Help me be more communicative and considerate.
May 16, 2011 4:36 PM   Subscribe

How do I get myself to stop assuming that my SO knows things I need to tell her?

The big thing that I have been working on in my long-term, generally happy relationship can generally be called "being more considerate and reliable," although that may be a misnomer. Essentially I'm working on training my brain to make myself into an easier person to be with.

I'm forgetful, which is very annoying, but I've made great strides by writing lots of stuff down in my phone and finding other ways to be more reliable in terms of things I say and commit to. I also tend to leap before looking and assume that things will work out. I've been moderately successful at remembering that it is essential to plan when other people (my SO) will be involved in these things that I'm leaping into. These are some of my successes, and I include them because I think they say something about the kind of person I am, and the kind of changes I'm trying to make in the way I do things. I'm trying to be an easier person to have be integral in one's life.

I have been less successful at being as communicative as I should be. I often fail to share key information in ways that are understandable to my SO. I'll say "I'm going to be a little late," and think that that covers showing up 45-60 minutes past when we initially planned (note: the lateness is far less of a problem than the inaccurate description of when I'll be there), and assume that she knows how long I'll be, and that what I've said covers it. This week I was deciding whether we would be going to a wedding together in a few weeks, and I thought what I had said (something like, "I don't think so, but I'll let you know if that changes by tomorrow") got my point across well enough. But it didn't - today I learned that my SO still thought our trip was up in the air. It was my fault for not communicating that I had made a decision with enough clarity.

I've really been trying to be more conscientious, and err on the side of too much info. I've had some success at that, but I still make these very bothersome mistakes. It's not an issue of my not thinking that she ought to know the info - it's just that I assume I've gotten across what I mean to get across, so I forget my "err on the side of disclosure" rule. How do I remember it? How can I train myself to ALWAYS provide too much info instead of not enough?

Thanks! If you can help me, my SO and I will be spared a lot of exasperation.
posted by PhatLobley to Human Relations (15 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
First get rid of the phrase "too much info". Your examples aren't even close to too much info. In fact, with an SO there hardly is such a thing.

Are you clear yourself when you say these things, or are you hedging for your own uncertainty? If you know you are going to be nearly an hour late, why would you say a few minutes? If you are planning to not go why do you only say that is what you are thinking (which implies your mind isn't yet made up)?

In any case, if you follow up your statement with the question "Is that clear?" you'll probably find out just how often it isn't.
posted by meinvt at 4:43 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

In my house we call that "real estate time." And it is annoying to the extreme or at least it used to be till I started learning how to translate.

One thing that might help if she's willing is for her to ask direct questions, i.e. "how long do you estimate you'll be late?" This may train you to realize what kinds of details it is important to remember to share.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:46 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Has it occurred to you WHY you can't just give her the information that's actually in your head, instead of the vagueness that's coming out your mouth? As a person who deals with people frequently who use this coyness as a means of communication, let me tell you, it makes you seem wishy-washy and indecisive.

Just say what you mean. "Bad afternoon here...I'm running at least 45 minutes behind schedule. Sorry." "Is there a reason you really want to go to the wedding, because I'm thinking no."

If you really do not understand how to talk in direct terms, give your SO the option to ask questions. Don't make her feel like she's imposing on you, or being obtuse by following up with "When you were on the phone with David yesterday I heard you say we'd see him and Ellen at the wedding. What changed since yesterday?"
posted by toastedbeagle at 5:00 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

It sounds as though, at least until you get the hang of it, the two of you need to build a "confirmation" step into your communications. That means that when you say, "I don't think I can go to the wedding, but I'll let you know tomorrow if that changes," your SO should say back, "What I'm hearing is that you think the answer is no, but you're not sure, so you'll make a final decision tomorrow," at which point it will be clear to you that you didn't give her the message you thought you did. If when you said, "I'll be there soon," she said, "To me, soon means within 15 minutes. Is that what you meant?" you'd know that you weren't clear and needed to give better information.

Bottom line, this isn't just your problem that you need to fix. It's a problem between the two of you, and she needs to work with you on the solution. This repeating back of what you just heard is actually something that many couples do in therapy to ensure that they're understanding one another and that their concerns are being heard, but you can work it into your everyday life. But you need to get her buy in and get her to help you ensure that you're talking in a way she can understand.
posted by decathecting at 5:03 PM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]

Oooh, bad case of "Read My Forehead," which means that you're thinking about these things so hard, and that they're so clear to you, that you forget that they're not emblazoned across your forehead in fiery letters for your S.O. to read from the other end of the telephone conversation

[I suffer from this condition on occasion.]

