communication skills disagreement
December 6, 2022 10:31 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand a seemingly bizarre argument I had with someone about my communication skills, or lack thereof.

My brother has been in town visiting this past week. My wife and I have been having some marital troubles recently, and he's used this visit to appoint himself our marriage counselor. (No comments about that please.) To that end, he has diagnosed that the problem with our relationship is that I have bad communication skills. I disagree, but of course I would disagree, so I asked for examples. He responded that asking for examples proves his point. I didn't understand what he meant, so I again asked for clarification, to which he responded that he can see why we're having marital difficulties.

I'm really confused by this. Best I can tell, I *think* he's trying to make a point about emotionally validating an interlocutor rather than focusing on facts and logic, but this seems like a clumsy way to make that point. Maybe a point that I should already know my weaknesses? (Which, I have ideas, but I feel like it's probably better to hear it directly. Relying on mind-reading assumptions doesn't seem to be a way to improve communication; rather the opposite, I would think.)

Any ideas? It's possible I'm missing something here - I was at work (WFH), preparing to lead a training call in five minutes when this conversation occurred. (Although I would think the fact that my company trusts me to lead training calls is probably a point in my favor re: communication skills.) I fully admit that not being fully present for the conversation was not great, but I feel like being at work is a valid excuse. Let me know if I'm wrong there.
posted by kevinbelt to Human Relations (45 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
No, your description of the conversation doesn’t make it sound like you have any difficulties! Your brother certainly sounds like he’s being a jerk, but if what he’s saying lines up with what your wife is saying, that could be a useful data point.

In any case, tell him to butt out and get an actual marriage counselor. Good luck! This stuff is hard to work out but worthwhile.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:39 AM on December 6, 2022 [12 favorites]

Asking for examples seems like the exact right response to this line of inquiry, and would have been my first question as well.

Having multiple siblings myself, and having been on both sides of a similar conversation (because, siblings), my experience is that any reasonable filter I'd apply to any other relationship in my life goes out the window, and I can be my worst self with those closest to me.

Maybe there's something going on with HIM that's colored his interaction with you?

If it were me, I would calmly explain that I appreciate his input, endeavor to make change, but that we all have our blind spots, and to enact change I need examples.
posted by eggman at 10:42 AM on December 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

I assume he means "if you have to ask, that proves what the problem is" meaning that he thinks you're not noticing social cues or people's responses that are obvious to others, you can't "read the room".

But who knows, really?
posted by Zumbador at 10:46 AM on December 6, 2022 [4 favorites]

The only thing I can think of, is that there are two ways to ask for examples -

1. In a tone of voice that conveys - "Oh wow, I had no idea, can you give me some examples so I can understand better?"
2. In a tone of voice that conveys - "Bullshit. Prove it by giving me examples, because I don't believe you."

It's fairly understandable to veer towards the latter when you're being criticised and caught-off guard. But it might elicit the kind of response that you got from him.

But maybe you didn't veer towards the latter, in which case I'd say that it only really matters here if your wife thinks you have poor communication skills, not your brother.
posted by penguin pie at 10:48 AM on December 6, 2022 [41 favorites]

Response by poster: penguin pie's examples make me think that his point is that when I think I'm saying #1, I come across as sounding like #2.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:53 AM on December 6, 2022 [15 favorites]

I came in to say exactly what penguin pie said, about there being two ways to ask for examples. One way is because you really want to understand what the issue is, and the other way is confrontational, insinuating that you won't believe them unless they can think of some specific time you did this thing (and of course when they come up with an example, you'll look for a way to refute it.)

Very much agree that his timing was bad (never mind whether he should be weighing in on this at all.) 5 minutes before a work call is a terrible time to expect you to be able to reflect upon what was said and give a thoughtful response. Maybe this glass-housed person is not the best one to be chucking stones in your general direction, just sayin 😒

I would also suggest that the way you communicate with your brother may not bear much resemblance to the way you communicate with your wife. Particularly if he is butting in where he is not wanted, the tone of your answers may not be as pleasant as he would like.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:58 AM on December 6, 2022 [14 favorites]

You may or may not have poor communication skills, but this conversation says nothing about that one way or the other. I would suggest letting some time pass and, if you have a moment where you feel a sense of warmth and intimacy in an interaction with your brother and you have more time to get into it, you can check back in about his claim at that point. In the meantime, by all means keep an eye on how you communicate--meditation and journaling can be helpful for that--but don't let this conversation derail your internal monologue. My hunch is that he's using your difficulties as an opportunity to one-up you and get under your skin, but you don't have to let that happen.
posted by derrinyet at 11:00 AM on December 6, 2022

Another thing he could have been trying to point out is that you might have a tendency to respond to people who disagree with you with requests/demands that they *prove* to you that they are right and you are wrong, when sometimes it's just a difference of opinion that you have to accept.

