My Communication Testimony: how learning how to communicate saves relationships

IMG_20170708_170348990I lay in the top bunk, trying to calm down my younger sister as she exploded, “I hate you! Every single day you make me so angry at you!” I could hear her crying as I responded to her, “I don’t understand; you never make me angry. Why do I upset you so much?” I could sense her frustration in her reply: “Everything you do makes me angry. Every single day. I hate it!” “Well, tell me what to change. If you tell me what to do differently, I’ll do it. Then I won’t make you angry. I can’t change until you tell me what I am doing wrong.” I lay calmly on my bed listening to her sobbing in frustration with me. “It’s just everything, BethAnn, you make me feel so worthless.” Although I was calm in my bed, I will admit I was hurt to know I was hurting her. “Well, goodness, just tell me how to Image result for confusedchange. I’ll change for you! Just tell me what you want! You have to give me specifics or I’ll never be able to stop making you angry. What do you want me to do? I know it’s not your communication style to be so blunt, but I can’t speak your language if you don’t adjust and speak my language sometimes. You’re going to have to do something outside of your comfort zone so that I can speak your language. What do you want me to do?!”

These conversations happened on a very regular basis over an extended season in time when my relationship with my sister hit a rough spot. Looking back I see how cruel I was in these conversations, speaking my conversational style in a pushy way, forcing the task-oriented, low-context side of things. But she hated me and I didn’t understand why she didn’t know that I loved her. I didn’t know what to do. Working our way through this extended and painful conflict was one of the reasons I am so passionate about communication today.

Communication in close relationships is like communication in any other kind of relationship except that everything in close relationships is so many times more magnified, intense, and important. This is mainly because in close relationships, we have IMG_20170620_115110749much higher expectations for the other person combined with the fact that we have regular, long-term interactions with the other. We expect the other person to truly know us and we expect love to conquer all. But when there is even one communication style difference, that one thing which gets on the other’s nerves really builds up over time. When one thing you do whispers a lack of care for the other, this one thing begins shouting a lack of care over time.

In this case with my sister, it turned out we were speaking different love languages. I speak words of affirmation and physical touch. “Tessa, we’re a great team. I appreciate how we compliment each other and I’m glad to have you as a sister” was my way of proving I loved my sister (I didn’t hug her–I already knew she has a large space bubble and can’t stand hugs!). But to my sister, whose love language is acts of service, these words were very shallow.

I actually asked Tessa to share her side of the story, and here are some of her thoughts: 0514171506What made it worse is that I would show her that I cared by cleaning our room, making her pancakes for breakfast, or collecting F Minus comics out of the newspaper only to be met with remarks like “Why does it matter if our room is clean?” “I actually felt like toast for breakfast,” or “Well, I don’t need all the jokes. And that one isn’t even all that good.” It seemed like all my attempts were getting met negatively, on purpose. Yet each time I would explode, she would try her best to convince me that she really did love me and she couldn’t understand what was wrong. Unfortunately, often actions speak louder than words in my life, and in this situation, it was very difficult for me to believe her words when her actions were conveying a very different message by my interpretation.”

It took me a long time to figure this out. It’s not that I didn’t believe actions mattered, I just didn’t realize how crazy much they really mattered. I really just wanted her to spell it out so that I could solve the problem quick and easy. Geez, Tessa, just tell me what you need! But to those of you who can relate to this, I have something to warn you: talking it out doesn’t always solve everything.

Consider the act of wishing someone happy birthday. If I remember it’s your birthday and greet you with a bright, “Happy birthday!” when I see you, it can mean a lot. But if we go through your birthday together without me remembering and you finally speak up and say, “You know, it’s my birthday today.” My bright “Happy Birthday!” isn’t the same. You can’t necessarily know if I was doing it because I cared or because I felt obligated.

Image result for pancakesIn the same way, I have to learn to communicate in Tessa’s love language on my own sometimes to show that it is genuine. If she had to tell me, ““BethAnn, my love language is acts of service and I’m not going to feel loved until you sincerely do occasional acts of service for me just to remind me that you do care. If you would only clean our room up sometimes and maybe make breakfast for me, or just do something for me…” for one she wouldn’t know how much I’m doing it out of concern for her happiness or how much I’m doing it out of a guilt trip. Secondly, this approach would likely make Tessa feel guilty for asking these things of me. Going out of my way sometimes to show my sister love is healthy. But if you’re the person asking for this, it feels needy, selfish, and wrong.

Tessa helped explain this too. “Another straw that was added to the camel’s back was the guilt that she would indirectly make me feel for communicating the way I did and for feeling the way I felt. There was obviously conflict in our relationship, but since she didn’t see anything wrong, it was apparently my fault. I was the one being annoyed; I was the one who couldn’t spell things out plainly; I was the one not feeling loved. But I felt guilty for telling BethAnn what I would like her to do and what would really make me feel like she cared because it felt very selfish of me and like as soon as I told her it would be fake.”

