Basic Communication Tools:
Shoulds, Buts and More Questioning
I can’t imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects
of his creation and is but a reflection of human frailty.
Never do anything against conscience
even if the state demands it.
Dr. Albert Einstein
An Angry Uncle Charlie
It’s hard not to listen in on another person’s phone call when it begins like this one did: “Uncle Charlie did what?” John Bearister yelled into Dr. D.’s office telephone. John had let his cell phone run down so he couldn’t call out, but a text message from his wife said it was urgent that he call her NOW. He had calmed down enough so his end of the conversation could be heard.
“Now Judy, you have this right? Uncle Charlie is in jail for taking his golf clubs and breaking all the glass and the soft drink machines right inside the window . . . What made him do that? Was he drunk? OK . . . I don’t believe it one minute that he wasn’t drinking . . . It was noon time and he went there for lunch and he just went off when they again screwed his order up . . .”
John listened for a long time to his wife telling him the details. He then hung up, with his last words being . . . “Tell the Sergeant I will be there in an hour to post bail.” He sat there looking at Dr. D. Dr. D. was very surprised since Uncle Charlie was a retired minister . . . He sat quietly and finally with hesitation asked, “Are you all right? Is your Uncle Charlie all right?”
It was quite a while before John looked up from the floor and said, “Yes, we’re both OK. Charlie has never been this much in trouble before because of his temper but we knew it was coming. What can be done for him? What do I say when I go and bail him out?’
“Go to the jail and as soon as they will let you see him, go and either hold his hand or give him a big man-hug and tell him he will be all right. Will he admit that he has a huge anger problem?” The good doctor paused to see if John was following him. He was.
“Yes, I think so. The Sergeant let him talk to Judy on the telephone and he was calm. He said to her; “I have an anger problem; I really have to do something about it now.”
“That’s good,” was Dr. D. D.’s quiet and reassuring answer. “After some basic talk, ask him, ‘Are you aware you have a huge anger problem?’ . . . Once you get that admission, praise him for saying so and tell him that he has just taken the first big step towards solving that problem and that is owning it . . . ‘I have an anger problem’ is such a big statement. As he doesn’t have a record, if he goes into counseling, pays for all his damage, plus a big fine, the court will likely hold his ‘guilty’ plea until he successfully completes counseling.”
John nodded, apologized for dumping this on Dr. D., and got up to go to the jail.
Dr. D. rose, took hold of John’s shoulder, and said: “John this happens. You will be fine and you can help Uncle Charlie. Go to the jail, call home soon so Judy knows you are helping him, then take Charlie home and you go home. Come back here tomorrow morning and we will talk.”
I am Dr. D. and so begins a very normal day at the clinic.
* * *
Amy Vanderbilt’s Curse
That is the first family situation John brought to his weekly meeting with the good doctor to discuss. It is clear John felt relieved that he got the phone call there rather than where he didn’t know anybody. Uncle Charlie’s situation clearly was about anger, very inappropriate behavior, and even communication. Charlie will learn during counseling about feelings and anger. He will learn new behaviors to do when he feels an anger attack beginning. He will be taught to control his anger by expressing it appropriately and often. He will learn assertive communication.
Effective human communication is much more than the selection of words. It is about relationships, values, and feelings. A different level of a relationship brings about different types of communication. Today, Kelly and Dr. D. will demonstrate some of the basic ways that people use communication, often with hidden messages. Remember, it is impossible for a human being not to communicate . . . Kelly, it’s your turn.
* * *
Before speaking, Kelly pauses for a moment, looking at Dr. D. but saying not a word. After what seems like a long pause, but was only seconds, she said: “Good mid-afternoon to all. In this chapter, we cover many aspects of human communication and start with the difficult area of socially correct behavior.”
Dr. D., with a big grin on his face, thinking about what had just happened, says, “In doing so, we start out by making sure that we don’t write anything that will offend anybody . . .”
“I think the good doctor is saying exactly the opposite of what he thinks!” Kelly responded.
Dr. D. was caught thinking back to his earlier conversation: “You are too quick; that is exactly what I was doing. It is impossible to do and say everything in a pleasing way for everyone. How could you? And yet there is a portion of our population that tries to do that in every relationship.”
“I certainly agree. That and diminishing the value of apology by way overusing it are two communication snafus I hear all the time.”
Kelly pauses to sip on her coffee. “I do want readers to know that this column is not anti-etiquette. Etiquette is the way that society has determined things be done the majority of the time. It lists and endorses social norms. Communication protocols help humans not to have to think through everything that they experience. We are not rebelling or endorsing an ‘anything goes’ philosophy either. We give people permission to be themselves to meet their own needs without stepping on people’s toes. We are working to help people develop to their full potential. That is a difficult task as people differ greatly in the way they go through life . . . But let’s work at what we all have in common in relation to some communication basics.”