Do you generally feel like you have a lot of *reasons* why you are right and other people are wrong?

But yeah it doesn't sound like your brother's great at communicating either.
posted by mskyle at 11:01 AM on December 6, 2022 [18 favorites]

I am traveling and visiting family right now. They have "communications issues." I was traveling to visit other family two months ago. They have "communications issues." When I'm not traveling, I am often with family... who have "communications issues." Your brother tried to communicate with you, but clearly, there were issues.

Everybody has communications issues because Communications is the operating system that our relationships run on. As we seek to improve our relationships, our communication improves as well. Often, we can't communicate our true desires until we really understand ourselves. Often, we accidentally communicate anxiety, and either take or relinquish responsibility in ways that make our partner's lives difficult. Often, by trying to be helpful, we instead make things worse. And all of this happens through communication.
posted by rebent at 11:04 AM on December 6, 2022 [7 favorites]

One possible explanation that comes to mind - if his comment was prompted by something that had just occurred, like you guys had just had a conversation or you and your wife had a conversation where you talked in circles around each other.
posted by M. at 11:04 AM on December 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

It's possible you ask for too many examples, and insist your loved ones prove their case to you before you'll take their concerns seriously.

Example Conversations can go down rabbit holes of, "here's the example you want," "ok no that's not precisely what happened let me get hung up on a detail," "ok here's a better example," "no that example doesn't work either give me more," and then things don't get solved because you're insisting on the Perfect Example before you'll proceed to the meat of the conversation.

The Example Provider feels like they're being interrogated and invalidated and that it's just too complicated. As someone who once heard, "Can I get an example of when I've asked for too many examples?," trust when I say it can be exasperating.

So the message might be, "give it a rest with the examples."
posted by champers at 11:20 AM on December 6, 2022 [14 favorites]

Work mode communication and relationship mode communication are two different things. Asking for examples may be some work mode techniques leaking out.

Doesn’t sound like your brother is going to be helpful here, particularly if he doesn’t understand “I’m at work now, go away”. Perhaps you should consider getting a paid relationship counselor. It’s cheaper than an acrimonious divorce would be, could be used to end conversations your brother wants to have that you don’t, and more importantly, might actually help to improve your marriage.
posted by nat at 11:25 AM on December 6, 2022 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: So the message might be, "give it a rest with the examples."

Understood, but how am I supposed to know the problem then?
posted by kevinbelt at 11:34 AM on December 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think you should try to approach your brother again to figure out what he's talking about, because what we have here does not seem very clear. Interpreting a paraphrase of a conversation snippet is just not a very high-quality research method for this problem. We can guess based on our experience with apparently similar situations, and some of those guesses might be right, but you have access to a much better method, which is, you can interactively talk with the guy.

You could try to approach him in a way that will make it more likely he will respond helpfully. He's your brother, so you'll know best how that might work, but I have some generic suggestions. For example, make it clear that you think he has a point (although you're not sure you really understand the point). Make it clear that you value the chance to get an outside perspective from someone who cares about you. Emphasize that not getting what he's saying is or could be a problem of your understanding rather than a problem of his communication. Depending on how you feel about your communication skills, you could even say something like, "I know I don't always get XYZ kind of thing as easily as other people, do you think you could break it down for me?" Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. I've found that when I explicitly acknowledge areas of skill that I don't think I'm good at, people are often willing to help, even if the skill is something that anyone is supposed to be able to do.

Based on what you've said, it's not obvious that your brother really wants to help at all. But to get anything out of this, you have to think that he does. Idk if this will help with anything. The whole question is really a sideline to your trouble in your relationship with your wife. But it's the question you asked so here we are.
posted by grobstein at 11:36 AM on December 6, 2022 [5 favorites]

So the message might be, "give it a rest with the examples."

Totally understand where penguinpie and others are coming from--I think we all know This Person--but I don't see how a person can be expected to change when given a generic comment like "your communication skills are bad" without some more detailed follow-up. If there's no expectation of prompting change, why is the critique being given?

So, even if OP is one of Those People, in this particular instance, Brother seems to have been being kind of a dick.
posted by praemunire at 11:47 AM on December 6, 2022 [11 favorites]

Understood, but how am I supposed to know the problem then?

1. Do some soul-searching. Where do you yourself see opportunities for growth?
2. Ask someone you trust who is usually honest with you and who you feel least defensive with.
posted by M. at 11:48 AM on December 6, 2022 [4 favorites]

Understood, but how am I supposed to know the problem then?