I had to figure this out the harder way: I had to pay better attention to what made her happy, I had to try different ways of proving my love, I had to go out of my way to speak in her love language. But doesn’t that demonstrate love much better than if she had just told me? So this is why I am so passionate about studying communication. It’s humbling to recognize that my way of communicating is not only not the only way, but it’s also not even a “better” way. Recognizing this fact is what allows me to truly demonstrate my love for my sister and it’s what allows me to have a better perspective of where I fit in IMG_3582this big world. And it saves a very valuable relationship in my life 🙂 

I hope that you will take communication seriously and will humble yourself to recognize that other ways of communicating are valid. Please let me know your thoughts and/or experiences. I’d love to hear how understanding the complexity of communication has made a relationship of yours stronger.

 

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Relationships 101: It begins with knowing God

rocks people man happy worship sunset view clouds sky dark silhouette A twitter post by CommonWhiteGrl stated, “Being 18-25 is like playing a video game where u’ve skipped the tutorial & you’re just sort of running about with no idea how anything works.” Tell me about it. At this age we often feel overwhelmed, trying to figure out our lives: our educations, our careers, our relationships.

Of all of these significant aspects, I would argue that relationships are the most important. The relationships you form today are going to affect who you are tomorrow (more so, I would argue, than the career or educational path you chose). Most college kids are hungry for good, close friends. So to solve our problem, I wrote a post revealing the deepest, previous-to-now unknown, rocket-science, doctorate-degree-level, what-you-never-knew-before secrets about how to form and maintain a good relationship.

Okay, okay, maybe it’s not quite that secretive…and maybe it’s not quite that complicated…yeah…it might actually be common sense. BUT, I know this because I do it all the time: the common sense is so often forgotten. So, in this post I took up the menial task of reintroducing it–for my own sake if for no one else’s.

The Backstory

You know that passionate love and connection you feel between yourself and your best friend and/or significant other? No, seriously, think about your excitement to spend time with this person. This love and closeness is something we desire in relationships and it is delightful when we can make such connections. But, even if you think you have the closest of BFFs or the world’s best girlfriend, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

If you think you’ve felt love, passion, or belonging from any human before, I want to remind you God created that passionate love and if you think it’s strong between two humans, imagine how much stronger God feels that way toward you. As much as it means to wake up to a simple text saying “good morning” from your lover or best friend, it means so much more to God for you to wake up and say “good morning!” to him. He pursues you, desires you, and wants your love more than any human possibly could.

Therefore, if you really want good, fulfilling relationships, you have to start with getting to know God. 

I know God is so big, so unimaginable, so vast, so…everything. It seems impossible to know God and he sometimes feels so very distant. I know it. And I do not want to downplay God–he is way beyond us. I readily admit he is far too vast to understand. But, at the same time, he’s created each individual to be capable–in fact only fulfilled–when he/she has a close relationship with God. So in the face of this aspiration, I want to offer a variety of ways to stay connected with your creator.

Talk

We think we’re so technologically advanced when we can text someone anywhere in the hands clasp pray person people ring still bokeh portrait black and white world and they can receive it in a matter of seconds. How much cooler, though, is it that we can talk directly, without any time or technological boundaries, to the creator of the universe? And what kind of friends don’t talk? Realistically, how many of us, if asked about our relationship with God would have to answer–if answering honestly–“Well, we aren’t really talking anymore”? Let me tell you, in relationships, that statement is never a good sign…

Talk to God as you would talk to your best friend. Tell him how your day was. Tell him what is bothering you. Tell him what you’re excited about. Tell him why you are angry with him. Like a patient lover, he’s standing right by your side, just waiting for your attention. He wants your heart and wants your real self. Talk to him–even if you are only saying stupid things. He knows already, but he wants to hear it from you. Sometimes you and your best friend talk just to hear from each other what you already know. That’s what God wants.

Listen

But good friends don’t just talk, they listen. Jackie Kendall and Debby Jones, in their book Lady in Waiting, do a great job of describing this: “Even when someone is very special to you, you do not get too excited with a steady monologue. Listening is an important part of developing closeness with someone else. If you want to get to know the Lord, you must seek Him not only with a whole, clean, and pure heart, but also with a listening heart.”

mountain valley hill cliff rocks landscape blue sky clouds people man sitting alone mountaineer hiker hiking climbing sunny day daylight travel outdoors summer adventure Very few people would argue this point. But how does one listen to God?? One obvious answer is through reading his word. You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again: God’s word is a love letter to you. I bet it’s been a while since you’ve read God’s word as carefully as you would read a love letter… But you can also listen to God through a sermon, through reading inspirational books and blogs 😉 , or even through admiring creation (which he spoke into being). Sitting outside and staring up at the clouds, thinking about who God is definitely counts as listening to him.

Hang Out

The intense desire you have to spend time with a best friend or significant other is the way God feels about you. He looks forward to shared time and loves for you to be aware and accepting of his presence even in menial tasks. Just as even washing dishes is more fun with a friend, being aware and accepting of his presence in any circumstance can count as “quality time.”

