Is it possible to help someone become a better communicator/conversationalist without offending him?
July 28, 2009 11:31 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible to help someone become a better communicator/conversationalist without offending him?

I am dating someone who is a great guy, but never learned to communicate effectively because he's from a family of terrible conversationalists (I've seen it in action) and he was a very awkward and shy child/teenager. We are mutually breaking up soon because our lives are taking us in different directions. However, if there wasn't that barrier, I don't think we'd last long because he can't hold a conversation. He doesn't ask people (including me) questions, either spontaneously or to inquire about something they've mentioned, no matter how obviously it calls for a response on his part. For example, if I would mention that I was arrested once, instead of asking what happened, he'd say, "Oh," and that would be the end of that. He also has trouble expressing what he wants in any way, verbal or nonverbal, and I have witnessed this piss the hell out of people who misinterpret his nonverbal waffling.

From what I can tell, this is how he communicates with just about everyone, so I don't believe that the problem is that he's not interested in me.

I am looking for a way to encourage him to do things like ask questions of people to stimulate conversation. However, I do not want to hurt his feelings or offend him. He is pursuing a career that will require him to communicate effectively, and I can't see a way that this would not hold him back. I don't want him to hear it from someone when it's already been a dealbreaker. We haven't been together for long, and this communication thing has really impacted how comfortable we've gotten in being open with each other, so I feel that I have to approach this particularly carefully.

Disclaimer: I can't change people, nor is it my responsibility to do so. I know that. I just want the best for him, because he deserves it. I wouldn't be where I am now if I hadn't been gently nudged along the way. I just care about him and want to do the same for him.
posted by emilyd22222 to Human Relations (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
"Have you ever read {this book}? I find that it really helped me to get more out of conversations."

Some suggestions for the book: The Art of Mingling by Jeanne Martinet; How to Click with Everyone Every Time by David Rich; How to Talk to Anyone by Leil Lowndes.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:35 AM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know anybody who would appreciate their soon-to-be-ex saying, "I care for you, and before we go our separate ways, I think you should work on this flaw I see in you..."

If he hasn't asked about his conversational skills, don't try to teach him.
posted by xingcat at 11:35 AM on July 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I don't know anybody who would appreciate their soon-to-be-ex saying, "I care for you, and before we go our separate ways, I think you should work on this flaw I see in you..."
Thus the AskMeFi question. I was asking if there was a way I could help him without being completely rude. It doesn't have to include calling him flawed.

I should also add that I don't think he recognizes that it's a problem in his relationships- I think he just sees himself as persecuted by everyone else because he often doesn't get along well with people.
posted by emilyd22222 at 11:41 AM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: Also, xingcat, I wasn't trying to disregard your answer- just clarifying my intent and putting a check in the "no" category on your behalf.
posted by emilyd22222 at 11:43 AM on July 28, 2009

I'm going to reply putting quite a bit of supposition into my answer here... If he's a poor communicator, even with you, then I would probably theorize that, at least to some degree, you don't know what he is thinking or feeling at a given time. With that, you may not know the entirety of his feelings regarding your break-up and its mutuality.

I would not think you should do anything that might leave him with a lingering doubt that something about him drove you away. I realize that in the context of this question you are posing it as you want to help him, but when presented to him, he may hear it as "I want to tell you the real reason I'm leaving" no matter how much you try to emphasize the opposite.

More, from what you describe it almost sounds beyond social awkwardness, to a form of Aspergers or some such, in which case you risk hurting him for absolutely no benefit whatsoever.

You say you're breaking up due to your lives going in different directions, meaning you would have stayed with him otherwise, and you were learning to deal with his manner of communication (or, at least, helping him through it while you were together). Therefore I have to believe in the future he will find another woman who also can work with his current communications skills.

A "parting shot", no matter how well intentioned, cannot go well during a break-up, no matter how mutual. You're breaking up, I'd let it go.
posted by arniec at 11:49 AM on July 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Lives going in different directions = we're both moving to different states for grad school.
posted by emilyd22222 at 11:52 AM on July 28, 2009

Just wanted to let you know that there are lot of reasons people don't ask questions to stimulate conversation. I don't know about your guy, but I sometimes am very unwilling--ok, refuse--to do the ask the question that is begging to be asked for two reasons:

1)I feel set up. I know it may be an example, but if you want me to know what you were arrested for, just tell me. Otherwise, I believe that you don't want to say anymore.

