When people meet, eye contact is the first connection, followed by conversation. Strangers often feel awkward about selecting the best words in approaching a new friend. Remarkably, at times, so do partners. Knowing how to express oneself is crucial in initiating and maintaining productive communication with another person.
All conversations are motivated by one of three wishes, receiving: Information, Validation or Attention.
INFORMATION questions such as, “What time is the dinner party?” “Remind me why we chose to change insurance companies” or “Where is today’s mail?” are direct inquiries eliciting factual data.
Almost all other verbal statements are imbued with the desire for VALIDATION, which includes: appreciation, admiration, support and affirmation of one’s worth. “Did you notice that I cleaned the garage?” is not a statement in search of a factual answer but rather a request for appreciation for the effort and outcome. If the partner responds with “I saw it and I truly appreciate all the work you did, it looks great,” the garage cleaner’s need for appreciation has been satisfied and the connection between the mates is strengthened.
Regrettably, partners are not always tuned into the need behind their mate’s words. Many disappointments and hurts result when the wish for validation is unmet. It is wise to remind oneself that unless a factual answer is all that is needed, an affirming statement is the appropriate choice.
Some request for approval come via a self-demeaning statement, “I am so stupid, I lost my keys”. This self-reprimand requires a response that separates the person’s worth from the act of misplacing the keys. A good way to deal with it is to empathize with the feeling and label the experience familiar and common. “I know what you mean, it is really frustrating to lose the keys, especially for a bright, responsible person like you. I feel the same way when I do it.” This is likely to reduce the searcher’s anxiety, help him find his keys sooner, while reducing his embarrassment.
ATTENTION is a subset of a need for validation, but is significant enough to be given its’ own category. When an individual speaks and another listens, the speaker’s worth is honored by the undivided attention provided by the listener. Some people try to connect by telling stories, jokes, or even by rambling about insignificant things. Even when they are advised that the joke has already been recited, the joke teller may proceed telling it again. If the listener understands that this is a way to capture attention, s/he may choose to indulge the speaker one more time and avoid being annoyed. The search for meaning in this speaker’s message is inappropriate since it may bear none.
Some couples label this form of discourse as poor communication. It is actually very apt communication, providing the speaker with the needed attention even though s/he was devoid of entertaining or meaningful material.
When you are the speaker, choose your words after clarifying for yourself your underlying wish. Needing facts, appreciation or sharing are all valid but are best rewarded if they are clearly labeled. In asking for facts, say, “I need to know what time the kids have to be picked up, so I can be on time”. For appreciation, say, “I amazed myself today by being able to run that far in such a short time”. In seeking attention, say, “I need your attention for a few minutes.” The partner is much more likely to respond appropriately if s/he is prepared for the task.
When the desired answer is not given, the speaker may feel let down, frustrated and temporarily disconnected from his or her mate. If this becomes a pattern, the speaker may feel unsupported, unloved and unworthy, which interferes with the couple’s intimacy.
Every person can train him/herself to communicate better. Visualize holding your partner’s self-esteem delicately in your hand, as he or she speaks to you. You can support it with direct and clear information, loving validations and ready attention. All it takes is concentration and goodwill.
• Remember to assess quickly whether your partner is asking for information, validation or attention.
• Once you establish it, provide what is asked for. It is never wrong to add validation even when information is requested. “ The kids need to be picked up at 6:00 P.M. I thank you for checking, you are such a responsible and punctual parent”.
• Be generous with validations, they enrich both of you and model a culture of appreciation for your children.
• Think of the need for attention as a health issue. We all need it to one degree or another. Accept your partner’s need for attention even when it greatly differs from yours.
• Be present when listening to your partner. Avoid getting distracted, it is hurtful and defeats your partner’s need fulfillment.
• Respond verbally or non-verbally (by nodding, eye contact and interest) to your partner’s talk, even when the content is not truly fascinating to you.
• When you speak, ask directly for what you need, once you have clarified it for yourself. “I would like to vent some negative emotions and need a sounding board”, is a valid request and helps your mate respond appropriately.
• Ask for validations directly, to ease your partner’s task of guessing. “I was pleased when my boss praised me in the meeting.” This clues the partner to affirm your merit.
• If you do not get the response you hoped for, choose to say: “I was hoping you would say that my boss is lucky to have me”, rather than feel hurt and distance yourself from your mate.
• Good communication means appropriate responsiveness to the need behind the words. You can improve yours by the simple three wishes rule and achieve greater emotional closeness to your mate.
August 14, 2005