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An example of a more skillful relationship conversation

This is the second of two imaginary conversations between two people in a relationship. My goal here is to demonstrate both skillful and problematic ways of communicating. The left column is the description of the scenario, and the right column is my commentary about what is taking place.

The scenario:

Lea is seeing her boyfriend, Sam, for the first time since her birthday. Sam had promised to come to Lea’s apartment and spend time with her on her birthday, but he didn’t show up or call. This is not the first time something like this has happened. Lea has decided to try to practice effective communication techniques with Sam. In this example Sam, in particular, is much more skillful than in the first example.

After they were both seated, Lea said, “”I felt very disappointed when you didn’t come over on my birthday.” When she said this, her tone of voice and expression made it clear that she was angry. Lea’s off to a rocky start. 80% of human communication is non-verbal, so how you say something is at least as important as the words you use. If you say that you felt disappointed but your tone of voice and expression show that you are furious, then you are also communicating that your verbal statement is in some way not true or complete. The other person may be confused, may assume you are lying, or may come up with some other explanation for the discrepancy.
Noticing Lea’s angry appearance, Sam said, “Lea, I hear you saying you were disappointed when I didn’t come over, but you appear to be angry. I’m feeling confused by that. Can you tell me what you are feeling now?” Sam has obviously been practicing his communications skills, too. He is acknowledging what Lea is saying, and also saying what he is observing and how it is making him feel. He is asking for clarification rather than making assumptions about what Lea is thinking or feeling.
Lea paused and reflected for a moment. “You are right, I am feeling angry. When it happened I mainly felt disappointed and hurt, but over the last few days I’ve thought of other times you didn’t call or come over when you said you would, and that has made me feel angry.” Lea is taking Sam’s observation seriously, and using it to clarify her feelings and express them more accurately. She is not embellishing her feelings or trying to make a case for how awful Sam’s behavior has been.
Sam frowned. “I don’t know why you make such a big deal out of this. Why do you have to be so clingy?” Sam feels guilty, because he knows that to some degree Lea is right. Rather than acknowledge his guilty feelings (which would be the skillful communication move here), Sam goes on the offensive as a way of denying the guilty feelings. In the process, Sam has devalued Lea’s feelings and judged her in a very unempathetic and unkind way – two big communication and relationship mistakes.
Lea took several deep breathes to calm herself before she spoke. “So you don’t understand that I felt disappointed when you broke your promise to come over on my birthday, or angry that you have now done the same thing several times?” This time Lea is the one asking for clarification. Notice that she used breathing to calm herself so that she could continue to communicate effectively.
Sam said, “Yes, I can understand you feeling disappointed that I didn’t come over when I said I would.” He paused and thought for a minute. “I didn’t even have anything else to do. I guess I felt obligated to come, and I hate that. It reminds me how my grandmother used to guilt-trip me into going to visit her at that awful retirement home.” Sam is taking advantage of Lea’s question to recover from his mistake. First Sam acknowledges Lea’s feelings, which is great. Then he really considers the feelings behind his behavior, and talks about them. He is using this opportunity to share himself with Lea and in the process understand himself better as well.
“I understand you not wanting to be obligated to see me. I don’t like guilt trips either. But it hurts to hear you feel obligated to see me,” Lea said. “Don’t you like spending time with me?” Lea also starts by acknowledging Sam’s feelings. She then says what she is feeling in simple way, without blame or trying to over-explain. She then asks a risky, but important, question.
“I love spending time with you,” Sam said quickly. “That isn’t the problem. I just don’t like feeling obligated to spend time with you.” Sam gives clarification in response to Lea’s question.
“I’m glad you want to spend time with me,” said Lea, “but I am not sure what to do. I don’t want you to feel obligated to see me, but I don’t think I can avoid having some expectations when we have made plans. Can you at least call me when you change your mind?” Lea acknowledges what Sam said and lets him know her response, which is feeling uncertain. (“I don’t know” is a valid experience to communicate.) She says what she feels she can realistically do. Lea then expresses her wish, which is an attempt to compromise between what she wants and what Sam seems to want. Note that Lea’s tone of voice here makes a big difference to how this will come across.
“I think it is reasonable for you to want me to do what I’ve said I would,” said Sam, “and I can certainly call if I change my mind. Also, I think that it will be easier for me to deal with my feelings now that I understand my feelings of obligation better. After all, coming to see you is nothing like having to go visit the retirement home!” Sam is responding positively to Lea’s offer of a compromise. He is acknowledging the part of the situation that is his to deal with. This is taking a risk for Sam, because now that he has been honest about his feelings, he will have to be honest with himself and Lea in future situations like this. Since he is understanding his own feelings and motivations better, however, he is likely to be able to respond to them better in the future.

In this scenario both Sam and Lea made a couple of mistakes, but they worked together to recover from them and keep the conversation productive.

Keep in mind that the tone of voice that Lea and Sam use is extremely important. In this example, they both kept themselves calm and responded to each other thoughtfully and carefully. Because of this, some of the things they said to each other that could have been triggering were much easier for the other person to hear.

Sam and Lea both had to be quite courageous to make this conversation work out so well. They had to be vulnerable with each other by sharing feelings and desires that the other person could have not responded to with so much care and thoughtfulness. They both had to choose not to react defensively, when they easily could have. Lea did this particularly well.

The outcome is that they both ended up feeling closer to each other and their relationship is stronger. They have a stronger foundation of trust for future challenging situations.

Keep in mind that the tone of voice that Lea and Sam use is extremely important. In this example, they both kept themselves calm and responded to each other thoughtfully and carefully. Because of this, some of the things they said to each other that could have been triggering were much easier for the other person to hear.

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