2)Most times, it seems like people are dead set on asking the reciprocating question, (for example, have you ever been arrested?") and I really hate being asked questions, especially ones where it feels like prying. A person like you may want to keep going with the conversation and continue to ask questions, which you may view as innocuous, but I think it's evasive. I also have a small fear of being judged and so don't like to offer up information.

Also, communicating for an explicit purpose, such as work (I'm a PM) has never been an issue for me, so it may not be an issue for him. It's funny how we can overcome some of our fears when it could compromise a job. I even overcommunicate because I know it's such an issue for me.
posted by alice ayres at 11:57 AM on July 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

I really enjoyed "How to Win Friends and Influence People". It pretty much sums up the sum total of human interaction (albeit 1950's style) to get you to figure out how to use human nature to your advantage - ie win friends and influence people. Read it yourself, rave about it, give the copy to him as something revelatory that changed your life and he would also find fascinating. That way, it's not that he's a cad, but rather, you are simply recommending a book you love.
posted by anniek at 12:02 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Being a geek/nerd, I am/was fairly horrible with casual conversations.

Get me onto a geeky/nerd topic and things change dramatically. Thankfully, our general society has become quite geeky and I can fit in much more easily than say, the late 80's/early 90's.

One book, which helped me improve immensely when I was younger was "How to Win Friends and Influence People". This taught me the importance of asking questions and letting the other individual open themselves to communication.

How old is he? - the other thing that helped me was life experience and age. I have never had much empathy - but as I got older, experienced more, started to raise a family I found I could empathize with people alot more than when I was younger.
posted by jkaczor at 12:03 PM on July 28, 2009

More, from what you describe it almost sounds beyond social awkwardness, to a form of Aspergers or some such, in which case you risk hurting him for absolutely no benefit whatsoever.

I know we're all aspergers doctors on mefi, but not everyone realizes that the Secret of Conversation is asking questions. I come from a pretty awkward family and had to spend some time watching chatty people to learn how they did it - I would've appreciated someone clueing me in (inoffensively!) back in the olden awkward days.
posted by soma lkzx at 12:03 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I feel like this conversation would be better had in the post-breakup friendship context. Otherwise, it does run the risk of being a parting shot. Any parting comments I would focus on positive things you like about him. Stay friends, and if he complains about something you feel is a result of his poor communication skills, then take the opportunity to share your thoughts.
posted by Dukat at 12:21 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not a particularly good conversationalist in the way that you mention, but I'm aware of it and it isn't something I plan on changing any time soon.

I don't have much tolerance for niceties - I feel that if they are necessary in a close relationship, then the relationship isn't all that close to begin with. Empty compliments meant to grease the wheels of a friendship, and feigned interest in subjects that I could not possibly care less about are all well and good if I was interested in being friends with people I don't particularly care for or about.

If you want to steer him in the right direction, you might wish him well when you break up and say that you genuinely hope that he connects with someone who makes him happy and that you felt a hesitance on his part to really engage in the relationship you were having. Assure him that you're not insulted by this, but that instead you simply hope he finds someone he is more compatible with.
posted by greekphilosophy at 12:31 PM on July 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

In all honesty, despite your best intentions, this is not a conversation that will go well, especially post-breakup. Despite the mutuality (is that a word? Mutual nature) of the breakup, there will still be hurt feelings and sadness after the breakup, and if that sadness is followed by "and here's something I think you can do to improve yourself" he may well get hurt even more, because he's probably not aware that he has a "problem".

If he's comfortable communicating the way he does, and it doesn't hinder him in the world right now, leave it at that for now - and if the mutual breakup means you're still friends in six months or a year, maybe broach the subject at that time when the hurt of the breakup has subsided.
posted by pdb at 1:04 PM on July 28, 2009

There's no nice way to say "get a new personality, bub." From the sound of it, he sounds pretty dull and joyless. But if he's fine with it, I'd just let it go.
posted by heather-b at 1:15 PM on July 28, 2009

I would just tell him in a regular conversation. Don't add it on to a break-up conversation, but if you're ever going to just be hanging out (if you said you're breaking up on good terms then it's possible?) then just bring it up to him. Don't make it about how you feel when he doesn't ask questions, and don't use examples from your relationship too much, to not turn it into a relationship talk. I'd want to know how to become a better communicator, so I'd definitely appreciate someone telling me, as long as it's not while they're dumping me.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 1:41 PM on July 28, 2009

I dated a girl once who told me that I didn't ever ask her questions. Hurt my feelings, because I thought I was a pretty good active listener/conversationalist. But I thought about it. We talked about it. I decided to work on it.

