“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 🙂


The Dark Side of Communication: Reasons Why Studying Comm is Worthwhile

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Why study communication?

When I started my Interpersonal Communications class and then again when I began my independent study on communications, I was shocked by a wave of despair. The more I studied communication the more I saw how impossible it was to actually communicate exactly what I wanted to communicate. Words can have multiple interpretations; ideas are taken differently according to past experiences; different personalities make communicators prone to take things in opposite ways; tone of voice, facial expression, nonverbalsproxemics, and much more can be taken the wrong way.

When people find out I’m majoring in Communications, I almost always get the joking response, “ah, so you’re good at communicating.” No, I’m not good at communicating. And, after having continued studying communications, I find myself more and more assured of that. In fact, arguably most people aren’t good at communicating. So what is the point? Why am I majoring in communications and, an even more relevant question, why in the world am I blogging about communications and making you think about the depressing topic?!

Well, the truth of it is, there is value in knowing how treacherous the art of communicating is. After all, with the countless possible incongruencies and the necessity of communicating every single day, there is bound to be a few hang ups. Knowing this fact alone makes the hang ups easier to deal with. After all, recognizing that you won’t always take the other person quite as they meant to be taken and vice versa always leaves a margin of error, which stops us from being overly-confident in the first place. If something someone said (or seemed to say) appears to be significantly “off,” having a background in some communication makes it more likely that you will recognize that there may have been a miscommunication, instead of immediately reacting negatively. You’ll be more likely to extend grace, understanding that miscommunication is inevitable.

This knowledge of communication and miscommunication also helps us feel better about ourselves when another person reads us wrong. Knowing that miscommunication happens is by no means an excuse not to try to speak more clearly to others. However, this knowledge can be relieving when someone informs you that all your life you’ve been telling him/her that he/she stinks. My sister used to tell me that what I was constantly communicating was not love–she felt I did very little to show her I loved her (we have significantly different love languages). Obviously, at this point, I needed to make some changes in my communication with my sister. However, knowing that there was a misunderstanding allows me to stop second-guessing if I really had such bad intentions my whole life (it allowed me to recognize that I really do love my sister–I just hadn’t been speaking her love language). And it can stop you from convincing yourself that you just can’t express anything right and that you must have something wrong with you.

Once you begin to recognize these miscommunications, you can start to embrace my favorite of Deborah Tannen‘s quotes: “What seem like bad intentions may really be good intentions expressed in a different conversational style.” When you are willing to humble yourself and recognize that different people (who still have good intentions) express things in novel (but not entirely negative) ways, you’ll have a whole new world opened to you.

Ultimately then (big picture), the very least learning about communication can do for you is broaden your understanding of the world and encourage you to extend grace–both to yourself and to other communicators. And when you’re willing to give yourself and others a second chance, you have that much more opportunity to build relationships (and to keep relationships). You could have less opportunity to hold grudges and more opportunity to understand differing perspectives. This will give you some freedom to step out and build relationships with people who are different from you. In doing this, you can eventually start to bridge some communication gaps. No, you’ll never have such a sturdy bridge that you’ll be able to completely avoid such miscommunications. But you can at least build a rope bridge will allow you to go on adventures that previously hadn’t even had available.