Listen, believe the person, ask questions (not for examples).
posted by Thella at 12:07 PM on December 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

My guess is that he was trying to make a point about instinctively putting barriers in the way of exploring a difficult subject more deeply, being avoidant of the core fact that someone close to you feels something about you that you wish they didn't.

I too don't think he was demonstrating great communication skills approaching it how you describe, but without a short story's worth of character development there's no way of judging where this really sits on the concerned brother - dickish brother / insightful brother - facetious brother axes.
posted by protorp at 12:14 PM on December 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

It really doesn't matter whether he thinks you're being confrontational or looking for an argument when you ask for examples. it doesn't even matter if you actually are. When you have examples to back up an assertion, you are able to name a few when asked. and if you are offering criticism in good faith with the intention of being helpful, you will do so.

there is an attitude often summed up as "if you don't know why I'm angry, I'm not going to tell you," which is often attributed to women in a sexist kind of way. this is an attitude that I actually have a lot of sympathy with. maybe that is how your wife feels about things - that if you don't know the answer, you wouldn't understand it, or that not noticing your own behavior is an offense in itself. if she does feel that way, she may be justified.

but the only point of having an intermediary or amateur counselor playing diplomat is if they can say things that the two of you are too worked up or too familiar with each other to be able to say yourselves. It might be fair for your wife to refuse to take your questions seriously. it is not fair for a third party to do so. and I say this assuming you are in the wrong.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:25 PM on December 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

He responded that asking for examples proves his point.

This is something you'd say to somebody when you want them to feel anxiety, not something you'd say to somebody you want to help. It's nonsense intended to make it impossible to identify an underpinning issue or fact.

I would disregard this person's advice.
posted by mhoye at 12:30 PM on December 6, 2022 [6 favorites]

What’s your goal here?

I ask because I can’t figure out why you’re asking your brother for more examples. For me, I would probably go home and say to my wife, hey wife, my brother said he thinks I don’t communicate well and that’s why we’re having problems. What do you think?

I say that not to explain what your brother did – I have no idea. I do however, think it’s likely there are communication issues in your marriage. Maybe it’s time to turn back towards your wife and not towards your brother.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:35 PM on December 6, 2022 [38 favorites]

1) your brother is being such a sibling about this in a really kind of childish way tbh so I would set all of his nonsense aside

2) I also have this kind of communication issue with my partner -- he loooooooves to ask for examples because without examples there is apparently no way to understand the problem in any sense even if I have described it, and I find it really annoying (in part because it can easily lead to arguing about the examples which we may remember differently) and feel like I'm being asked to provide evidence of something that he should either take my word on or figure out for himself (part of this is also that he always thinks his memory is 100% correct and like if your memory is so great then why don't you be the one to give examples???? Arrrghh it annoys me just writing it down)

Anyway, neither of us is 100% right or 100% wrong; our styles of approaching emotional conversations are just very different. But many people find it stressful or hostile to have emotional disclosures responded to with a request for examples, even if you are completely well-meaning. You will likely get examples if you work to validate your partner's feelings, provide them space to continue to express themselves, and let them know that it's important to you. Same result, less defensiveness.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:52 PM on December 6, 2022 [17 favorites]

Agree with warriorqueen.
So what does your wife think? Is she glad your brother is intervening? Did she ask him to? How did he reach the conclusion that his intervention could be helpful? I think that it is more important to talk to your wife and use this situation to ask her for examples or situations that she finds frustrating when you communicate.
posted by 15L06 at 12:58 PM on December 6, 2022 [7 favorites]

Regardless of why they are saying it, if you believe people are correct that your relationship communication skills could use improvement, I definitely have relationship communication skill challenges and found The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work to be a good starting place for guidance and examples of good relationship skills, including communication.

Nothing in there on how to fix run-on sentences, obviously.
posted by cCranium at 1:04 PM on December 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

Some examples of bad communication skills: interrupting someone 5 minutes before work call, getting involved in other people's marital disagreements, not being able to convey what you mean and falling back on platitudes if people try to clarify your meaning.

I think your brother has bad communication skills. Sometimes people accuse others of problems that they see in themselves.

