When you start asking for things directly, it can feel like you’re being really mean.
But what if the opposite is true? What if speaking directly is actually a way to be kind?
Today I want to tackle a thornier issue that makes direct communication difficult: It can feel like we’re being mean.
And here’s why: We often have different goals going into communication.
One goal is to keep the relationship on an even keel. We don’t want to rock the boat. We want everyone to feel as if we’re totally okay.
The other goal can be to deepen understanding and intimacy.
To do the first, it can often be better to withhold information that may actually rock that boat. To do the second, we may have to give information that’s going to make someone uncomfortable.
A couple was washing dishes after Thanksgiving dinner when his mom came into the kitchen and started talking about Aunt Betty, and how lonely she was in the nursing home, and how few residents were still of sound mind that she could talk to. When the mom left the kitchen, the wife turned to her husband and said, “your mom wants you to visit Aunt Betty.” The husband looked flabbergasted and said, “If Mom wanted that she would have asked me!”
He called his mom back into the kitchen and said, “are you trying to get me to visit Aunt Betty?” His mom, relieved, replied: “well, of course! I’ve been waiting!”
Why didn’t the mother just ask directly for the son to visit the aunt in the nursing home?
If she asked directly, he could refuse.
If he refused, that might mean something about him. It means that he doesn’t care about his aunt, and she may secretly be afraid that’s true. So she doesn’t ask directly so that she doesn’t have it confirmed that her son is selfish.
If she asked directly, he may be upset at her.
He may think that she’s being unreasonable, expecting him to take time out of his busy schedule to go see his aunt, who is only a distant relation. He may become angry at his mom and not want to spend time with her anymore.
But if she asks indirectly…
She has the potential that he will do what she wants anyway, but she does not have to risk confirming that he may be selfish, or confirming that their relationship is a tenuous one where a little request like this could anger him.
Asking indirectly allows the illusion of a close relationship to continue.
Nobody is upset at anybody. She may be secretly disappointed that he didn’t see his aunt, but, at the same time, she never actually asked him to. And so she’s able to feel as if they have a great relationship and she has a great son, even though this has not actually been proven.
Asking indirectly allows everyone to operate on surface relationships–which is what most of us do. We allow others to save face by never actually having to admit to anything selfish or bad because we don’t directly ask them to go outside of their comfort zone. That way we are never rejected, and they are never shamed.
Are you PeaceKEEPING or PeaceMAKING?
When you start asking directly, you upset this balance that virtually everyone participates in.
Whenever you upset a balance, people are going to be upset because it feels strange. It’s like you’re directly calling people out, almost like a bull in a china shop. It will seem like you’re the one who is being rude.
But what you’re actually doing is basing your relationship on Truth.
Jesus said that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). Jesus didn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths. He said them out loud. And those around Him still felt incredibly loved, even though he was upsetting the apple cart. But we can never have true intimacy based on anything other than truth. If we’re going to have intimate relationships, we need to be able to share what we’re thinking and feeling. If someone cannot handle that, then that is a sign that the relationship is not as close as we thought it was–that the other person doesn’t necessarily value us the way that we wanted to be valued. That’s a scary, scary thing to know.
However, the converse is also true. You can never really know if someone truly does value you unless you speak up directly. Many of us would rather risk never being truly known than we would risk never knowing if someone really loved us and valued us. We’d rather not have close relationships than we would have it confirmed to us that the people we love don’t necessarily invest in us in the same way.
And you know what? That makes perfect sense. It’s nice to live in an illusion, and direct communication breaks the illusion.
But it’s also not real. And at some point we are going to have to decide if we want real or not.
Now, there’s one more point before we let this one go:
Direct communication may not seem like it, but it’s actually quite kind.
It can seem kind to allow people to save face and to never ask for directly what you want. But telling people how you feel and what you want and what you expect takes so much of the guesswork and emotional energy out of relationships. (and this is doubly true in the workplace, by the way.)
How many times have you gotten upset at your spouse because he or she didn’t read between the lines and figure out that something was really important to you? Or they were trying to read between the lines, but they read totally the wrong lines, and figured you wanted something totally different?
It happens all the time with gifts. Someone thinks they’re hinting clearly about the thing that they really want, while the spouse is desperately trying to figure it out, and picks up on what they think is a hint but really wasn’t. (“Didn’t Susie’s new raincoat compliment her eyes so well?” And suddenly you hav a new raincoat when you already had two, when what you really wanted was an electronic tea maker).
And you feel hurt, but they also feel hurt because they genuinely tried. They just picked up on the wrong thing.
It happens with gifts, but it happens with daily, run of the mill things, too. Maybe what really, really matters to you is that your spouse drop what he or she is doing when you come in the door and give a big hug and kiss and show them how happy you are that they’re home. But at the same time your spouse is always complimenting you on all the tidying that you got done when they were out. So you start to think that what’s really important is the tidying. So everytime before your spouse comes home you run around like a Tasmanian devil tidying all the kids’ stuff, and when they walk in the door you quickly stash the last few things and then run to the kitchen to stick some dishes in the dishwasher, and they’re left feeling lonely–like why is the housework and the condition of the house more important to you than they are?
And it wasn’t that at all! You just picked up on the wrong cues.
And you’re both upset at each other, and you both don’t feel loved.
But if you just said, “Hey, what really matters to me more than anything is that you greet me at the door when I come home,” then all of this would have been averted.
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A lot of us invest a lot of emotional energy trying to decode what our spouse says.
And, to be honest, some of us don’t try to decode, because we figure if it were important then they would ask. And so we’re not really communicating to each other what makes us feel close.
Over the long run, that drives distance between two people.
That’s why direct communication is kind. It lets people have a quick relationship “win” because you know what matters to each other. It lets you see what someone does care. It lets the other person in to your thoughts and feelings.
And it also reveals the condition of the relationship, as we’ll look at through the rest of the series.
What happens if you communicate directly, and your spouse ignores it or rejects it? We’ll deal with that soon.
But you know what? It’s still better to have a realistic and truthful view of your relationship, than to put all of your energy into maintaining a facade.
Direct communication is about Truth and Intimacy. Those are two good things. But they’re also hard things that we do have to fight for. That’s why it feels awkward. That’s why it feels vulnerable. But that’s also why it’s worth it.
Does direct communication feel mean and awkward to you? Do you have a different communication style at home than you do at work? Let’s talk in the comments!
The Direct Communication Series
- 5 Reasons Direct Communication is Difficult
- 6 Elements of Direct Communication
- Why Direct Communication Feels Mean--and Why It's Not
- 3 Reasons Christian Resources Tell Women Direct Communication is a Sin
- 5 Reasons Christian Teaching Discourages Men from Communicating Directly
- The Direct Communication Podcast
- The Real Solution to Nagging
- 10 Tips to Talking to Your Spouse About Your Sex Life
- 10 Ways to Show Appreciation to Your Spouse
- How to Have that Conversation You've Been Putting Off
And please see my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, with lots on having difficult conversations and resolving conflict!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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