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Use concrete language to improve your communication in relationships

2 Post author: Elo 19 October 2017 03:46AM

She wasn’t respecting me. Or at least, that’s what I was telling myself.

And I was pretty upset. What kind of person was too busy to text back a short reply? I know she’s a friendly person because just a week ago we were talking daily, text, phone, whatever suited us. And now? She didn’t respect me. That’s what I was telling myself. Any person with common decency could see, what she was doing was downright rude! And she was doing it on purpose. Or at least, that’s what I was telling myself.

It was about a half a day of these critical-loop thoughts, when I realised what I was doing. I was telling myself a story. I was building a version of events that grew and morphed beyond the very concrete and specific of what was happening. The trouble with The Map and the Territory, is that “Respect” is in my map of my reality. What it “means” to not reply to my text is in my theory of mind, in my version of events. Not in the territory, not in reality.

I know I could be right about my theory of what’s going on. She could be doing this on purpose, she could be choosing to show that she does not respect me by not replying to my texts, and I often am right about these things. I have been right plenty of times in the past. But that doesn’t make me feel better. Or make it easier to communicate my problem. If she was not showing me respect, sending her an accusation would not help our communication improve.

The concept comes from Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Better described as Non-Judgemental communication. The challenge I knew I faced was to communicate to her that I was bothered, without an accusation. Without accusing her with my own internal judgement of “she isn’t respecting me”. I knew if I fire off an attack, I will encounter walls of defence. That’s the kind of games we play when we feel attacked by others. We put up walls and fire back.

The first step of NVC is called, “observation”. I call it “concrete experience”. To pass the concrete experience test, the description of what happened needs to be specific enough to be used as instructions by a stranger. For example, there are plenty of ideas someone could have about not showing respect, if my description of the problem is, “she does not respect me”, my grandma might think she started eating before I sat down at the table. If my description is, “In the past 3 days she has not replied to any of my messages”. That’s a very concrete description of what happened. It’s also independent as an observation. It’s not clear that doing this action has caused a problem in my description of what happened. It’s just “what happened”

Notice — I didn’t say, “she never replies to my messages”. This is because “never replies” is not concrete, not specific, and sweepingly untrue. For her to never reply she would have to have my grandma’s texting ability. I definitely can’t expect progress to be made here with a sweeping accusations like “she never replies”.

What I did go with, while not perfect, is a lot better than the firing line of, “you don’t respect me”. Instead it was, “I noticed that you have not messaged me in three days. I am upset because I am telling myself that the only reason you would be doing that is because you don’t respect me, and I know that’s not true. I don’t understand what’s going on with you and I would appreciate an explanation of what’s going on.”.

It’s remarkably hard to be honest and not make an accusation. No sweeping generalisations, no lies or exaggerations, just the concretes of what is going on in my head and the concrete of what happened in the territory. It’s still okay to be telling yourself those accusations, and validate your own feelings that things are not okay — but it’s not okay to lay those accusations on someone else. We all experience telling ourselves what other people are thinking, and the reasons behind their actions, but we can’t ever really know unless we ask. And if we don’t ask, we end up with the same circumstances surrounding the cold-war, each side preparing for war, but a war built on theories in the map, not the experience in the territory.

I’m human too, that’s how I found myself half-a-day of brooding before wondering what I was doing to myself! It’s not easy to apply this method, but it has always been successful at bringing me some of that psychological relief that you need when you are looking to be understood by someone. To get this right think, “How do I describe my concrete observations of what happened?”.

Good Luck!

Cross posted to Medium: https://medium.com/@redeliot/use-concrete-language-to-improve-your-communication-in-relationships-cf1c6459d5d6

Cross posted to www.bearlamp.com.au/use-concrete-language-to-improve-your-communication-in-relationships

Also on lesserwrong: https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/RovDhfhy5jL6AQ6ve/use-concrete-language-to-improve-your-communication-in

Comments (12)

Comment author: entirelyuseless 19 October 2017 02:37:04PM 2 points [-]

"What kind of person was too busy to text back a short reply?"

"Too busy" is simply the wrong way to think about it. If you are in a certain sort of low energy mood, replying may be extremely unlikely regardless of how much time you have. And it says nothing about whether you respect the person, at all.

For a similar reason, you may be quite unwilling to "explain what's going on," either.