Make sure you communicate the five W's:

WHAT you're doing;
WHY you're doing it;
WHO will be there/is involved;
WHERE you'll be;
WHEN you'll be home/this is happening.

"Hi, hon. Late meeting with the boss about the big project, so I'll be at the office an extra hour. See you at 7!"

"I canceled the tickets because the schedule didn't work. Could you please let Sam know we're not coming to Montana next week?"

Count off the five W's on your fingers as you talk with your S.O.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:08 PM on May 16, 2011 [18 favorites]

Ask yourself if it's logically possible to misinterpret your statement. If yes, clarify.
posted by DWRoelands at 5:11 PM on May 16, 2011

You are me. Except a few years ago before my husband stopped tolerating my lame excuses.

Now we share a digital calendar. If I'm going to be doing something without him, I put it on my calendar, indicating as such. If there's something I want to do together, I put it on the calendar when it comes up or when I think about it -- usually with a question mark. If it's up in the air, I put it as tentative. He puts things on the calendar like, "Discuss Christmas travel" around dinner time so it gets on my agenda and I know it's coming. We put in bill due dates, family birthdays, concerts we might like to attend. We also email each other with things, as they come to us, with a note, "Let's talk about this tonight."

I'm still the flakiest flake that ever flaked in flakesberg, but it's a coping mechanism that my husband can deal with and helps me with structure that's valuable outside of just the marriage part of my life, too. He can't read my mind, but I jot down everything so he can know what's going on at his own pace and there are no surprises.
posted by Gucky at 5:24 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Enlist your SO's help as your trainer. When you say something, she should repeat back what she thinks you meant. In your wedding example, she (presumably) heard "Probably not, but I'll let you know for sure tomorrow". When she states this back to you, you'll know you were not clear enough. Eventually this back-and-forth will get tedious enough that you'll remember to give enough information up front - it's just faster and easier than going over everything multiple times. Training new habits takes time and patience, but you'll get there.
posted by Quietgal at 5:55 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

The problem with other people is that they're not you and they won't think exactly like you. You basically have to look at everything you say and ask yourself, "is that understandable to someone that is not me?" Your SO is not a mindreader and I suppose that it is romantic (?) to think that you can spend the rest of your life with someone who will understand your particular brand of cryptic communication. But it's kind of sloppy to think that way. Are you a poor communicator with friends? Family? Co-workers/bosses/ teachers? What about waiters/cashiers/retail staff, etc.?

Things can have different meanings to different people. E.g. a "little late" to me means like, 5-10 mins, 20 mins tops. I wonder why you think a "little late" will cover 45-60 mins late? Maybe that's how communication was in your family? One parent says to the other "I'm going to be a little late" and shows up 45 mins later? Or, are you trying to avoid her being mad at you if you were to say "I'm going to be 45-60 mins late"? Same with going to the wedding: Did you want to go? Or did you, since you're forgetful, forget to tell her that yes, you can go?

You can also help your SO to help you. You both know that you're a vague communicator. Then she kind of has to be on you to make sure that you're communicating clearly for her, so she understands where you're at. She has to know what her needs are and tell you. You try your best to meet them. But you can't expect her to tell you what to do every single time. You've got to be on top of it as well, to keep this relationship healthy.
posted by foxjacket at 6:41 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'll say "I'm going to be a little late," and think that that covers showing up 45-60 minutes past when we initially planned.

It wouldn't for me. I'm not sure how long "a little late" is I'd tend to assume around 15 minutes tops. Maybe half an hour.

If you are gong to be 45-60 minutes late say, "Hey, I'm running around an hour late". If you think it might take more than 60 minutes then say "Hey, I'm running around an hour late. Could be more". If you think that you are going to be two hours or more late then say "Help, I'm trapped at the office. I think there is a good chance I'll die here. My last thoughts will be of you".

