In an ideal world, we’d all be experts at communication and setting boundaries from a very young age. Our parents, teachers, and peers would respect our words and provide positive reinforcement each time we took a stand, and we’d grow up knowing what we’re comfortable with and what we’re unsure about, and how to enforce those limits. When we’d meet a new partner or friend, we’d all be compatible communicators, and feel healthy and positive setting limits, negotiating compromises, and using our words.
Unfortunately, that ain’t the case.
Often, a relationship or friendship has an imbalance in communication abilities. Either that friend has just never encountered the kinds of feminist communication that we strive for in all relationships, or they’ve felt stubborn or scared, and haven’t yet taken the plunge into choosing to carefully and explicitly use their words. Many of us inevitably find ourselves gently teaching our loved ones how to actually use their words, through direct lessons or by leading by example, or we decide that the effort isn’t worth it, and we peace out. This post is for people in the former camp, who have a new communicator on their hands, and are willing to expend the energy and effort to teach that person better ways to express themselves.
Caveats to the previous paragraph:
A) It is entirely valid to decide that you want a partner/friend, not a student, and that becoming close with an inefficient or damaging communicator isn’t worth it. That’s legit – you don’t owe your labor to anyone else.
B) If you think to yourself “I should teach this person how to communicate/think like *I* do,” instead of “I’d like to give this person some tools so that we can communicate in a more compatible manner and they can have a happier life,” then that sounds awfully like grooming someone who’s new to being a responsible adult, and you should rethink your motivation. Remember the campsite rule: leave some[thing/one] better than you found it.
So, you’ve decided that it’s worth your time and energy to encourage a loved one to be a better communicator – to set boundaries, to think critically about their wants and needs, to engage in self-care through community collaboration, to be explicit. How do you go about doing this?
Honestly, it’s going to be a little bit like teaching a middle schooler how to do algebra.
2) Ask Guiding Questions
3) Assign Homework
4) Hands-on Experience
6) Success? (or repeat steps 2-5)
You are going to need to crank your own communication up to eleven. When two good communicators are talking or working together, they can often use shorthand. Both are in the practice of assuming goodwill, checking in with each other, automatically assessing fair divisions of labor, etc. When a good communicator is speaking with someone they don’t care about, they can be lazy, because precision and care don’t matter as much when the stakes are low. But with a loved one who is a new communicator, none of that can happen. The stakes are high, so they want to use care and exactitude, and the other person is not yet a good communicator, so the shortcuts aren’t really available.
Use your words ALL of the time. All of the time. Explain things you didn’t think you had to explain, to make sure that they understand all of the details. Give clear details about where you are emotionally. Ask explicitly for the care or assistance that you need. Spell it out when a division of labor looks unfair (except for the communication one – we know that’s unfair for now, and that it’s going to take time to even that out).
Set boundaries, and remind your loved one that they exist. Make clear your expectations. Model the kind of communication that you want them to use.
2) Ask Guiding Questions
Now that you’re being clear about what you want and need, it’s time to find out what your loved one wants and needs. Start each question with a little bit of information about yourself, so it’s clear that this is an equal trade and a shared expectation.
“I don’t like being touched on the neck – is there anywhere that you don’t like to be touched?”
“Work today was really exhausting – tell me about your day, please?”
“I’m feeling a little overwhelmed at this party – how do you feel right now?”
If you get a one-word answer, or not enough information to satisfy your curiosity, ask more questions! Ask them for all of the details that you wish they would supply on their own!
3) Assign Homework
It’s time for your loved one to do some work on their own; something that involves some long-form introspection. Ask them to tell you about their feelings in a method other than the tennis match of a conversation. No back-and-forth, just their words, rambling on about something. I recommend journaling, but they can also record you a voicemail, make a video, talk to you while you sit quietly, talk to you while they cook dinner, etc. Anything that gets the words out, without your interruption.
One benefit of journaling on a computer is that you can move your words around on the page. Most people don’t make sense in long-form the first time they try to use it – there’s a reason we write rough drafts while composing essays and papers in school. By typing out their thoughts, your loved one will get the chance to read it over, clarify things that look uncertain, reorganize, etc. Alternatively, if they opt to use stream of consciousness journaling, the beginning will look messy and confusing, and the last paragraph will have a little more information about what they actually want to communicate.