Comment author: Elo 19 October 2017 10:28:23PM *  0 points [-]

And it says nothing about whether you respect the person, at all.

This is more important than you make it out to be. The very emphasis is that the reasons for the failure to respond are unknown. Whatever they are, you should steelman and respect those reasons in projecting validity for the behaviour, rather than presuming bad faith or really presuming anything at all.

Comment author: gwillen 24 October 2017 10:47:21PM 0 points [-]

But how did she take it / how did she respond? Provide us evidence in favor of your approach. :-)

(FWIW, I tend to have similar kinds of thoughts when people communicate with me less than I'd like -- less than I'd communicate in their place -- and I think an important insight is that not everybody has those thoughts. In my case, I think there's a convincing case that I have an anxious attachment style, and it helps me to reflect on the fact that there's a lot more happening in my head than happening in reality, in these cases.)

Comment author: Elo 25 October 2017 12:16:22AM *  0 points [-]

how did she respond?

She replied right away actually and we had a conversation about it. I expect if I sent the other message, ("you never respect me") I wouldn't have gotten a reply and I would have only been more frustrated.

I think an important insight is that not everybody has those thoughts

Actually I think everyone has these thoughts but in different ways and about different potential triggers of offence.

Comment author: alanforr 22 October 2017 08:43:14PM 0 points [-]

What difference would it make if this person replied? What problem would it solve for you? What problem would it solve for her?

Comment author: Elo 23 October 2017 07:09:55AM 0 points [-]

These are great questions to ask but also not great at dealing with the problem of feeling like a lack of respect.

Comment author: alanforr 24 October 2017 07:45:13PM *  1 point [-]

If you currently feel like you lack respect and that's important to you, then you have an unsolved problem. You have an unsolved problem and don't know how to solve it. So you don't know what questions are relevant. If you did know what questions are relevant you would have answered them already and you would no longer have the problem. So you should be willing to answer a question even if it seems irrelevant to your problem.

Comment author: Elo 24 October 2017 07:55:42PM 0 points [-]

The unsolved problem being the feeling. Solve the feeling by talking about it.

Comment author: alanforr 28 October 2017 10:51:08PM 1 point [-]

Okay. You can't name any problem that would be solved by a reply. So there is no reason for the recipient of your message to reply. So the values underlying your emotions are irrational and you should look into changing them. See

http://fallibleideas.com/emotions

Comment author: Elo 30 October 2017 02:10:32AM 0 points [-]

Okay. You can't name any problem that would be solved by a reply.

a. no.
b. nope.

I said what the problem was.

The unsolved problem being the feeling.

Just cause you want to go staw vulcan on me in your map doesn't change my territory.

Also yes.

So the values underlying your emotions are irrational.

Emotions are information. What you do with that information is up to you.

you should

I should do nothing that you say when you offer bad advice. If invalidating my emotions is your advice I would discount a lot of whatever else you have to say.

Comment author: alanforr 30 October 2017 07:14:53PM 1 point [-]

Okay. You can't name any problem that would be solved by a reply.

a. no. b. nope.

I said what the problem was.

The unsolved problem being the feeling.

Just cause you want to go staw vulcan on me in your map doesn't change my territory.

Your emotions are not a problem relevant to the person you're writing to unless that person knows you extremely well and has some specific reason to be concerned about your emotions, e.g. - your mother or your spouse.

I should do nothing that you say when you offer bad advice. If invalidating my emotions is your advice I would discount a lot of whatever else you have to say.

My advice is that your emotions are not infallible oracles. Rather, they reflect your values, so if your values are bad then your emotions will mislead you.

In this particular case, you want somebody to take the time to write to you. They didn't. That means the person in question saw no value in writing to you. What value is this person going to see in a message about your emotions? I don't know the answer to that question, but if you write without considering it you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

Also, if you don't explain what value you offer that is worth replying to, then you are not considering the values and emotions of your correspondent.

Comment author: Elo 30 October 2017 11:33:21PM 0 points [-]

In this particular case, you want somebody to take the time to write to you. They didn't. That means the person in question saw no value in writing to you.

This model of ignoring emotions and focusing on the value is missing information that can explain what is going on. It's less useful than having the model with the emotions. The proof? I got a reply within 5 minutes.

Your emotions are not... relevant to the person you're writing to... if you don't explain what value you offer

it was an existing relationship yes.