Use concrete language to improve your communication in relationships

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