None of this means you DON'T have bad communication skills yourself, perhaps you are similarly influenced by your parents in ways that lead to similar issues with your communication skills. And there's not enough information really provided here to say if you have communication issues or not. But as far as I can tell from your question, what your brother most likely meant was something along the lines of "naner naner naner, I don't have any problems with communication and you do so there" (or substitute whatever other taunts you teased each other with as children)

I won't comment on your brother being a counselor for both you and your spouse about your relationship, but you might consider talking to an individual therapist, someone not related to you or otherwise known to you.
posted by yohko at 1:05 PM on December 6, 2022 [8 favorites]

I don't think that it's particularly useful to frame this in terms of good/bad communication skills. There are definitely different communication styles, and it's probably useful to have a bit of flexibility when choosing one, because no communciation style works for every situation. So on the one hand, yeah, the fact that you conduct trainings professionally really says nothing about whether you and your wife have compatible communication styles, so there really might be an issue there. But on the other hand, your brother clearly also failed at adjusting his communcation style to meet your needs, so his feedback on this matter probably won't be too helpful.
posted by sohalt at 1:07 PM on December 6, 2022

I am also a person who sometimes needs examples, and certainly if someone simply said (in a relationship, at work, on the street, by a waiter, etc) I had bad communication skills I would need help understanding what that means. Do I not make sense? Am I withholding information? Am I lying? Am I misunderstanding what is said to me? Am I defensive? Do I have a wildly different understanding/expectations of appropriate/respectful/responsive behavior?

You probably should reassure the affected person (which is your wife, not your sibling, who may have their own sibling agenda here if they're not attempting to actually help you but just criticize you and expect you to figure it out) that you believe them but also need help with recognizing the context so you can give them what they need.

But it sure sounds like your brother is just a shit-stirrer, and even if he IS a therapist he is not allowed by most professional codes of ethics to take you and your wife on as patients jointly or separately, so I would suggest you let your wife know that you recognize you have some things you can work on - most people do, after all - but you do not want your brother involved.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:12 PM on December 6, 2022 [6 favorites]

For feedback to be helpful, it has to be actionable. Looking back on times I’ve been told “you need better communication skills” without examples, something else was going on (e.g., office politics I didn’t understand) and my communication skills weren’t the issue. By contrast, when I’ve had people give feedback like, “When you say X, it gives the impression you’re not taking this conversation seriously,” or, “You keep bringing in unrelated topics, which makes it hard to resolve the thing we’re actually trying to figure out,” I’m able to see where my communication skills were lacking.
posted by theotherdurassister at 1:32 PM on December 6, 2022 [5 favorites]

I would think the fact that my company trusts me to lead training calls is probably a point in my favor re: communication skills
Work communication is not the same skillset as relationship communication. I know this because I'm fairly proficient at communicating in a work context and get lots of great feedback on my skills in that area, but I struggle a bit when it comes to more emotional communication rather than 'fact-based' communication.

I also seek examples when I'm accused of not communicating well, not because I don't believe my wife when she says this, but because I simply don't understand the problem and need something concrete to get my head around the issue. But, as others have mentioned, it's easy to fall back on being defensive without realising it and that makes it look like you're asking the other person to prove conclusively that you're at fault and precisely why. I find it's useful to be explicit in stating you believe the other person has a legitimate concern and it's you that needs more clarity to help you come up with a solution.

The timing of your brother's interjection was poor, no doubt. But saying that asking for examples proves the point because you should just know what the problem is is spectacularly unhelpful because, if you knew, you wouldn't be asking for examples. It sounds like your brother is going to be more of a hindrance than a help and you need to tell him to butt out.
posted by dg at 2:41 PM on December 6, 2022 [4 favorites]

Rock ‘em Sock ‘em’s answer resonates a lot with me. In an appropriate conversation, I might tell a partner a generalization that I have noticed (e.g. for illustrative purposes, “you tend to be more critical of ideas when they come from women, and more accepting when they come from men.”) I might be able to think of an instance or two when this has happened, a specific person you’ve questioned, etc., but overall, I’m not cataloguing dates and offenses for later. I don’t always have examples. I notice trends and patterns, not instances and details (I tend to be a “lumper,” not a “splitter,” in my thinking). If you have a reason to dismiss the example I can remember, my impression still stands as what I feel, and that comes from somewhere. You may disagree with me, but just because I can’t “prove it,” doesn’t mean you should then automatically dismiss my perception—I am still an observant and thoughtful person, and I’d like you to take what I think seriously even if I can’t give you facts and figures. I might be wrong, but examples notwithstanding I think you should consider in a real way that I also might be right.
posted by Edna Million at 3:02 PM on December 6, 2022 [22 favorites]

We can all improve our communication. Our ability to communicate well in professional context has maybe 2% to do with how well we communicate with loved ones about difficult topics.

