Are You Talking to Me? Exploring Communication Issues (Part 1)

       Komunikacija je primarni način kako smo u interakciji sa drugima.”  Did you have a hard time understanding this?  Let me try again.  “Kommunikation ist die primäre Methode, wie wir mit anderen interagieren.“  Still struggling?  I’ll try to communicate more clearly this time: Communication is the primary method of how we interact with others.  (The first two statements were in Bosnian and German, respectively.)  When we are speaking different languages, it is clear why we are having a hard time understanding one another.  This article is not about how to translate languages, though.  It is about the misunderstandings and miscommunication that happen even when everyone is speaking the same language.

From miscommunication to Miss Communication (or if you are male, Mr. Communication)

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         In my counseling practice, I see a lot of people who are dealing with conflicts in their relationships.  A vast majority of the time, communication issues are at the root of these conflicts.  We will explore the main types of miscommunications that happen and how to avoid them with the goal of being able to clearly communicate with one another.  Given the sheer volume of our conversations with one another in our relationships, some miscommunications are inevitable.  Given this, we will also explore some ways to work through miscommunications in order to be as clear as possible.  With consistent effort we can make great strides in becoming effective communicators.

 

The Troublesome Trio

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         To begin our exploration of communication, let’s explore and define three of the most common communication issues that I see trip people up in their efforts to interact with one another.  These three issues, which I have termed “the troublesome trio” (because who doesn’t like alliteration?) are: “You” statements, “dirty buts”, and “unclear labels”.  Thankfully, all three have clear resolutions and ways to address and avoid these traps.

 

“You” Statements

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         Quite simply, a “you” statement is a statement that involves the word “you” and is used to accuse the other person of wrong doing.  It is typically done in an attempt to explain why you are upset.  Examples include: “You are insensitive,” “You didn’t do what I asked,” and “You always leave your stuff everywhere and it drives me nuts!”  As you read these, you may notice that they all take on an accusatory and blaming vibe.  The person receiving these messages is likely to answer in a defensive and counter-attacking manner.  This becomes fertile soil in which conflict may grow.

“You” statement are also problematic because they make the other person in control of your feelings.  This is power that we do not want to give away.  Ideally, we are in control and own our own feelings.  Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  I take this step further by emphasizing that any emotion is something that happens within us and therefore we have some degree of control over it.  “I” statements help us to own our emotions (by saying “I” feel ___ instead of you made me feel ___).  We say that we are having the experience of the emotion based on some action, but also due to the way that we are thinking about and reacting to it (you will see this when we define the four part “I” statement).

The way to avoid “you” statements is to practice using “I” statements.  “I” statements are deceptively simple yet can be challenging to practice consistently.  Let’s break down the four steps of an “I” statement.

  • “I feel __(emotion) ” – pretty straightforward, huh?  Not so fast.  This is actually one of the most challenging parts.  When I ask the people I work with to complete these statements almost invariably they will struggle to state an actual emotion (they typically give either a thought or an interpretation, the reason for this will be explored further in the section on unclear labels).  Emotions fall into one of the general categories of glad, sad, mad, or scared (or you can think of the characters from Disney’s “Inside Out”).

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  • “When you __(description of behavior)__” – provide an objective description of what happened.  Imagine what anyone else who would have been present would have seen and heard.  I often describe this as taking the approach of a police officer who says: “Just the facts, ma’am (or sir), just the facts.”  It is important to leave out any interpretations of the behavior or guesses as to why they did what they did.  You will want to focus on the “what, when, where and how” and leave out the “why.”
  • “Because __(interpretation)__” – here is where we finally get to talk about the why. This is your chance to explain why the behavior described above caused the feeling described above.  I encourage you to try to build a bridge between these two to where the person can gain a clear understanding about why their behavior caused you to feel the way that you do.

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  • What I would prefer in the future is __(request)__” – now you get to make your request on what you would like to have happen in the future.  The more specific and direct you can be the better.  Imagine that you are a coach and you need to describe to your player what you want him/her to do.  The clearer the other person is on what you would like to see happen, the greater the chances that can occur.  Keep in mind, however, that it does not guarantee that the other person will comply.

