get there.
Jennice Vilhauer, PhD is the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind's Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life and the developer of Future Directed Therapy.