If you think your brother might have some insight and something to offer (and it's okay if you don't! But if you do...), what's a way to approach him with genuine curiosity? Could you go for a walk and say, "Look, I was a bit defensive and taken off guard before. I'd be interested to listen to more about this. And I will focus on listening, not responding." And then just... mute yourself. I heard somewhere once that sometimes when we are (ostensibly) listening to someone, what we are really doing is formulating our response and hoping they hurry up and finish so we can respond, and that certainly resonated with me. So I want to encourage you, if you want to know more about what your brother thinks, to be open to listening and not responding.

I am wondering why, if you were so pinched for time, you asked for examples. Let's let's say you were fully well-regulated, and this wasn't a difficult subject, and your brother approached you when you only had a moment before you meeting. You might respond, "Oh, wow, that's interesting. This isn't a great time for me, so can we talk about this later?" Because if you were crunched for time, you didn't really have time for examples. Now, I can't imagine being very happy about my sibling approaching me about something like this during the work day, so I'd probably snap back with whatever adaptive behaviors I had developed to deflect blame in my childhood. That adaptive behavior might not be super helpful in adult relationships, though.

Now, this could also be your brother's way of saying, "I struggle in communication with you because of such-and-such," which is an issue he maybe didn't have a way of raising til now. Maybe he sees some of this dynamic with your wife and sympathizes with her.

But I also agree that if the bigger picture interest here is to tackle some of these problems in your marriage, you might try saying to your wife, "Hey, brother said it can be a pain when I do things like ask for examples when someone raises a problem. Is that something you also find frustrating?" If you can do this from a place of trust for and love of your wife, this could be the start of a great conversation -- if you can really regulate yourself to focusing on listening and not asking someone for proof of what they are saying.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:54 PM on December 6, 2022 [5 favorites]

Your question feels similar to a communication challenge I have faced in my own relationship. I consider myself a more intuitive, abstract thinker. My partner is much more concrete. This means sometimes I share something and Partner responds very matter-of-factly when I am hoping for more empathy. When I ask Partner to demonstrate more empathy, Partner gets flustered and asks for examples/guidance, and then I get frustrated because I don't always want to explain empathy, I want to receive empathy. (Admittedly, I am working on being more patient and direct/clear with Partner about what I want). Being able to communicate clearly and directly about how we each prefer to communicate has been a big component of our relationship, and is still a learning curve because meta-communication is also challenging!
But it makes me think of two things wrt your situation:
1) Are you perhaps a more concrete thinker, while your wife is perhaps more abstract/emotional? Do you tend to ask for concrete examples and/or jump ahead to wanting to identify concrete solutions, instead of listening and empathizing? If so, I second the recommendation for some of the Gottman exercises, as well as learning about and practicing active/reflective listening.
2) This general diagnosis of "communication difficulties" is common but not that helpful. You are right that you and your wife need to get much more specific about how each of you tend to communicate, how and why you're having miscommunications, how you prefer to communicate, what you each need from the other to feel heard and understood, etc. This is not about general "communication skills." It is very specifically about getting a better understanding of how you and your wife's communication styles are mismatched, and how they could be brought into alignment.
posted by sleepingwithcats at 6:23 PM on December 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

When people say our communication skills are bad, they usually mean that they do not feel like they will be heard and validated if they express an issue with your behavior or a situation. This generally manifests as defensivness (I don't do that!), deflection (you do it too!), argument (that doesn't make sense, name one time I've done that!), and / or semantic deconstruction (that example / metaphor / terminology isn't a perfect fit for this situation). Recognize any of this in yourself? I bet you do if you're honest. We all do it sometimes. But if that's your knee-jerk response most of the time, it's going to land wrong even if you feel like you're asking in good faith this time.

So yes, I think you definitely need to work on your communication skills. We all do, really. Every one of us needs improvement because its challenging and there's always more to learn. The book Getting the Love You Want has some excellent examples of good communication skills.

I would also start by reading about and practicing non-violent communication. It's centered around taking accountability, understanding that both impact and intent matter, and that while all emotions are valid, our reactions are our responsibility to control.

I highly encourage you to be proactive about addressing this, either through research and practice or with a professional therapist, because nothing kills a marriage faster than poor communication.
posted by ananci at 7:07 AM on December 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

I think you brother is being kind of a jerk about this but more than that, it’s not his opinion on this that matters. The person whose opinion matters here is your wife. What does she think?
posted by Jubey at 9:28 AM on December 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "I’d like you to take what I think seriously even if I can’t give you facts and figures. I might be wrong, but examples notwithstanding I think you should consider in a real way that I also might be right."