But, It’s a But . . . .
“You just demonstrated one when you put the word ‘but’ in the middle of your sentence,” Dr. D. added quietly. “Anytime you use ‘but’ in a sentence, the ‘but’ erases anything that is said before the ‘but’ and the real message comes after the ‘but’. That you just acknowledged individual difference is often covered up by our common fallacies. Another example will help.”
Roberto, in his mid-twenties, is interested in dating
a new colleague and approaches her: “Joanne,
would you like to go to a movie with me tonight?”
Joanne, who doesn’t believe that colleagues should
date, starts off her polite but avoiding sequence
by saying: “I would love to, but I have to do my
homework sometime and it looks like tonight is it.”
Roberto, who doesn’t yet realize he is being rejected,
replies: “What about then going out on the weekend;
you could work on your project during the day on
Saturday and we could go to the big game that night.”
Joanne: “The big game, that sounds like fun but I
don’t know if I want to get wet if it rains.”
Roberto, ‘trying’ again: “Joanne, if it is the weather
that you are worried about, we can go to the movie
you have been talking about instead of the game.”
Joanne: “I would love to see that movie, but I am
afraid I won’t get my project done in the afternoon.”
Roberto finally gets it and with head down, goes back to work.
Now I ask you, what do you think are the odds that Joanne will ever go out with Roberto? She is “butting” him, a passive aggressive way of being polite, leading a guy on when you don’t want to date him. It happens all the time.
Kelly is quiet for a moment as she thinks about her first husband and how she often ‘butted’ him: “I’ll start listening for ‘buts’ and hear the real message then after the ‘but.’”
Dr. D. “You will be amazed at what you discover when you look at the forest for the trees.”
Kelly: “Passive language does help bring communication confusion. What about people who don’t adapt to or try to please others as their top priority all the time, but sometimes speak passively because they think it is the polite way to talk?”
Dr. D. answers directly, and quickly. Not only what he says is important, but he is modeling good communication. “A mild version would be this passive inquiry: ‘Would you mind if I stop by this afternoon, I really would enjoy seeing your new kitchen?’” The better, assertive response is: “I have some time free this afternoon and I would like to see your new kitchen. Would it be ok with you if I came by this afternoon to see it and chat?”
“What makes the difference is that the first inquiry uses the phrase ‘would you mind,’ which asks for the respondent’s feelings, not whether the person is available to have company. It deflects from the real question which is: ‘Are you available to have company?’
There is an assumption here that the kitchen owner wants to show off her kitchen. I think it is an appropriate assumption that she would like to do just that so that question doesn’t need to be asked. If by chance, she has just shown it off to two other sets of visitors that day and is tired of doing so, in her response to the assertive question she can say: “Actually this is not a good afternoon for me to have more company; would you be available to come over on Thursday afternoon?”
Be Aware. Be Assertive.
Kelly: “Doesn’t one always have to be concerned about the other’s feelings? Aren’t you telling people they don’t have to be polite?”
Dr. D.: “I hear your question-statements and agree. It works out best if one is aware of other’s feelings; however, that doesn’t mean you have to ask about them every time. The good friend has listening and observing skills and will read the situation to see if s(he) thinks there is something going on with how the other person is feeling. This puts the friend who wants to visit in a thinking mode, not an automatic response mode.
“I can give you a counter example to where someone has negative feelings about having visitors but at the same time would benefit from being visited. Jane is a seventy-two year-old new widow. Her husband died four months ago and she is going through the normal grieving cycle. She tends to feel bad a lot of the time. If one just went on her feelings, she would never do anything or go anywhere because basically life has lost its meaning for her. She needs time to adjust; it hasn’t been long enough for that to happen. If you asked just for the way she was feeling today, she would tell you this: ‘I don’t feel good today.’ Her thoughtful friends know that, know about being a widow, are respectful of her feelings. They don’t discount her and say: ‘Come on Jane, Victor is dead. Move on.’ They know that being active, doing things and talking to others will, time by time, visit by visit, help her move on. Therefore their statement-question to Jane is: ‘Tell me if you are going to be home this afternoon and will accept me coming by? I want to see your new kitchen and more importantly, see you.’ This shares the real caring the friend has and lets her know that she is more important than the new kitchen; a question Jane has been asking herself.”
Dr. D. is on a roll and without hardly breathing goes on. “The really adapted people use ‘do you mind’ as slang and use it all the time. ‘Do you mind if I call 911; I think you are having a heart attack’ just isn’t necessary. Say: ‘I am going to call 911; I think you are having a heart attack’ and perhaps save your friend’s life.”
