One question that I get a lot as a counselor, is how to best communicate about hard subjects. I hope this post will help.
What I typically tell clients is to move away from who is “right” and who is “wrong” and move more in the direction of expressing feelings, listening to the other person’s feelings, and negotiating needs attached to the feelings. My favorite book on this subject is Nonviolent Communication by Rosenburg. I truthfully tell my clients that if I could live my life according to the concepts in that book, I would have absolutely no problems with anyone. However, I add, that I am far too human for that. Still, when I want to get communication back on track, I rely on the methods I outline in this post.
I learned recently that Brene Brown, LCSW, uses the phrase below “the story I tell myself”. I have a confession to make that I have not read many books (including hers) since having children. Though I just got audible, so I look forward to adding her books to my list. I think so much good lingo has made it into the counseling world. So, if you know resources of hers for communication in the way listed below, I’d love to learn about those, too.
Most people have heard of “I” statements. Most people try to use them as a way to own our own thoughts instead of accusatory or judging “you” statements that frequently put people on the defensive. Typically, the format is “when you______, I feel _______.” While this is more useful than “you” statements, I have refined this into a formula I find works best, and provides room for even more healthy communication.
I observe (notice) ________(describe the situation)_______________________
And I feel (FEELING WORD) _________(angry, sad, bewildered, hopeless, etc.)______________
The story I tell myself is __________(the story you tell yourself about what is happening, allowing room for the reality that your perspective may not be the full story)______________
What I wish for is _______(describe your wishes about the situation)______________
I’ll give an example of this in use:
(scenario) A boss becomes frustrated with an employee for not getting a job done the way they were hoping in the time frame they were hoping for.
B (Boss): I don’t understand why when I assign projects to this team the job is never done like I ask, or on time!
E (Employee): I thought I was doing my best work, and I had some things come up that took precedent and thought you would understand and love the job I did!
Let’s explore unproductive inner beliefs that could develop around this:
B My employees don’t respect me, they don’t like me or try to do a good job for me, I’m so done with this stuff!
E No matter what I do my boss picks on me and can’t stand my work or our team, I’m so done with her micromanaging!
Now let’s use the formula to reframe it:
B I observe that I ask for a specific project to be done in a specific timeframe and that is rarely completed on time or in the way I ask for it. I feel frustrated. The story I tell myself is that I’m not respected in my position of leadership. I wish that I could have something I ask for done when I ask for it and I’m not sure how to get that to happen.
E I observe that you ask for projects to be done, but may not realize some of the other projects we are working on as a team can also require our focus, and that sometimes the timeframe seems too difficult to meet when we have other priorities that arise with those other projects. I also observe that I try to do my best, but it seems to fall short of what you hope for. I feel disheartened. The story I tell myself is that maybe you have an issue with me or the team, and that it is too hard to live up to your expectations. I wish that we could have more direct communication so that I’m even more clear about expectations and so that we can feel free to give feedback about the timeframe and work collaboratively around this.
Can you see where this could get worse in the first part, or where there is room for it to get better in the reframed model? This model can be used in all relationships and conflict to work towards a more productive discussion where people can express and try to meet each other’s needs and wishes.
Caveat: Sometimes there is a strong needs clash where it is unhealthy for one person to give into the needs of another. I frequently see this when family members have a strong sense of “blame” and the need is for the other person to “own all of the flaws and take all of the responsibility”. This dynamic is often labeled scapegoating and it’s important for the person scapegoated to be able to successfully say, “no, I cannot meet that need or wish for you, even if I care about you”. Healthy relationships sustain the ability for someone to say no, when it is unhealthy for them. It’s good practice to really learn to listen to our own feelings and articulate those for ourselves and our wishes/needs attached to them, and sometimes those needs are for space or time to let emotions settle, or a need to say “no” to a dynamic.