This is a good comment because it's an actual issue that's come up with my wife, so excuse me if I pivot this question to address it. I'm willing to consider you might be right, but only if what you're saying is plausible. Like, if you think you remember me ordering scrambled eggs when we went out to eat last week, I'm not willing to consider that. I have an egg allergy. I wouldn't ever do that, and if I did, I would remember it because there would be consequences. If you think you remember me ordering pizza, I'm not going to ask for examples because that's completely plausible. But scrambled eggs, I'm gonna need a little more from you.

And like, I'm not asking for an encyclopedic retelling of the story, but some detail would be helpful. If you tell me I kicked a dog, that doesn't seem like something I would do. If I did, maybe there are some details you could jog my memory with. Was it a big dog like a lab or a little one like a chihuahua? Were we in our neighborhood? Did I say anything?

And saying something vague like "you did something wrong" isn't going to help me see anything at all, because I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm willing to consider that you're right, but you've gotta tell me what you're right about at least. Is that unreasonable?
posted by kevinbelt at 11:07 AM on December 7, 2022

So from what you've said, there's a sitcom versions of this where (depending on tone and backstory) your brother is the guy everyone is laughing at, and another one where it's you.

So I'm nthing that we don't know. And you have to figure out how much the rest of this applies.

In some cases, asking for examples can be a classic defensive move. "Abe" gets an example, then responds with the reasons that's not a good example for extenuating circumstances. Maybe more examples get offered, but none of them are platonic examples of the behavior, they are all X% the behavior and Y% situational. So now the whole conversation is discussing (probably debating) the details of specific situations, and after an emotionally draining hour of back and forth Abe walks away thinking they didn't get even a single clear cut example, obviously it's specious criticism.

When I was paid to give people feedback I would stop with examples pretty quickly if I thought this was the dynamic. And tell people to stop asking for them.

Is this what's going on? Like I said, I don't know. But one test is to reflect back. You're saying you got no examples. But was there even one situation being referenced, or in context it was implicitly about some incident? There's a good chance that this is how your brother was perceiving your questions. Even if you don't think the situation counts as a good example!
So the message might be, "give it a rest with the examples."

Understood, but how am I supposed to know the problem then?
If you want to know what your brother thinks, then ask a different question. Try to draw out more information. Do not push back on any feedback. This is really important (unfortunately). Just nod and say you'll think about it.

"What would you suggest I change?" is a good one. "I never considered myself a bad communicator, can you tell me how to improve?" You could also offer your own example. "Here's something that went poorly, I thought it was for (my reason), is this the sort of thing you'd attribute to bad communication? What would you say next time?"

If you don't want to know what your brother thinks on this subject, or heck, just plain aren't in the mood to have this discussion, then just tell him to mind his own damn business right now. That's fine. But if you think he might have something valuable to say it'd be weird to insist he has to communicate it in one very specific format before you'll listen.
posted by mark k at 1:28 PM on December 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

Two people can remember the same situation in a very different way.

I'm willing to consider you might be right, but only if what you're saying is plausible.

What if, instead of treating the conversation like a legal dispute you tried to yourself find the grain of truth in another person's communication? I mean, unless you think they are wrong about everything in which case you wouldn't be in a relationship with them, right?
posted by M. at 1:29 PM on December 7, 2022 [7 favorites]

Along the lines of others, what if you treated the feedback you've received as definitely having a grain of truth within it, that is important to the other person. Maybe they're not explaining it perfectly to you, but it still contains really valuable information that you can reflect on. You don't need to respond immediately in most cases, and you might find that by really absorbing it without rejecting it you learn something helpful.
posted by plonkee at 2:11 PM on December 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

Nobody wins an argument in an intimate relationship. It's not about proving who is right or wrong. If you're starting from a place of wondering if something is plausible, then you might consider focusing on feelings more than facts. I saw something from some therapist on some social media platform about how relationships need less work to understand and more compassion. So the idea isn't to understand exactly how the other person feels, but to feel some compassion for their feelings.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:40 PM on December 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

My take, based on the similarities you have with my partner (so take with a grain of salt) is:

As a kid you built up very very robust defenses against unreasonable parents who tried to make you see yourself as bad, without reference to the truth; you are very well-equipped to avoid character-assassination, verbal abuse, being berated, unfair and overly harsh criticism. That was a reasonable skill you needed to build up to protect yourself and it's completely understandable.

In a romantic relationship, however, you will need to be more vulnerable and/or more gentle. If you can't be more vulnerable, at least try being more gentle and letting more things go instead of engaging in order to defend yourself. A little goes a long way. Even listening without arguing, and validating someone's feelings one or two times (which doesn't mean you think they're right on the facts!) can often melt away a lot of conflict because it will lower the overall level of tension.