The right time to assign homework is when you’re facing a difficulty together. A change in your relationship, or financial hardship, or family stress. Something that would normally turn into a difficult conversation or an argument, or would remain undiscussed and cause problems from lack of communication.
Bring this step up gently. No one likes to feel like a child back in school, so it may help your loved one save face and ego if you phrase it like something *you* need to do. “This is really stressing me out, and I feel like writing down my own words is going to help me clarify my thoughts. I’m going to need to do some journaling – maybe that will help me figure out how I feel about this. …seeing as I’m doing that, and I plan to send you my words, can you also write down how you feel about this?” or “I don’t think I really understand all of the nuance that’s going on here – can you just talk at me for the next ten minutes? Give me all of the information, and I’ll see if it makes a little more sense to me, when you’re done?”
What this step does, is it helps your loved one learn to make leaps that you otherwise would have had to forcefully pull out of them. Instead of asking minute, guiding questions, designed to pull them through an entire landscape of a situation, they have the uninterrupted chance to just…talk. To talk, to verbalize, to write, to process externally, and share all of the information in one big chunk. By asking them to journal, you’re asking them to give you all of the details that they think you’ll need to solve a problem, really stretching their communication abilities! If possible, really try to keep quiet (if they’re talking to you face to face), just nodding encouragingly sometimes. If you find yourself needing to ask guiding questions, then you’re likely still on step # 2. That’s ok! It just means they aren’t used to sharing lots of information, yet. They’ll get there!
4) Hands-on Experience
Now it’s time to have some fun!
You don’t necessarily need exceptional communication skills for every day scenarios – you generally know what you each like to eat, how you like to sleep, how to clean, etc., if you’re in regular contact, so you need to have some adventures! Now, you don’t need to actually set up new adventures, just to stretch your communication skills, but it doesn’t hurt. Do you have some time for a weekend-long trip? Are you thinking of getting a pet? Signing up to host couch-surfing? Any change in routine that would require some exceptional level of communication, to see how it goes. Maybe it’s the holidays, and you need to coordinate celebrating Christmas with two different sets of parents, or the bathroom ceiling is leaking, and one of you needs to be home for the plumber.
If you can, give your partner some space to speak. See if they initiate communicating with the high levels of detail that you tend to give, in order to make your adventure or unusual event run smoothly. If they don’t, you can use those guiding questions from step # 2, and encourage them to use their words to indicate preferences, ideas, or plans while organizing your adventure.
The test is everyday life, really. There’s nothing special you have to do here, other than keeping an eye out to see if your partner is using careful communication skills. When they do, encourage them! Praise them! Thank them! It feels so, so nice to be thanked, so when you see your loved one putting in effort to make your life easier (by communicating clearly), let them know how great it is.
6) Success? (or repeat steps 2-5)
Did you succeed? Well, only you and your loved one can make that decision. What is success? Are you looking for your partner to share information exactly like you do, and to mirror your style of communication? See my note above about grooming. It’s kind of weird to try and mold a person in your image, even if you think you’re the best at what you do. You probably won’t succeed, anyway, and you’ll be frustrated when your loved one doesn’t do exactly as you do. Are you looking to make your relationship or friendship run more smoothly, with fewer misunderstandings or arguments? That’s a great reason to want to help your partner learn to communicate better. Are they happier, or more able to voice concerns? Do they set more clear, helpful boundaries? Do you have effective conversations about redressing problems or tricky logistical pickles? Those all look like signs of success, to me!
And there’s no one solid goal, either. If you get your partner able to communicate clearly when prompted by guiding questions, that’s a kind of success. You get to decide for yourself if the styles of communication that you use together feel effective.Communication is a kind of spell casting that involves all parties to use. If one person isn’t pulling their weight, someone else will have to pick up the slack, but you can still come to a healthy place if one person is making most of the motions to communicate.
These steps don’t just have to be used with a partner or loved one or friend – you can use these to teach your children or students, but be aware of power differences. Whenever you take on the role of an educator, you’re assuming a kind of power over another person. Make sure that they *want* to become a better communicator. Make sure that you’re not punishing them for the things that make them who they are. By which I mean, if someone is generally not a very verbal person, you shouldn’t punish them by withdrawing or being angry when they fail to magically become as verbose as you are. They may not be a compatible partner, but trying to mold them into one may be like trying to change their entire personality to suit you. Be mindful of that, please.
The next post will be for the other half of this equation – people who want to become better communicators, but don’t know where to start.