Monday, August 8, 2011

When Effective Communication Fails

(originally posted at Reepicheep's Coracle)

When Jenn and I teach our Effective Communication class for adults, we teach participants a script for sharing their feelings honestly and kindly, for listening to the feelings of their partner, friend, or co-worker, and for finding solutions that will work for both people. After the attendees practice this joint problem solving, we often get the question: What do you do when the person that you are communicating with doesn't know how to communicate effectively or won't? I had a recent experience that made the answer that we usually give more clear to me.

A friend and I had an argument. It started with a misunderstanding, which I escalated by making a snotty reply. I apologized for my nasty reply and started the communication process. After a few emails were exchanged, in which I explained my feelings, tried to get a grasp on his, and started groping around for a solution to heal our friendship and move on better than ever, he refused to talk about it anymore. He decided he isn't good at or comfortable with this kind of honest and personal communication and that he wasn't going to do it anymore.

This leaves our friendship at basically an acquaintanceship, since he's made it clear that we can't really talk about things that are important or difficult. This makes me super sad because he was a person I was really looking forward to knowing better over the years. I still feel angry (at least a little bit) and hurt because our situation never got resolved and never will be. Basically, as far as helping our relationship, this effort at communication was a big fail.

But I did what Jenn and I advise our class to do, when they want to know how to handle a person who doesn't want to communicate: I used a positive discipline tool card called Decide What You Will Do. The basic idea is that you cannot control other people; you cannot make them behave in the way you want, believe what you want, care about what you want. The only person whose behavior is really within my control is me. So, in a situation where the person I am communicating with is not responding the way I would like, all I can do is decide what I will do.

In my situation, I decided that I will continue to communicate my feelings honestly and openly, though I wasn't getting back exactly what I would like. I decided that I would tell this person what I really needed, though I was unlikely to get it. I decided that I would work toward reconciliation and understanding as long as the other person was willing to talk. And when he was no longer willing to communicate, I decided how much contact I was willing to have with him and on what level our relationship can exist.

By communicating my apology and my feelings and my desire to work through the problem, I actually gained a lot. I practiced my communication skills in a hard emotional situation. I clarified for myself exactly what I was upset about and what my needs were and ways I had contributed to the problem. I identified another instance of a mistake I make reasonably often (letting my temper flare when I feel upset without getting all the facts), and I am working hard to fix it. I got new information about a person that I needed to know (if someone doesn't want to deal with issues, we probably shouldn't be friends). And I get to be proud of my attempts to be virtuous, to handle problems rationally, to express myself honestly, and to work toward integrating my beliefs and my actions.

So really, this communication was not a failure. As long as I strive for good communication, deciding to do the things that I know are right and carrying them out, the process has worked for me, even if it doesn't always work for the relationship. I have been successful with the only part of the process that is in my control.

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