This is an imaginary conversation 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.
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. Let’s see how she does.
|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 – 2 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 crossed his arms and took on a superior tone. “No, I don’t understand it. I would never get upset about stuff like that.”
|Sam has completely fallen off the empathy wagon. He is confirming that he doesn’t understand Lea’s feelings, and his attitude is making it clear that he doesn’t care about them, either. His statement, “I would never get upset about stuff like that,” is extremely provocative.
|“It sounds to me like you are saying you don’t care about my feelings if they are different than yours,” said Lea. “That makes me feel sad and hurt.”
|Lea is choosing to ignore Sam’s provocative comment. Instead, she is skillfully expressing her understanding of what Sam is saying, and how it makes her feel. Lea is reminding herself that her feelings are valid, and therefore Sam’s refusal to validate her feelings has much less power to hurt her than it otherwise would.
|“Well, your feelings are ridiculous,” said Sam.
|Sam has stopped really listening or trying to communicate, so he doesn’t even realize that he has just confirmed that he doesn’t care about Lea’s feelings.
|“I can understand that we don’t always feel the same, Sam, but I will not tolerate you saying that my feelings are ridiculous just because you don’t share them. Please go now. You can call me if you are ready to treat me like my feelings matter,” Lea said calmly. She had tears in her eyes, but her tone was firm.
|Sam has made it clear that he isn’t really interested in a respectful intimate conversation. Having reminded herself that she is worthy of respect, Lea is saying what she wants and setting a clear boundary about what she is not willing to tolerate. She is calm because she has acknowledged that she isn’t in control of Sam’s reaction, and because by setting this boundary she is supporting herself appropriately and respecting herself in the process.
After an initial misstep, Lea did a lot of things quite well. This scenario points out that, unfortunately, communicating well does not ensure that you get the response you want. Being in relationship requires that you take care of yourself. Lea did that, even though it was difficult and uncomfortable. She has no guarantee that Sam will step up to the challenge of treating her with respect for her feelings, but she has made it clear that she will not accept being treated disrespectfully. Here is another example, where the conversation goes in a different way.
Obviously, there are many other ways Lea could have chosen to respond to Sam, and many of them would be equally effective and healthy. In an actual situation I would imagine that Lea wouldn’t ask Sam to leave so quickly; in the scenario I have imagined, Sam is clearly not willing (or perhaps able) to have a productive discussion, and Lea has a history with Sam that has led her to believe that continuing the conversation won’t get them anywhere.
Let me also point out that it is rare for this kind of conversation to happen in such a lopsided manner, where one person is being very skillful and present and the other one is obviously not. In real life, if Lea’s tone was matching the reasonable words I gave her to say, it’s very possible that Sam would not stay in such an entrenched position.