DBT may be good for this. I would suggest it as a useful form of therapy.

If you don't feel safe enough or comfortable enough with your spouse to be more vulnerable and/or more gentle, it may be that they are not the spouse for you. But you may find that taking one step towards them will make a meaningful difference in their behavior, which will make a meaningful difference in your ability to feel safe around them, and so on.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 2:45 PM on December 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

I'm on Team Your Brother's Feedback Was Not Even a Little Bit Helpful, Thanks to His Unwillingness to Speak Plainly. That said, I wanted to respond to your last comment, particularly about needing examples to grasp the issue. I identify with that, and feel like I know exactly what you mean.

But at the risk of falling down a semantic rabbit hole, I was struck by some of your wording. To paraphrase/embellish a little to try to frame your example in the context of your question, you read like you're saying if your wife says she's mad at you because you ordered eggs, and you know that's wrong because you're allergic to them and never eat them, you're not 'willing to consider [she] might be right.'

Feel free to dismiss this advice if I'm way off on any of that. But I think you'll be happier if you stop thinking of disagreements as encounters where one person is right. Think of them instead as conflicts (or issues, or opportunities to fix things, or any number of framings). Working together, maybe you two can resolve some of them amicably. But probably not if either or both of you see them as right vs. wrong.

Let's switch to that dog you kicked. You don't remember that. She does. Luckily, I was there. You didn't. You were right! She was wrong. I tell you both so. She laughs and says 'Oops!' and goes back to gazing at you lovingly. Then you wake me up, because I'm dreaming if I think people and relationships work like that.

Whether you actually kicked the dog matters less than the fact that she remembers that you did. At issue isn't whether you kicked a dog. The thing that needs fixing is that she thinks you *could*. That's based on something, probably on something more than a false memory. Clearing up a mistaken memory won't help. Clearing up whatever led her to think of you that way in the first place might, whether the reason is that you're trying to control a fear of big dogs but it's still creeping out in ways she experiences as mean-spirited or it's that she saw her dad do that once and also her dad's treatment of her as a child was scarring and you happen to do some things that cause her to associate you with her dad.

Of course it's at least possible, instead, that you like to kick dogs and then forget you ever did it. So the detail you're saying you would like might help you remember, which is why I don't begrudge your asking for it. My point is more that if you say 'Oh yeah? When?' and she says 'The last Friday in August' and you go look at your calendar and you were away on business that day, showing that to her doesn't fix shit. It probably will make shit worse. Someone as important to you as your wife is, their perception of events matters as much as if not more than what actually happened. (And this is to ignore all the evidence of how imperfect anyone's memory can be deemed.)
posted by troywestfield at 2:08 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

The way you phrased your original question, and your follow up where you imply that you are being accused of outlandish, incredibly unlikely behaviors is a red flag. It sounds like you are looking to confirm your defensive position that your brother is unreasonable and your wife is crazy. You seem to be looking for validation that you are right and reasonable and your family members are just being irrational.

This is a clear sign that you are not very willing to take accountability, validate other people's experiences and feelings (even if you don't agree), and that you prioritize winning over having compassion and repairing the situation.

This is not a good way to interact with anyone, let alone your loved ones. I am not surprised you perceive your brother and wife aren't communicating clearly with you - you are not invested in understanding, not being open and curious. You are being defensive and shutting down what is clearly an important issue for both him and your wife.

Please go to a therapist or a marriage counselor who can unpack the underlying causes and teach you some better communication tools before you ruin two important relationships.
posted by ananci at 3:05 PM on December 8, 2022

Just on your latest update. Thing is, your two examples are both about whether you physically carried out very specific acts - ordering eggs and kicking a dog.

But Edna Million's example (and perhaps the original discussions with your brother/wife) are about much less tangible things, they're about the way you communicate. They're about impressions and feelings and understandings. And those things can't always be proven by providing a list of events that did or didn't take place. If the other person feels bad, they feel bad, and them telling you they feel bad is the only evidence needed; the only evidence there can ever be, and you need to take it at face value. There may be no receipts, but (assuming this is someone you trust to be honest with you), they still feel bad.

If someone tells me I make them feel bad, mayyybe they can say: "It's because of the way you snapped at me right after breakfast yesterday when I mentioned the housework". But maybe instead it's the accumulation of countless small moments, of tone of voice, eye contact, poor attention-paying, facial expressions, or any one of the other millions of things that make up communication and are often barely consciously perceptible (for neurotypical types, at least), but which over time can build up to poor communication and bad feelings.

Which is hard, because the only way to dig into it then sits with me, and examining how I feel about the other person and our relationship, how I tend to translate my thoughts into communication, and how that all works together into the way I communicate with them.

