“Just tell me right out what is wrong!” says our exchange student. And I can’t help but feel that this situation is quite surreal. I came to Canada from Germany 16 years ago and have since adapted to the Anglo-American indirect communication style. I can still feel that need to blurt right out what I am feeling bubble up at times but I dutifully squelch it—most of the time—because I have learned such uninhibited “vomiting” of thoughts or feelings will not be well received.
So for almost three weeks I have been saying things like, “Your dishes can go into the dishwasher. The frying pan needs to be washed in the sink,” and I assumed, based on my current social environment, this would translate into, “Please put your dishes into the dishwasher and clean the frying pan after you have used it.” I have also been saying, “Do you have an alarm on your phone you can set for in the mornings?” instead of “Please set your alarm for 6:30 and get up by yourself.” And “Please text us your plans,” instead of “We are having dinner at 8:00. If you are not planning to be home for dinner, please let us know ahead of time.”
It is not that this direct way of speech is unfamiliar to me. Had I been speaking in German, I would have automatically slipped into those phrases in German. But with the language and cultural context, I had made assumptions. I expected the receiver of my communication to be capable of inferring from my words to the meta-message.
We make assumptions all the time. Do you have a family member or co-worker who is not responding to what you are trying to convey? Does it feel like they don’t hear you? We can feel so alone and get really frustrated when that occurs. However, we need to keep in mind that the responsibility for communication always lies with the sender. Communication is successful when the sender’s message is correctly received and understood. Therefore, it is the sender’s responsibility to communicate clearly and effectively and to check the understanding of the delivered message.
I had not done that. I had found myself in a rendition of Groundhog Day, where each morning the almost 18-year-old man needed to be kicked out of bed after oversleeping, and where each morning, after his departure, the dirty frying pan and spatula were sitting on top of the stove and the unwashed plate and cup in the sink. What does Bill Murray do in Groundhog Day? He first goes crazy until he decides to let go and enjoy himself in the ever repeating reality.
If you are feeling like it’s Groundhog Day, you neither have to go crazy, nor just let it go. You have the key to ending the miscommunication by changing your end of it. That might be the content of your messages, the tone of your voice, the non-verbal signals, or all of the above. When communication is not working, it’s not the receiver’s fault. Too often, we make people wrong in the process of not being able to get through to them. Their communication style is not wrong, just different.
Sometimes when communication is frustrating we feel irritated and annoyed. That sends additional interfering messages to the person at the receiving end. They feel not good enough in some way, perhaps like a burden, or unappreciated, or lectured to, or criticized. Step one is to check your communication honestly for that destructive energy. When we can perceive the receiver as willing and capable, our meta-message is one of trust and respect, instead of annoyed superiority.
Step two, change the choice of your words and double check the result. You might have to try out something completely different that you have not tried yet, and monitor the result. Sometimes your words might be too indirect; at other times the words might have too much edge. Do you perhaps need to use gentler start ups to ensure your receiver remains open to receiving your communication?
I am glad our Groundhog Days at home are over. I am very impressed by how us adapting our communication style slightly has allowed our exchange student to also adapt to planning ahead and being very considerate. Communication can create frustration, but when successful, communication creates wonderful bonds of connection.
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Please check out the upcoming relationship workshop which will include tools for more successful communication, especially for conflicts.