A three year old sat crying in her bed and her mother let her cry, thinking she would eventually fall asleep. When the crying continued, her mother went to comfort her. “How can Mommy help you?” the mother asked. “I need you to hold me,” the girl said, stating clearly what she needed.
As adults, it’s easy to get caught up in the games and patterns that we have learned growing up. These have become our tools for survival, the masks we wear. But do they work?
Protecting ourselves with unclear communication becomes more apparent in romantic relationships. It sounds like this: “I can’t believe you worked late again tonight.” When in reality, the true message is, “I am missing you and want to spend more time with you.” The first statement can sound accusatory, leaving the listener feeling defensive. The second message gives more information, where true feelings – even vulnerability – are revealed.
Somewhere along the line, we learn to say something different than what we want. It’s as though we are playing a game of strategy. If we say this, then the other person will do that. We guess and second guess, until we have strategized so much that our communication becomes convoluted and unclear. Whether the intention is to protect ourselves or hide what we really want, wouldn’t it be easier to be clear not only to ourselves, but to the people in our lives?
As an example, one of my clients, Teri, wanted to be coached around a situation in her office. One of her co-workers had alluded to the fact that she receives special privileges because she has a flexible schedule to help accommodate her needs as a single parent. Their relationship began to suffer as the co-worker made biting comments to her face (with a veil of humor) and behind her back (to other staff members).
She was irritated, but didn’t want to communicate with him for fear that he would know that his comments were getting to her.
“What do you think he is trying to communicate and who should he be communicating with?” I asked Teri. She thought for a moment and said, “It sounds like he feels he is being treated unfairly and should probably be talking to our boss.” It seems obvious when you break it down, but we don’t often do that. Instead, we react to the co-worker’s negative comments, or worse, say something behind his back. The problem only grows from there.
I asked my client, “What do you want, how can you communicate that…and to whom?”
“I want my co-worker to quit saying these comments to me and have the boss address the situation directly.” We worked through how that might sound and she even practiced saying it to me. We came up with an action plan for the week and created accountability: “What will you do, by when and how will I know?”
Teri addressed the problem that week by communicating what she felt and asking for what she needed both from her co-worker and her boss. She opened herself up to being real (and possibly vulnerable) and the dynamics of both relationships changed for the better.
By asking the simple question, “What do I need?” and finding a way to say it, you gain clarity with the people in your life. Wouldn’t it be nice if people said things directly and quit playing games? The only “people” you can control is you.
Coaching Challenge: Identify three situations this week when you are not clearly communicating what you need. It could be something at work, in a romantic relationship or with someone in your family. Usually the intent behind your current form of communication is to protect yourself and not appear too vulnerable. It is helpful to use ‘I’ statements when communicating your needs. This can make the other person feel less attacked and genuinely speak to your feelings and needs. Your first step is to identify these situations.
Second, ask yourself what it is that you want. And third, communicate what you need to the other person. Even if it doesn’t turn out perfectly, you have identified what you need and clearly communicated to the other person. From there, continue to be real in the relationship and speak your truth. Isn’t that better than wasting your energy playing the game?