"I don't think so, but I'll let you know if that changes by tomorrow"

I'd assume that this would be followed by some sort of decisive statement from you by tomorrow or the next day and if I didn't get such a statement I'd assume that it was still up in the air.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 6:50 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Instead of giving your SO possibly-subjective information about yourself (how late you'll be, your intentions regarding the wedding), form an action plan with her. This should force you to give her enough information to act on, especially if you get her to collaborate by confirming back to you what her action plan is. Instead of telling her that you will be "a little late," think about what she might be doing during that time, and what information she needs in order to make a decision. Like you say, "the lateness is far less of a problem than the inaccurate description of when I'll be there"—that's probably because she doesn't know whether she should adjust her plans by killing a few minutes with her smart phone, running some errands on the way to your planned meet-up, or staying home and watching a two-hour movie before heading out. Instead of "I'm going to be a little late," try something like, "I know we have plans to meet up at 6:00. I'm running late, so I need to change the action plan. Can you plan to meet me at 7:00 instead?"

Instead of "I don't think so, but I'll let you know if that changes by tomorrow," try something like, "I've decided against going to the wedding, so you can feel free to schedule other activities for that weekend and put the travel expenses we budgeted back into the pot." Phrasing it in terms of a mutual action plan makes the decision and its consequences clearer to both parties. (I've learned from experience that sometimes it's best to let the unlikely "if anything changes" contingencies go unspoken. If your decision really hinges on some specific future contingency, then make the action plan around that: "I can't make a decision about the wedding until I know whether I'm getting a bonus this month. I should find out on Friday, so let's talk about it again at dinner on Friday. Can you hold off on buying plane tickets until then?" But if you're just leaving a generic out for all the myriad unpredictabilities of life, it may actually be clearer not to say so. If something important comes up, apologize and form a new action plan as needed.)

If you can't think what the action-plan consequences of a piece of information are, then just ask. "I'm thinking XYZ . . . how does that affect your plans?"
posted by Orinda at 7:33 PM on May 16, 2011

Quantify your responses. Don't say "a little late" say "45-to-60 minutes late." Don't say "probably not" say "I'm 80% sure I won't go." Etc.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:48 PM on May 16, 2011

Heh. This is my husband, though I think he has you topped. Pretty much anything having to do with plans or time (with the exception of very, very specific stuff, like "the doctor's appointment is at 10:30") is completely fuzzy. If he says he has to leave at 7 am, and he's still hanging around the house at 9 am, he'll tell me, "no, I said I have to get up at 7." If he says he'll be home in a half-hour, that can mean an hour... or three. He'll tell me he has a meeting at xyz, but then he doesn't go. Why? Well, it's not really a meeting, it's more like a thing, and I can do it tomorrow. Basically, no information of this type is solid.

How have we solved this? WE HAVEN'T. And after 20 years, I don't think we ever will. I just kind of roll with it, because we have a pretty low-key life: it's not like we have kids and tons of commitments and activities to juggle. If I absolutely want to make sure we are doing something when and how I want it to happen, I have to state, repeat, reiterate, make him repeat it back – more than once, if it isn't happening on the same day. Okay, you remember that we're going to do X on Friday at noon, right? Right. And you're not scheduling any other stuff just before or after that, right? Right. (having too often been held up by Other Thing, or left to carry the bags home on my own since he has to rush off to Other Thing), and you're not planning on meeting anyone else during that time, right? Right. (having been too often joined on a lunch date, etc., by someone else who he had loosely arranged to see), and we're not "stopping by" anywhere else, right? Right. (having been subject to unexpected detours and cooling my heels while he drops something off, picks something up, blah, blah.)

I think he thinks he's explicated things. He always says stuff like "I told you that something something," but my listening and comprehension skills are really high, and I'm pretty sure he's sort of pathological, and these are a few things I've deduced:

Sometimes relating information about time or activities is less about time/activities and more about surrounding feelings or circumstances. If he says he has to leave at X time or do X, X, and X thing, he's really saying he feel pressured because he has stuff he needs to do. The specific things he mentions are real, but the timetable or actual existence of a specific meeting may not be totally reality-based. :) If he tells me he did Thing, Thing, and Thing, and now he's relaxing and having a beer with so-and-so and he'll be home in a half-hour, that means he'll probably finish the beer he's drinking right now in a half-hour... but he's unwinding – soooo maybe he'll have another beer, and maybe be home in an hour or two. Basically, instead of telling me specific time stuff, he's telling me about his mental landscape: OMG, stress! Stuff I Must Do, aargh! or Mellow Fellow, here; I did Many Important Things, and now I want to hang out, so don't pin me down, man.

He wants to keep his options open. Oh, no! We can't do Boring Thing We Have To Do! I told you I had Some Vague Thing Vaguely Mentioned At Some Point! He wants to keep his options open, and he doesn't want to just say "no, I don't want to do that." Sometimes he commits to more than one thing at once... and tries to either meld them or do awkward juggling.