Now, seven years later, we're married.

Data point.
posted by Spyder's Game at 2:55 PM on July 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The first "official" girlfriend I had, when she broke up with me I asked her if it was my looks. She said no, the thing she liked about our relationship was how I looked and the fooling around; it was my personality she didn't like.

I was bummed about that, until I related that story to a friend (who, while a great and attractive guy, was very very very very very short) and he said "that's great news! you can change your personality."

I've been a proponent of self-improvement ever since, and certainly had lots of success with it over the years (I got that feedback about 24 years ago) but without that second piece of the puzzle, I probably would have just sulked around for a while thinking I was a miserable person and couldn't do anything about it.

Incidentally, knowing that you're breaking up for such an impersonal reason, you might be able to have success communicating this if you couch it in terms he can trust, if you've already both made it clear you'd stay together if it weren't for the grad school stuff. Starting off with something like "Look, you know I love you and would be staying with you if we weren't going off to different schools, so I want to tell you something about yourself that nobody else will tell you, and I trust that you'll understand I care about you and wouldn't say this if I didn't think you would be able to use it to help yourself..." and perhaps closing with "...I know it sucks to hear something negative about yourself, but know that I care about you because you have so many terrific qualities, but this is just one big thing that's going to limit your professional and emotional life if you don't start working on it, and I want you to succeed in both."

I wouldn't save this for the last day, either; let the last day be all about saying goodbye properly.
posted by davejay at 4:57 PM on July 28, 2009

I'm sorry his lack of proactiveness in conversation bothers you.

Perhaps other "better" conversationalists bother him by failing to engage him, or by always trying to set him up like alice ayres mentioned upthread.

As a more legitimate answer, having a close person to TALK to does wonders for quieter people; unless you're going to be that person there's not much you can do on that front.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 6:14 PM on July 28, 2009

Yes. However, he has to want help with that first. You cannot tell him that he needs to become a better communicator without offending him.

So, if he isn't a very good communicator, how will you know if he wants that help? Minefield ahead.

You might just say some time, "Hey do you ever envy outgoing, social people for being able to be that way? It's learnable, you know. I can help you if you ever want me to." Then leave it at that.

As an introvert, I can say that that's probably the only angle you could take with me that wouldn't piss me off or make me feel criticized. I think everyone envies other types of people from time to time, and 'trying to learn a little of their secret for fun and just because it's an interesting experiment and may come in handy some day' isn't the same (offensive) thing to me as 'fixing my personality deficiency.'

Everyone's different, though, so be careful if you decide to say anything.
posted by ctmf at 6:25 PM on July 28, 2009

Also in my experience, even the most standoffish of introverts have someone or some group of people with whom they're totally free. Someone they can laugh at juvenile fart jokes and be a goofball with. Someone who brings out the talker in them. What makes them introverts isn't so much that they don't enjoy that, it's that it takes a VERY LONG TIME for them to get that comfortable with someone. In the meantime, they're unintentionally rude to people by being afraid to connect.

I'm not sure you can "encourage" people to not be that way. It just takes lots and lots of practice being around people, and enough self confidence to relax. Being a 70's/80's child, the phrase "self-esteem" makes me want to vomit, but I think that's legitimately what social awkwardness is about.* I know once I felt like I was accomplished enough in my job, had a few friends, etc. it was amazing how much easier it was for me to deal with meeting new people. (i.e., if I feel like a rock star, then everyone else should be happy to meet me. Takes the pressure off. He may just need to find something to feel like a rock star about.)

*or was for me, anyway, and I don't think I'm the only one.
posted by ctmf at 6:48 PM on July 28, 2009

Best answer: What Kate Has Questions said.

I guess I would probably just find a nice moment, pre-break-up, look at him, smile, and say, "You don't ask a lot of questions, do you?" Say it warmly, and ask him because you're curious. Maybe it's something that doesn't really bother him, or it's something he's given a lot of thought to and does on purpose. Or maybe you asking will be enough to get him thinking about it and whether it is hurting his relationships. Then again, it might also be the quality that makes him perfect for someone else.
posted by juliplease at 8:38 PM on July 28, 2009

Tell him part of why you are breaking up is because he has communication problems. It will sting, but it will be a dose of reality - the one he is most likely to take to heart. You don't have to be cruel, but you can sort of say, "You know, I don't know if we would last anyway, because I never really know what you are thinking..." And segue into some details and some suggestions.
posted by molecicco at 1:11 AM on July 29, 2009

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