And just as you enjoy spending time with your BFF or significant other in groups, you can hang out with God in groups–that’s what churches, discipleship groups, and worship nights are for. These are marvelous ways to celebrate God with other friends. mountain nature sky sunny sunrise summer sunset sunlight sunshine green grass sea water ocean lake man people reading book bible sitting alone bench But, also as you enjoy spending time with that one friend one-on-one, so you ought to spend time one-on-one to really connect intimately with God. Set aside some alone time* to talk with God, to listen to God, and just to sit silently with God. You’d do it with your boyfriend/girlfriend/bestfriend. Do it with God.

*Are you really alone if you’re chillin’ with God?

Become Obsessed!

You know how lovers are obsessed with each other and simply can’t get that special someone off their minds? Well, God’s obsessed with you and would love for even a small portion of that obsession to be reciprocated. Thinking about someone is a way of bringing that relationship into the present (see my post: Relationships in the 3-D). Randomly thinking about God throughout the day is a way to evoke passion in your relationship. Take your prayers before meals more seriously, place Bible verses in obvious places to randomly get your attention, think about a time when God has come through for you.

Many of us feel so overwhelmed about deepening our relationship with God that we tend to simply push it off. Or we forget how desperately God is pursuing us, waiting for so much as a little awareness from the humans he created in his image to share his love with. Or we get so caught up in life that we get distracted. But life is short and unpredictable. And God is waiting. So please, don’t let God’s greatness be an excuse for starting or growing deeper in the best relationship of your life.

“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 🙂

Why Sarcasm?

Screenshot 2017-03-29 at 6.36.47 PM - Edited.pngI love skiing. I’ve had the opportunity to go quite a few times and have seen the slopes at their busiest. One day, when my friend and I were going through the rental system, the place was just the opposite–it was practically dead. As the woman handed us our skis, my friend stated sarcastically, “Wow, it’s really bustling here!”

The employee’s response made my friend and me want to laugh. “No!” She exclaimed passionately–perhaps with a tad bit of annoyance–“You should see what it’s normally like. We aren’t busy at all right now!” As soon as we both stepped outside we chuckled at the fact that the sarcasm hadn’t been picked up on and, thereby, how stupid we must’ve looked to the employee.

Sarcasm has a bad rap. It can be seen as disrespectful, and has been stereotypically assigned to the rude teen who rolls his eyes at his parents and responds in some snarky way to some wisdom they offer. For the record, I am not condoning this sort of behavior. I believe that–especially those of us who call ourselves Christians–should always, always portray respect, even when you don’t necessarily admire the other person. Just like every other aspect of communication, sarcasm  is a tool and needs to be used responsibly. That being said, in the right circumstances and used appropriately, I think that sarcasm is a creative way to engage with communication. I feel that understanding what sarcasm is and why we use it can help to present sarcasm in a friendlier perspective and admire it when it it’s worth being admired.

Why do we college kiddos enjoy using sarcasm? For inspiration on how to address this question, I turn back to my favorite communication expert: Deborah Tannen. The first thing Tannen brings up is how humans like to challenge themselves. We like to create more and more elaborate skills, inventions, and ideas. Life gets more exciting when we embellish what would otherwise be the same old, same old. We do this in communication too. When skiing, the emptiness of the rental building was so pronounced that my friend wanted to say something. But why state the obvious, boring fact: “this place is kind of empty”?

So we use sarcasm to add a little style to the statement. It gives communicators a bit of a challenge and adds interest. Tannen explains it metaphorically, saying, “The speaker feels clever for having pitched a curve ball, the hearer for having caught it” (p. 71).* If sarcasm can be pulled off like this, the game is well worth the effort. Of course, there are times, like my example, where the trick isn’t pulled off so cleanly. “But if the curve is not caught–if it hits someone in the head or flies out of the ball park–no one is happy. The communication ball game is temporarily brought to a halt” (p. 71).*

Recognizing that sarcasm can be taken the wrong way, I would encourage responsible and thoughtful use of this form of communication. But, when used appropriately, I believe we can have a greater appreciation for sarcasm by understanding some of the nuts and bolts of it.  When you use or hear sarcasm, admire the puzzles we can make out of every day communication. Recognizing what is behind sarcasm can make it that much more interesting to those of us who use it (and perhaps that much more understandable for those of us who don’t).

What are your experiences with sarcasm? You readers from the younger generations, when do you use sarcasm? Do you appreciate it or find it too dry? I’d love to hear any thoughts.

I’d also be especially interested in hearing from those of you who are past the college-age audience that I typically write to. Could you see yourself admiring sarcasm or do you view it as always disrespectful? When is sarcasm appropriate and when isn’t it?

I don’t feel like this topic is addressed very often and would be happy to write a sequel if I receive enough thoughts from you readers 🙂

*Tannen, D. (1986). That’s not what I meant: How conversational style makes or breaks relationships. New York, NY; Harper