So let’s attempt to put all of this together.  We will use the statements that were listed at the beginning of this section as examples of how to turn “you” statements into “I” statements.

“You” statement: “You are insensitive.”

“I” statement: “I feel hurt and sad when you say things like ‘just get over it’ because it makes me think that you don’t care about my struggles or my feelings.  What I would prefer in the future is if you could hear me out and just give me a hug and reassure me that things will be ok.”

You will notice that the “you” statement does not provide much information and is not really something upon which the other person could improve.  The “I” statement provides adequate detail for the other person to know exactly what is bothering you and what they could do to resolve the issue.  The ball is now in their court to act upon that understanding and you have increased your odds of getting a sensitive and caring response when you are upset.

“You” statement: “You didn’t do what I asked.”

“I” statement: “I feel frustrated, angry, and disappointed when you did not wash the dishes last night as I had requested because I then had to do them this morning and they were more difficult due to the food being dried and crusted on them and it seems like it is disrespectful.  What I would prefer in the future is if you could follow through with the things that I ask or let me know if you are unable to do it.”

You can see how much more descriptive the “I” statement is.  It lets the other person know why it is an issue that they did not follow through and they can see how it affected you, both emotionally (being upset) and behaviorally (having to do the crusty dishes yourself).

“You” statement: “You always leave your stuff everywhere and it drives me nuts!”

“I” statement: “I feel angry and resentful when you leave your clothes on the bathroom floor overnight because I trip over them in the middle of the night and it seems like you don’t care about my safety and expect me to clean up after you.  What I would prefer in the future is if you would put your clothes in the hamper or some other place off of the floor at the end of the night.”

This “I” statement sets the stage for a resolution to come about.  If the other person is unwilling to do what you suggested perhaps they can make an alternate suggestion that will address your concerns, in this case your safety.

“I” statements are helpful to avoid blaming and accusatory language and they also set the stage for some productive conversations about how to address the core problems within an argument.

Dirty Buts

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         Disclaimer 1: this section is not about what you may have thought; get your mind out of the gutter.  That is “but” with only one ‘T’.  Disclaimer 2: this section is very nit picky in a way.  It will get very specific about what may seem like inconsequential word choice but it does end up having a big impact on the message that we are giving to others.

Let’s talk a bit about everyone’s all-time favorite subject: conjunctions!  Ok, so maybe it isn’t a riveting subject, but it is important to our discussion on communication.  A conjunction is a word that joins two sentences.  Some common conjunctions include: and, but, or, although and however.  The one that I want to focus on is “but.”

As a conjunction, “but” is used to join two sentences or statements and it does more than just join them.  “But” indicates that the first statement is untrue or somehow invalidated by the second statement.  Let’s explore some examples.

I like you but you annoy me sometimes.”  In this example, the speaker seems to be attempting to communicate that overall they like this person but there are certain behaviors that get on their nerves.  Keep in mind that the word “but” negates the first part of the sentence.  So in effect, what this person has said is “I don’t really like you because you annoy me sometimes.”  This is not what they meant to communicate, but this is what registers for the receiver of this message.  A more effective way to say this would have been “I like you despite the fact that you annoy me sometimes.”  This statement is much more in line with the intent of the speaker.

“I‘m sorry to tell you but your outfit does not look good on you.”  The speaker here is trying to tell the person that they regret having to give potentially hurtful feedback on their outfit choice.  With “but” negating the first part of the sentence, what was actually communicated is “I’m not sorry to tell you that your outfit does not look good on you.”  A more accurate way to communicate this would have been “Because my intention is not to hurt your feelings, I’m sorry to tell you that I don’t think that outfit is very flattering on you.”  In this style, the message is consistent and emphasizes the desire to not hurt the person’s feelings.

