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Monday, November 4, 2013

How to Communicate Needs to Non-Writing Partners

I'm continuing my series geared toward writers who have partners who don't "get" them. One of the questions that came up from my writer's survey was how do writers communicate with their spouses (who lean toward not being supportive) to let them know what they need, both emotionally and physically?

Let's start with Communication 101, via your friendly Character Therapist.

A Primer on Communication

Every message sent to someone has to be encoded by the sender (hopefully this is done well) and decoded by the receiver (hopefully this is done well). Just as in the game of Telephone, when the initial message can get distorted before it gets to the end of the line, there's all manner of "noise" that can warp the message.

Noise can be anything in the environment (children, television, cell phones ringing, etc.) or anything the receiver is going through (rough day at work, had a fender bender, just got a promotion, etc.) or anything that the sender is going through (anxiety, depression, joy, etc.).

I know...that's a lot of variables to consider.

Seven Steps to Effective Communication

1) Try to reduce as much environmental and personal "noise" as possible. (click to tweet!)

Timing is everything. You want your partner to be in a relatively good mood. You don't want them to be distracted. Kids need to be asleep or away. TV needs to be off (muted does not work!).

2) Ask if they have time to talk, because you've got something on your mind. (click to tweet!)

Even if they are sitting there looking still ASK, don't assume. This means you respect their time and autonomy, and it opens channels more. If they say no, they at least know you've got something in the hopper that you want to address. If they say yes, proceed to step 3.

3) Know exactly what you want to say. (click to tweet!)

Having just a vague idea of what you want to get across isn't a good idea. Your partner likely is already on edge because you've requested to talk to them, which lends a seriousness to the conversation. Their anxiety becomes unavoidable "noise" that you have to cross, so being succinct and to the point will greatly reduce the chance that they misunderstand you.

How do you do that?

4) Be aware of your body language. (click to tweet!)

It is said (from different sources) that anywhere between 60-90% of communication is non-verbal (meaning your body language, expressions, pitch, tone of voice, etc). Be mindful of how you're standing/sitting, how you're using your hands, and how you arrange your facial expressions. The old adage is true: actions speak louder than words.

5) Use I-statements. (click to tweet!)

Never, ever, EVER start sentences with "You." Nothing puts another person on the defensive faster. Then, you've lost them as far as actually listening to you, because I guarantee that they have tuned you out while they try to come up with a rebuttal. Even if you aren't trying to be mean, and you say it nicely, it still comes across as aggressive.

Instead of "You never take care of the kids so I can write," say, "I'm disappointed when I end up caring for the kids all weekend, and I wish you'd offer to take them out some Saturdays so I could write."

That's simplistic, of course, but hopefully you get the idea. People can't argue with how you feel. Using feeling words is a great way to get across what you're wanting to say about what you need.

In general, an I-statement should have three parts:

I feel ___X___ when you do ___Y___, and I wish ___Z___.

"I feel frustrated when you leave the kids at home with me, and I wish you could take them out somewhere when you leave."

"I feel hurt when you ask if I'm ever going to get a real job, and I wish you could respect my writing more by not making comments like that."

"I don't feel valued when you expect me to do all the cooking and cleaning, and I wish you'd offer to wash the dishes or do the laundry every once in a while."

Now, I realize that it looks simplistic, but actually saying these things is very difficult. Your knees might be knocking, even more so if you and your spouse have had many a row over your writing.

6) Listen in return.

Also easier said than done. But you're asking for them to hear you out, so you need to be willing to do the same...even if the outcome isn't what you had hoped to hear. It's okay to be hurt by something that is said in return, and it's okay to cry...but do hear them out. Then you can try to respond with an I-message, conveying your feelings about what they said.

7) End the conversation if things get heated. (click to tweet!)

Request to continue it later when emotions aren't running so high. What happens to folks whose disagreement turns into a fight is that they cease actually arguing about the issue at hand and begin slinging insults about the person and/or fighting about the fighting. Not walk away with an agreement to revisit it later.

Word of Caution

All the communication skills in the world might be insufficient when trying to communicate your needs to someone who doesn't value what you do. Sad, but true. Essentially, you're working within a deficit, and if you don't acknowledge this up front, you're not doing yourself any favors.

Monitor your expectations. If your spouse has been very unyielding, then don't ask for the moon. Start small. Baby steps in the right direction are better than being stonewalled.  (click to tweet!) #3 above should take some thought and consideration. These steps aren't a magic cure-all for a relationship mired in conflict, but they do offer hope and a potential way to meet on the same page.

Consider marital therapy if you think having a mediator present would be helpful. Someone who doesn't have a vested interest in either side can do wonders for helping partners really "see" the issues at hand by stepping outside themselves.

Let's Analyze

Any other suggestions you'd make for communicating effectively about such a touchy subject? Have you ever used I-statements successfully? Leave a story below about how you did.