Sunday, September 16, 2012

Tazi's Corner Issue #11: Tips For Better Communication

Dear Readers:

This week I was so mad with my Mommie I almost hissed at her! (Almost; I recognize the hand that feeds me).

Why was I so angry? Did she forget to fill one of my feeding stations? Change my water? Forget to wash my blanket? Clean my litter box? NO! It was (*shudder*) ALL OF THE ABOVE! Granted, I still had three other bowls full of cat cereal; I prefer day-old water (it’s distilled at that point); it’s summer and I don’t use a blanket; and I have a spare litter-box, just in case…but STILL! I felt so ignored!

My first instinct was to ignore Mommie right back when I remembered that she recently went back to that place she calls “school” and has been taking some classes with strange sounding names like “Botany” and “Genetics” and one called “Spanish” because she says she decided it was time to learn it. Thinking on this, I realized that I was acting like a cat should – self-centered and smug. I also realized that many of the letters I receive stem from an inability to view things from someone else’s perspective. I offer as an example the following scenario:

Husband and wife have a much anticipated date for Friday night after work; husband is not home on time, nor has he called to say he will be late. Wife is steaming mad, and when husband finally arrives – two hours late – wife’s response is:

A) Where the [heck] have you been? We’re going to miss our dinner reservation! Did you stop off at the bar with the guys after work?

B) Is everything okay? I was concerned when I didn’t hear from you; you are usually right on time for important occasions!

Realistically speaking, wife’s response will most likely be (A) which puts her husband on the defensive. Maybe he did stop at the bar (which hints at deeper problems than communication), but maybe he forgot his cell phone at the office and got stuck in stand-still traffic; with no way to call his wife – and knowing that she will be angry with him for not calling – his stress levels rise and remain high. Finally reaching home after sitting in nightmare traffic all he wants is the chance to explain to his wife why he is late, and perhaps receive some sympathy for his plight; instead is greeted with an attitude which he returns in kind. The evening is ruined before it even had the chance to begin.

How might this scenario be altered to offer a happy ending? Through the use of “I Language” as opposed to “You Language”, that’s how! If you glance back at the two response choices above, you will notice that Response A focuses solely on the actions of the other person; while Response B focuses first on the emotional reaction of self, then on questioning and complimenting the other person. Response A uses “You Language”, the more common pattern of communication among humans; Response B uses “I Language”, which I will now discuss in further detail.

“I Language” is a way of communicating the same message in a manner that does not lead to a stress response in others. Shifting into “I Language” can be a difficult adjustment because it forces us to focus not only on our emotions, but our reasons for having them. Why do we feel so strongly about a particular subject? “I just do” is not a satisfactory answer. If you are going to be upset with someone over something they did or did not do, you owe it to them to explain why you are upset with them; otherwise you are treating them as subordinate to you, marginalizing their personage through the exercise of your temper. You should not speak to your spouse in the same manner that you speak to your children!

In some cases, such as a parent-child relationship, one person is subordinate to the other. This does not mean that “I Language” is inappropriate, ineffectual, and equalizing; rather, “I Language” can be a wonderful tool in socializing children when used at an age-appropriate level. A five year old is capable of experiencing complex emotions, but not capable of understanding why they are feeling the way they feel. By setting the example through the use of “I Language” the child will grow to learn its purpose and place. Should we refuse to understand our own motives for emotional response, we pass that ignorance on to the next generation.

“I Language” does not mean you must stand there and reason with people; it means you must think before you speak so as to communicate more effectively. Nobody likes to feel like they are being attacked, but that is exactly what is happening – intentionally or unintentionally – when we lay out our stress reactions on someone else. The result is a build-up of defenses and a shut-down of listening skills. By shifting our burden of stress onto another person – through yelling; nasty comments; and worst of all, nagging, we build an emotional wall between us and the person we with whom we seek understanding and cooperation.

For example, getting angry with a teenager because they did not clean their room is not going to result in a positive response; rather, the room will stay messy (teenage rebellion at its most passive-aggressive) or the teen will clean their room but focus their resentment of the chore on the one making them do it – the parent. This is no way to build a trust relationship between parent and child – crucial during the teenage years. Which response do you think would be more effective?

A) How many times do I have to tell you to clean up this den of iniquity you call a room?* If it is not cleaned to my satisfaction by the end of the day you can forget about going out with your friends this weekend! (*Much thanks to the late LCS for this amazing turn of phrase!).

B) I was hoping to find your room cleaned up by now. I work hard to keep the house looking nice and when I look at this mess I feel as though you don’t respect my efforts. Do you realize that?

Rather than rant, explain your anger. Children may fear anger, but they know it quickly passes; disappointment on the other hand stings a lot worse, and is felt a lot longer. By explaining why their messy room upsets you, you are forced to examine your own feelings and pinpoint why you feel so strongly about this subject – or whatever subject it is that comes between you and your progeny – and relieve your stress in a healthy manner. By asking them a direct question, you provide an opening to converse about the issue in a rational manner. These are two of the many benefits of “I Language”. In a case such as this, the response might not be immediate but you will at least find out why your child prefers to live in squalor.

In general, “I Language” not only helps you to communicate better with others; it also helps you better understand your own motives. When you know yourself better others can get to know you better, too. Once people know what sets you off; puts you in a mood; or otherwise disturbs your inner peace they can make an effort to avoid those triggers – while you make an effort to learn and avoid setting off their triggers.

To start you on your journey to better communication, here are 5 Tips on Learning to Use “I Language””

1. When something is bothering you, ask yourself, “Why is this bothering me?” If you feel disrespected, ask why you feel disrespected. Get to the root of the emotion.

2. Find the true target of your feelings and direct your response towards that person/thing. Do not take your bad mood out on someone else; instead, warn people that you are edgy and having a bad day. Some may wish to help you; others may wish to avoid you.

3. Before you speak, ask yourself, “Is my target trying to annoy/anger/hurt me?” If the slight is unintentional, temper your voice accordingly. If you are uncertain, ask them. Nobody likes to be yelled at over a mistake; remember that people do not always realize the effect their actions have on another.

4. When speaking, start by expressing how you are feeling (angry/stressed/hurt/betrayed) before mentioning the offending behavior, keeping the accusatory phrase “you make me” out of the sentence (try “I get angry when…” not “You make me angry when…”). Nobody can make you lose your temper; your emotional response is yours alone to control.

5. Put yourself in the other person’s place and ask yourself what circumstances beyond their control may have affected their actions; give them the chance to explain their side of things before showing annoyance or anger.

An easy way to start using “I Language” is to use it to express positive emotions. Phrases like “I like it when_______” or “It makes me happy when _______”. From there, you can ease into using it to express your less than positive feelings. I will end with this example:

Mommie, I like it when I have a fresh clean litter-box, several full bowls of cat cereal, and a clean comfortable blanket! It shows me how much you love me – not that you love me any less since school has started...right?

Snuggles to all,

Ask Tazi! is ghostwritten by a human with a Bachelors of Arts in Communications. Tazi-Kat is not really a talking feline.

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