Please tell me what you want, not what I have to do.
Eden was upset.
John was nervous.
Eden, with her good communication skills, had asked John to “just listen.” John knew that meant he couldn’t fix her problem. So he listened. And when she was done talking it all out, she looked up at him with pain on her face and cried out,
You’re not going to say anything?!!!
John threw his hands in the air. “What do you want from me? I don’t fix and I listen, and now it seems you want me to fix . . .something . . . Tell me, what do you want me to do?!”
Eden was about to launch in and tell John exactly what she wanted him to do.
But then she paused.
Perhaps you’ve been where Eden and John were.
It can be maddening. With so many different communication needs and styles, how do we navigate?
We teach our partners, friends and even co-workers how to treat us. Sharing our preferences and needs is an adult way to get the love we want (thank you, Harville Hendrix). Everyone needs a little direction in how to behave in relationships. But there is a difference between giving someone “direction” and telling them what to do (instruction).
Some relationship counselors advise their patients to tell their partners exactly what to do: “Give your partner the script of how you want them to behave.” But I’ve noticed that this action frequently backfires, because it comes across as controlling. Even though telling our partners exactly what we want is an adult move that enables us to take responsibility for our needs, it also activates a parental role — one that can spark a power dynamic that works against intimacy. Yes, even when our partner is asking for it.
What to do instead? How do we tell the difference between direction and instruction? Sometimes the difference lies in intention, tone and syntax. Here’s an example of two similar communiques:
Direction: I really need you to listen without fixing (a request)
Instruction: Sit down and listen without saying or trying to fix anything. Then just tell me everything’s going to be alright.
Back to our couple at the start; John, in his exasperation, thought he was seeking direction, but he was seeking instruction. Eden found herself in a bind. She had been down this road before and knew she would increase both of their frustration if she launched into teaching him how to listen to her in that moment. She waited till they calmed down to figure out what needed to be done.
Here’s what she came up with: “I see how frustrating I can be when I’m upset. I can’t really teach you how to listen in a way that makes me feel you really hear me. But I do know we’ll figure it out.”
(a stellar communique that acknowledges difference and inspires hope)
John, genuinely wanting to please, pushed. “Can you give me a few pointers?”
“I always feel better when you look me in the eyes when I’m talking or upset,” Eden shared. “But other than that, you might have to seek advice from someone else or figure this one out on your own. In the meantime, I’m going to try to talk to my girlfriends when I’m super upset first, so I can be more logical when I share with you.”
And just like that, they were collaborating. Instead of diminishing John’s creativity or authority with instruction, she took responsibility for her own issues and left his part up to him.
In your clear communication, are you directing, or instructing? Here are some examples that can work, if you use them with loving intentions and tone:
Direct by request:
Can you put the dishes away after you dry them? Ask me if you don’t know where something goes.
Direct by feedback:
I love it when you . . .
It turns me off when you . . .
Teach only activities:
If (and only if!) your partner is a willing student you can teach your partner to cook, rock climb, or upload snazzy photos to Instagram, but when it comes to matters of the heart — better to let them learn the skills they need from someone else. Otherwise, you run the risk of setting up a power dynamic and stepping into a role that resembles a controlling parent — no fun for date night.
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Photo credit: Getty Images