Okay, those two categories of fuzzy information sharing kind of make some kind of sense, but here's the weird one:

He has some illogical, automatic, reactive panic when I propose something that's not in distant misty dreamtime land. I say, maybe we could take a walk and do X on Thursday, and he's all Yes! That would be a Good Thing! LET'S DO THAT THING THURSDAY! I say, maybe we could take a walk and do X this afternoon, and he's like, O GOD NO CAN'T I TOLD YOU THINGS THINGS SRS BIZNESS I MUST DO ACK STRESS! And this is absolutely particular to me; someone else can propose something and he's off like a shot.

We've talked about it a million times, and it's just not going to change. He knows completely and absolutely that: I'm not a nag, not insistent, not domineering, not demanding, not strict, not controlling. He knows and happily affirms that I'm pretty much the polar opposite of all those things, yet as the Authority Female in his life, I evoke this bizarre kneejerk reaction. I tell him, "hey, just tell me you don't want to do it; you know I'm not going to get mad or hold it against you, or insist... or do anything negative. Why you so crazy?"

He doesn't know. I don't know. After I talk him down, we may go for a walk and do X, if he feels like it, or not, if he doesn't. But we have to get past that immediate URK!, that usually takes the form of Stuff-I-Told-You-I-Have-To-Do-So-Obviously-I-Can't-Do-This-Thing-OMG-Don't-Kill-Me.

So, in our case, my analysis is that it's a combination of a) using facts to relay feelings or mental atmosphere, b) desire for latitude vs. reluctance to ever outright refuse, and c) Crazypants; somewhere along the line I got unfortunately conflated with someone else who imprinted something – probably his Mom?

TL;DR;ityihtotihtd (Too Long; Didn't Read; I Told You I Had This Other Thing I Had To Do)Here's what I wish he would do, and maybe what you can do:

Just Stop for a second before you answer.
Please stop. What do you really want to tell me? Can you just tell me that? Can you just say my mood is: worried/stressed/lazy/whatever? It's fine. We can work with that.

Just Stop, and consider if you are trying to obfuscate a "disappointing" answer
. You can just say you don't want to do something, or you won't be home soon, or whatever. It's okay, really.

Just Stop, please, and remind yourself that I'm not your Mom or your fifth grade teacher. You are Grown Up Person! Me too! Together we are Happy Nice Grown Up Couple! Just tell me your thoughts, feelings, plans, hopes, desires. You don't have to surround information in vagueness to avoid strict accountability, or couch things in Serious-And-Official-stuff to validate what you want or don't want to do.

Just Stop, and don't be Crazypants. More than anyone else in this whole world, I am on your side. Don't fear the wife, the wife is good. The wife is almost never mean to you, remember? See this face? Remember it? Yes! It's me! The one who doesn't punish you, or feel disappointed by you, or expect more, or whatever it is that scares you. Me! I love you! Shush, shush, now. We don't have to Go To Wedding if you don't want to.
posted by taz at 12:57 AM on May 17, 2011 [31 favorites]

If you say "I don't think so, but I'll let you know if that changes by tomorrow," you still have to tell her the next day what's going on, regardless of whether it actually changes or not.

If you say "I'm going to be a little late," she's going to need to be the one to clarify with you what that means specifically.

Communication is a two-way street. You both need to clarify things better.

However, it's possible that on some level you just need to be really nice - you don't want to say you're going to be 60 minutes late, so you just say you're going to be late; you don't want to say you don't want to go to the wedding, but you add the - but that might change - on the end.

You obviously know it doesn't work but perhaps look at it from that perspective - that you're vague because you're nice and you don't want to tell her the truth because she might feel hurt. But it doesn't kind of work like that. So instead be nice by just giving her the truth.
posted by mleigh at 1:00 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

When you withhold information from anyone that would make them more clear of your intentions or plans, you are including them in a power game, whether the intent is malicious or not.

When the other person has to second guess what you really mean, you have the power in the situation. You must be getting something out of this (or it must be repeating an interaction from a previous relationship, romantic or family) or you wouldn't be doing it.

This is okay to talk with your partner about. Part of a healthy relationship is calling each other on your bullshit, non-judgmentally. she should let you know when you're not giving her the proper amount of information for her to operate independently.

Otherwise, she's doing to you what you're doing to her.

Good luck!
posted by softlord at 7:21 AM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

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