“It’s not my intention to hurt your feelings but I don’t think that you will be successful in that venture.”  If you are on the receiving end of this message, you are left only with the negative statement of the speaker doubting your success in this venture.  The “but” negates their first proclamation that they are not aiming to hurt your feelings.  Hurt feelings may well indeed be what you walk away with.  A clearer way to communicate both sentiments would be along the lines of “It’s not my intention to hurt your feelings when I say that I don’t think that you will be successful in that venture.”  As I write this statement, I am compelled to go into a discussion of why I think this way.  My guess is that a conversation would have the course.  This statement would naturally lead into a discussion of why instead of hurt feelings.

“You tell me that you want to do better but I have not seen any effort on your part.”  Finally, a correct use of your “but!”  Notice in this statement that the second part is meant to invalidate the first.  “But” is used to highlight conflicting information.  The speaker is hearing one thing and seeing another.  In this instance, using “but” is appropriate and accurate.

 

Unclear labels 

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         The final of our troublesome trio is unclear labels.  While unclear labels can take many forms, there is one particular instance that I run into time and again in the course of my work with clients.  It has to do with the term “I feel.”  A majority of the time when I hear someone say “I feel…”, that which follows is not actually an emotion.  Remember earlier that emotions take the form of the basic 4: glad, sad, mad, and scared.  Typically someone will follow “I feel” with a thought, an interpretation, or a sensation.  Some examples are: “I feel that this is really unfair.” “I feel like you are being a total jerk.” “I feel so hungry.”

Following “I feel” with a sensation is less problematic than the other two (thought or interpretation).  If we are discussing a sensation, we are technically using the word “feel” correctly.  However, I find that it is still somewhat problematic because, as a culture, we tend to be emotion-phobic.  People tend to have a difficult time talking about their emotions.  Therefore, I recommend that we reserve the “I feel” to refer exclusively to emotions so that we can be as clear as possible.

“I feel” followed by a thought or interpretation is problematic because we can argue thoughts and interpretations.  We can think and/or believe things that are skewed, misleading or even downright untrue (people truly believed the world was flat just a few hundred years ago, for instance).  We can have interpretations that are off base or differ from others.  Therefore, there is a lot of room to argue thoughts and interpretations.  This is not the case with our emotions.  We have an emotion and it is not possible to argue this.  Sometimes people may attempt to tell us that we do not feel the way we feel and it is important to correct these people and to maintain our own boundaries.  Our emotions are our internal reality and we are the only experts on what is occurring for us emotionally.

I believe that part of why some people feel they are allowed to argue other people’s emotions is due to the fact that we often confuse emotions with thoughts, interpretations and sensations.  Hence we come full circle for the need for clearly using labels and language to describe each of these.  Going back to the example listed earlier, I would recommend the following revisions:

“I feel that this is really unfair.” becomes “I think that this is really unfair.”

“I feel like you are being a total jerk.” becomes “It seems to me that you are being a total jerk.”

“I feel the sensation of being so hungry.”

It may be a difficult habit to break, but using clearer language and labels is usually worthwhile.

 

Recap

         Communication issues are plentiful in part due to the sheer volume of communication that takes place.  However, there are some specific issues in communication that we can work to address and these were explored in part here.  The issues covered were:

  • “You” statements as opposed to “I” statements which can be broken down into the parts: “I feel” “when you” “because” “What I would prefer in the future is”
  • Dirty buts is where the conjunction “but” is used to join two statements. However, the word “but” sets up the dynamic where the second half of the statement negates the first half.
  • Unclear labels addresses our misuse of the term “I feel.” We are best served when an actual emotion follows this term rather than a thought, an interpretation or a sensation.

Part 2 of our exploration of communication will follow and I will discuss the ways in which what we say and how we say it can work either together or against each other.  I will also discuss nonverbal and para-verbal communication. (Wh-wh-what is that, you ask?  Check out part 2 to find out!)  The listening side of communication will then be explored in part 3 of this series.

Edited by Shirley Sachs

Written: January 25, 2016

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