Communication Breakdown

I have two friends who are married, and above their kitchen sink is a sign that says, “I can’t read your mind. You will have to let me know”. So much for “Live Laugh Love”. Instead, my friends have a more practical approach to a fulfilling relationship.


Contrary to what you might believe, we don’t actually know what you’re thinking. Even more shocking; we don't know what you want either. You assume that we know what you’re thinking and feeling. And we too assume that we know what you’re thinking and feeling. It doesn't work very well.


So why don’t you just tell us? 

I understand that there’s a lot of internal resistance around having to tell us what you’re thinking. For starters, it’s not quite as satisfying when you have to tell us. It requires some emotional risk and vulnerability to ask for it. And if you have to ask for us..well then we must not be worth a damn. 


And what if you DO ask and we don’t give it to you? What then!? All your fears come true. Maybe you’re afraid that we actually don’t care about you. Or that this is proof that you are worthless. That belief goes something like this, “If they don’t do what I want, it means they don’t care. They don’t care because I’m obviously not worth caring about.” 


It’s a terrifying and risky prospect to confront this possibility. So we become indirect, passive, accommodating, and even manipulative. Anything to not be alone. 


Rather than waiting around for us to save you, why don’t you just save yourself now? How do you do that? By telling us what is actually on your mind. Granted, this sounds easier than it really is because we have a habit of complicating the Hell out of communicating with others.


Here’s How

First of all, be specific. A common bad habit is to generalize. Especially when we are triggered. Generalizing isn’t helpful because your partner won’t necessarily know what you’re talking about. So be specific. If it’s something that has happened many times, just pick one specific time. That way your partner has a shot at really understanding you. After all that’s what you really want  isn’t it, to be understood?


S.O.S

Situation, Objectivity, Subjectivity. Try following this acronym when communicating with your partner next. Here’s how it goes:


Situation: Literally when did this happen? What day and time? And what was the location?

Example: “Last night when we were having dinner”. 


Okay, now at least both of you are in the same universe.


Next is:


Objectivity: This is what actually happened. Not your interpretation of what happened. This is a tricky one for us because we are habituated to treating interpretation as fact. A helpful way to think about what is objectively true is to ask yourself, “what would a video camera see?” Cameras don’t interpret. 


Example: “You were on your phone”.


Okay, so far so good. If it’s a fact, then you can both agree on what happened. Notice that we haven’t made any judgements here. We are just stating what happened as a video camera would capture it. 

Tell Us How You Feel

Subjectivity: This is how you felt. That’s it. Emotions. Nothing more, nothing less. You want to keep your emotions as simple as possible. Why? Because you want your partner to get you. Now is not the time for poetry or vagueness. You have to assume we have no idea what you’re going through. So spell it out for us.


Example: “I felt sad” or “I was angry”.


That’s it. Name the emotion and move on. 


It’s important to notice that we don’t use the word “Because”. Anytime you hear “because”, it is an indication that you are in a story about why you felt what you did. For instance, “I felt sad because you were on the phone”. It’s a judgement that their being on the phone was the cause of your sadness. The truth is they were on the phone AND you felt sad. 

Faux Emotions

A word of warning about emotions. Too often we use words that aren’t really emotions. We call them “faux emotions”. For instance, “I felt disrespected”. Disrespected isn’t an emotion. It’s a verb. If you’re a beginner to emotional vocabulary, stick with the 5 primary emotions: Glad, sad, mad, fear, shame. I’ve been doing this a while, and I’m good with still using the primary colors. Although they’re elementary, they carry plenty of punch.


From the top: 

“Last night at dinner, you were on the phone and I felt sad.” 

It’s explicit. It’s to the point. It’s free of judgement. It’s free of attack. There’s nothing for your partner to defend, and there’s nothing for you to defend.

It happened, you felt something, The End. 


Many times it can be enough to just share with your partner how you felt. But sometimes we want more. We want a change to take place. This takes us to making a request. Going back to what I said earlier about advocating for yourself, this is your chance to start doing it.


Now Tell Us What To Do

A request needs to be clear. For a request to be clear, it needs to be an explicit action that you are requesting. 

For instance: “Last night at dinner, you were on your phone and I felt sad. Next time we are having dinner, will you talk to me instead of being on your phone?” 

Then you wait for an answer. An answer is either a “yes”, a “no”, or a counter offer. Three possibilities. That’s it. Simple. Connection and intimacy doesn’t need to be complicated or dramatic. Drama is what kills it. Maybe stop that and get what you want instead.


♦♦Experts Only

In communication consulting, we have something called a “check in”. This is where we identify our interpretation of the event. For instance, “Last night at dinner, you were on your phone. The story I am telling myself is that you didn’t want to talk to me”. Or "you don't care about me".


So we have:

The fact: You were on your phone.

The story: "You don't care about me." 

The story is painful. The facts are not. You won’t be suffering from facts anytime soon. 

Here’s your chance to check in to see if your story is actually true.

All you gotta do is say, 

“Last night at dinner, you were on your phone. The story I am telling myself is that you don't care about me. Is that true?” 

Possible choices for answers from your partner: 1) “yes”, 2) “no”.

If it's "no, it's not true", good news! AND don't worry, you still get to ask for what you want. You still can say,

"OK, well will you talk to me instead of being on your phone next time?"

You don't need to be stoic or enlightened, you just need to be honest.

The Resistance

Notice what resistance, if any, arises when trying to implement this simple approach. Do you find yourself..

  • Justifying and defending your position?
  • Wanting to apologize for yourself?
  • Placating or manipulating your partner?
  • Making them or yourself wrong?

It’s time to drop all that. It’s time to stop waiting for the hero. Stop making them guess where to find you. If you want to be saved you'll have to draw them a map.


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