“Assertive language gives both the message sender and the message receiver the opportunity of knowing what is being asked and of meeting needs at any given moment. It does take practice.”
The Science and Art of Asking Questions
Kelly knows it is her turn: “One of the most basic communication skills is the ability to ask good questions. People apologize a lot for their questions e.g. “I hope you don’t mind me asking . . . I know this seems like a stupid question but . . . ‘I strongly suggest that you avoid putting yourself down with needless apologies or discounting your desire to know. It is perfectly ok to ask any question; most people know when to ask and when not to ask. It is the form of their questions that need some work.
“There are many different types of questions. One is a close-ended question that has a specific focus, seeking a specific answer. It is good for focusing on an issue and getting clear information. It relates to what the person wants yet doesn’t allow a wide variety of responses. Alternatively, an open-ended question picks a subject area and allows for many responses. When you first meet someone or are greeting an old friend, use an open-ended question, such as ‘Hi Betty, how are things with you today?’ If you ask, ‘Isn’t this a great day?’ you are really stating your opinion and are not asking about the other person. Another frequent miss-statement is: ‘don’t you just hate this rain?’ That is a forced choice, closed-ended false question that is really a statement. If you want to know what the other thinks of the rain, ask, ‘What do you think about it raining today?’”
“When you are not sure whether to use an open-ended or a closed-ended question, ask your question open-ended. You can always ask a follow-up closed-ended question if it is needed.”
“Skill in communicating starts by being a good and active listener .Listen to the other person, not to yourself. ‘Betty, I bet you don’t like this rain’ is someone who is listening to him/herself.’”
An Answer from Silence
Dr. D. identifies another important possible communication snafu: “A frustrating experience is to ask someone a question and not get a direct answer Often the other person will suddenly change the subject, look away, or do something else to avoid a direct answer.
Even the repeating of the question often gets the same pattern.”
“Recognize that there is non-verbal communication occurring here; it isn’t what you are expecting, as you requested a verbal response, but it is an answer. Most of the time any of the above would be interpreted as ‘No’ . . . Kelly and I will demonstrate.”
* * *
Dr. D: “Kelly, let’s eat in for lunch today and have Chinese? Ready to go?”
Kelly doesn’t answer the question asked as she is thinking about what she wants to do next and doesn’t like Chinese food: “I have some errands to run; I’ll be back in about 30 minutes.”
Dr. D., frustrated, yet he started the confusion by making a question statement: “Wait, where does that leave me? Do you want me to wait 30 minutes for you to return or go on without you?”
Kelly is now aware of his anger but is still only thinking of herself: “I told Nana I would meet her at the flower shop about now and I don’t want to be late as our favorite florist goes to lunch right at noon. Bye. I’ll be back for our afternoon meeting.”
Dr. D. “Well Sugar, X-ray, Foxtrot (a very old amateur radio response). What’s next?”
* * *
Dr. D. comes back to his non-role playing self and continues: “In our ‘do it wrong demonstration’ Kelly did answer by avoiding the question for some reason, a reason we don’t know. Be aware of almost never judging another’s motivation as the professionals get that right only about thirty-three percent of the time. Focus on behavior, first by describing it and then asking specifically, again and again, for what you want. Now, we will demonstrate a good way to communicate on the issue at hand . . . I start off by talking to myself.”
* * *
“This sort of communication has gone on too long between us. She
has left my office but not cell phone range so I will call her . . .
“Kelly, glad to catch you. I really want to know exactly whether you
are going to eat lunch with me or not? Obviously your meeting
with Nana was prearranged and very important. Tell me, ‘yes’ or
‘no’, will you eat lunch with me today?”
Kelly is direct and to the point. She does not use the word “can’t”
and uses “will/won’t” instead saying:: “I am very focused on
meeting Nana; the poor communication is ‘my bad.” No, I won’t
eat with you today but will tomorrow. Let’s get a group up
tomorrow and share a pizza.”
Dr. D. now has head a direct answer even though it is not what he wanted to hear.
However, having Kelly affirm that she will again eat with him in the future, he responds
with a good feeling:
“That sounds good to me; we will plan it when you get back. Now I know
you won’t be here today and I feel better . . . darn, she hung up on me. That is not like her;
she was really focused elsewhere.”
* * *
“Our next focus will be on a very common argument that occurs often in human communication. Our author wrote this essay a while back for our newspaper. Enjoy the story; many things are not what they seem to be as shown with the “last word.” Read it and
The Last Word:
Not What You Think Nor When!
All family members engage in conversation. There are many secrets about what and how things are said and it is time to share one of the secrets; that is about “The Last Word.” A family drama often begins with a minor argument. People argue all the time.
