“Don’t ask if you don’t like what I have to say!”: Relationship-oriented vs. task-oriented comm

Image result for chicken noodle soup

When I lived at home, all the kids in the house had one night per week where they were assigned the task of making dinner. One of my sisters was always looking for suggestions. I remember one day when she came into my room and asked, “BethAnn, what should I make for supper?” “I don’t care,” I responded, looking up from my homework. “I love your chicken noodle soup and rolls.” “No, I don’t really have time for that.” I made another suggestion, “Your Stromboli is great…” She looked a little annoyed, “That’s a lot of work!” “Okay, well…I like your meatballs in cream sauce.” At this point she was definitely flustered, “Why do you always expect me to make all the hard meals?” My expression changed to annoyance as well, “I don’t care what you make; make whatever you want!”

For Pete’s sake! I hadn’t cared in the first place, I was just offering suggestions so that she had some ideas to brainstorm from. It’s what I would’ve wanted. And I was even complimenting her and her cooking left and right, for crying out loud. If she didn’t want suggestions, why in the world did she ask?!

Most of my regular readers are familiar with my favorite Deborah Tannen quote: “What seem like bad intentions may really be good intentions expressed in a different conversational style” (p. 151). This episode between my sister and me demonstrates this quote to a “t.”

I really hadn’t cared what my sister made for dinner. No matter what she made, I knew it would be good. But if I had just said, “I don’t care” and went on with my homework, it would look like not only didn’t I care what we had for dinner, I also didn’t care that she was struggling with the decision. Therefore, I thought I was showing love by offering suggestions–and especially in my compliments. I had great intentions. But they weren’t communicated in my sister’s conversational style.

I was focused on the task: we need ideas for what to make for supper. My sister was taking a more relational approach: find out what the other person is in the mood for, and how much he/she is feeling up for before actually worrying about. While my way of making suggestions was to offer very specific options and branch out from there, my sister was expecting very generic suggestions–getting a notion for how she was feeling, which could then be specified. She would’ve felt the care I was trying to offer had I instead started with, “Well, how much time do you have?” or “What do you think of something with pasta?” because these questions would be focusing on her before focusing on dinner. With this being her expectation, my specific suggestions came across as demands–and high demands at that, which is why she felt offended by what I had meant in love.

Task-oriented or relational-oriented communication can be something as simple as starting with specific suggestions and branching out or starting with general suggestions and narrowing in. And yet even this which sounds like such a small deal can cause quite a mess! It is these sort of small variations that I didn’t recognize until I started studying communication. Which is part of the reason I feel studying communication is so worthwhile and so applicable.

Understanding how these small expectations can upset whole conversations helps us to extend grace to others and calm ourselves down. Especially when we learn to see the good in both, it can also help us to understand the other person and to communicate better with him/her in the future. Obviously I’m not always going to remember that my sister might prefer general suggestions before specific suggestions, but when I start to sense her growing tense, I’ll remember and because I understand this facet of communication better, I’ll be able to speak in her language. I’ll remember she might be asking more for the relational connection than for literal dinner suggestions. And this is fine too, because I love my sister and would be happy to show her this 🙂

What experiences have you had where you had good intentions but the other person didn’t seem to sense that? Do you know someone who asks for suggestions or advice and then gets angry when you offer it? Could the differences be attributed to something as small as task focus vs. relational focus? Could you re-asses the situation and see some of this principle at play?

Leave me comments or suggestions! I want to hear from my readers 🙂

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