Often one person stays the course and keeps arguing, discussing, or collecting information, no matter what is not stated nor whether someone is winning or losing. It is quite common for one person to suddenly proclaim: “You’re impossible. You always want the last word!” They then often get quiet, have emotional time, or quickly move away. The real one in control is actually the person who complained!
Who gets the last word depends on the listener, not the speaker. The person claiming the other person always gets the last word allows that to happen by stopping speaking. If they didn’t become quiet, but said something else, they then temporarily would have the last word. For example, observe this sports argument:
John Bearister: “My Sea Hawks will beat your team
badly next Sunday.”
David Bearister: ‘No way; not if our QB is healthy again!”
John Bearister: “Even with healthy QB’s for both
teams, we will clean up!”
David Bearister: “No way, our defense is too good.”
This usually goes on for a while and then one arguer gets frustrated and claims:
John Bearister: “I’m tired of listening to you; you like to argue too much. You always, get the last word. Well, I’m done. I am not saying one more thing.”
David Bearister says nothing as he is stunned. Who actually got the last word?
In this case it was actually John Bearister although he stated just the opposite. What if this happened; after John Barrister’s frustration and false accusing statement, David Bearister simply said: ‘Your right.”
Who got the last word then?
And if John Bearister responded: ‘I know I am right!’ Who got the last word then?
Another optional “Last Word” tactic is for John Bearister to give out a strong emotion such as ‘Darn it, I’ve had it!’ Remember, it isn’t the words with emotions but the tone of voice, loudness of voice, and accompanying body language that count. He has substituted a “Last Word” with a “Last Emotion” although claiming he has been had. A good counter by either person is not to feel or speak about the subject of debate but to say: “Wow, you are really angry.” Then they have the last word. “Probably.” “Maybe.”.
Actually this can go on for a long time. Another way to end it is to decide together who gets the last word and then stick by that agreement. However, that is easy violated. By agreement, John Bearister gets the last word, makes a final statement, and David Bearister. says: “Good, It’s over.”
I hope you have caught on by now and know without my saying that got that last word? A better way is to agree for both to count together out loud to five at the same time and then both move away to other places. Families would be better off if all knew about “The Last Word” and could decide to play or not.
“One Shouldn’t Should”
Or is it “Óne Shouldn’t Should Not?”
This is another very common, value driven communication issue. As we have stated many times, values are always with us. A frequently used statement has to do with “should” and “should nots,” which are one of the most frequently utilized value statements. Should statements in any form (need to, must, ought,) are statements about values that state some desirable behavior related to a value e.g. “you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full”, “you should dress better when you leave the house,” “you need to lose weight.” These are generalizations about someone that may or may not be true as presented. When any of the above statements are made about you, you are “being should on”; that isn’t any fun. Say the phrase “being should on” out loud several times to get the pun intended.
There are different ways of dealing with the same issues with less of a value emphasis and more of a factual approach. For example, “you need to lose weight” can better be stated something like this: “Your general health would improve if you lost ten pounds” or “I
notice you are walking slower; would losing some weight literally take some pressure off of your legs and feet?”
Unfortunately when people give their concern in a passive manner, the person listening hears the secondary message of “I’m telling you what to do” and often feels negatively. That dismisses an important message, deflects from the concern that is intended and overall doesn’t allow the relationship to grow to its full potential.
Health personnel know that weight loss is complicated. There are eating issues, exercise issues, health issues, and economic issues to consider. The statement: “You should lose weight” is about the values of the person saying it, not at all about the issues the heavy person faces in getting back to a healthy weight.
It can be a fun project to set a goal of stopping all usage of the words “need to, must, ought to and should” and their corresponding negatives. As days go by, monitor yourself several times a day as to how you are doing in finding alternatives to those words that are not as judgmental as they are. When you find yourself making a mistake, say “Opps, I just ‘shoulded’ on someone.” You may have to say that word out loud several time to get the intended pun and to offer the right tonal inflection. Instead, say: “‘My Bad.” After about a week, most people avoid those ‘should’ words.
* * *
Dr. D. and Kelly return and Dr. D. promptly interrupts the Author’s narrative: “You have offered much, ‘but’ it is time to end this column.”
Kelly: “Oh, no, don’t ‘but’ our boss. He will know he has just been ‘butted’! Let us get out of here. Summarize, as always, and go have coffee.”
Dr. D.’s Famous Summary
“Let’s go, ‘but’ first, a quick summary:” Dr. D. can’t help grinning; the last ‘but’ goes un-noticed. “We have identified basic communication snafus and what to do to break the patterns. This book offers things to improve on all those areas as we journey through life. Remember, there is always much to learn.”
Kelly: “I will drive; come ride with me, but then . . .”
© 2013 Dr. D.’s Domains