That's much harder than someone saying: "I'm mad because you snapped at me yesterday," and me resolving not to snap tomorrow. But it's kind of the way it works.

You also talk about wanting examples because otherwise you're not willing to consider things that you think are not plausible. Thing is, we might not be the best judge of what's a plausible allegation about our own behaviour, because it's so hard for most of us to judge how we come across to other people. We are the only way we've ever been, and can only see our own behaviour as normal. So if you're saying "That's just not plausible, I don't behave like that, I behave normally!" You are possibly not being the rational judge of yourself that you think you are, because none of us can really be impartial judges of our own behaviour.

Not saying that's what's going on here - none of us have seen you communicate, so who knows. But if you're assuming that communcation is as clear-cut and explicable as remembering whether or not you kicked a dog, when in fact it's subtle and complex and grows out of the inner world of our relationships, that might be something to look at.
posted by penguin pie at 3:10 PM on December 8, 2022 [7 favorites]

Like, if you think you remember me ordering scrambled eggs when we went out to eat last week, I'm not willing to consider that. I have an egg allergy.

Yeah, this is a problem. You are so obsessed with being right that you're not even slowing down for a second that your wife remembers something differently. Don't you think it's at least weird and somehow notable that SOMETHING happened that she - a person you allegedly like and care about and who probably doesn't want you dead - recalls some kind of pretty alarming behavior out of you??

Because your options here are: she's gaslighting you - which is not likely fixable, get a lawyer - or she's suffering a serious neurological problem - doctor time - OR you did something she - again, a person you presumably like and trust and consider intelligent - registered as sub-optimal for some reason. (Or, I guess, that you are experiencing some kind of dissociative events of self-harm, but I'll give you credit that you have no evidence of emergency hospital treatment even if you remember nothing about it.)

Maybe you got the tofu scramble and she didn't know, but that doesn't mean it didn't scare the hell out of her or upset her or really throw her for a loop. Try caring about THAT instead of meeting every challenge with "you didn't have a bad experience you were just wrong."

I'm going to guess your wife isn't tolerating an actual ongoing dog-kicking problem*, and this is a lot more about "No I did not say or do or "mean" the thing you are taking exception to, so your feelings are invalid" and that is NOT how you stay married. Accept that the things you say and do are not infallible and because you are a human you may sometimes do harm by lack of appropriate precautions or incorrectly reading the room or encountering a difference in culture you were not aware of, and intent is like the 10th most important component there.

Consider two different dynamics:
Person1: I am hurt.
Person2: I will be the judge of that.
Person1: I am hurt.
Person2: I am not a fan of you being hurt, let's see if we can make it better.

If you like your partner and think they are generally a credible person, you need to lead with that and not whatever trauma you have about being wrong. Because being wrong as a grown adult is largely free, it does not cost you anything but some emotions. I would rather be wrong in a fixable way than be right with a hurt sad disconnected partner, 100 times out of 100. It may sting a little to have to wrangle with the fact that I could have chosen a better interaction than the one I offered, but doing that bit of work generally means I won't do it so badly next time.

*I once had a boyfriend who seemed incapable of learning that one of our cats liked to hang out in the hallway, and he did in fact kick or step on her repeatedly, which I considered problematic and fixable if only he'd give a shit. I asked him repeatedly to give a shit, I also demonstrated the Dark Hallway Shuffle that will nudge a cat before stepping on it. No improvement. At one point, talking about it with our roommate, I said "I'm not angry at him, I just want him to feel bad" and she went back to my boyfriend and said "she just likes when you feel bad". He brought this up like a year after we broke up, several years after this happened, and I said "Yes, I did want you to feel bad enough about animal cruelty to stop fucking doing it" and he literally said "ohhh, I wasn't even thinking about the cat" like he only just realized that hurting a cat was involved? Like, I don't know, but somehow in his mind he was NOT kicking the cat? Maybe because it wasn't a deliberate aiming of his foot at the cat? No connection in his mind between his feet and the cat's distress? I don't know, but I do know it's absolutely possible to have an animal-kicking problem that you think doesn't exist.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:26 AM on December 9, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'm on Team Your Brother's Feedback Was Not Even a Little Bit Helpful

I'd go a step further - dropping some completely vague "You Communicate Bad" critique in the middle of your work day and then getting all self-righteous when you ask for clarification is some Scientologist Personality Test level bullshit. He might as well have followed with the classic "You're in denial about it! Not agreeing with me proves it!" to completely deflect any kind of response you would have had aside from complete acquiescence.

His critique was useless specifically because it was non-constructive - there was nothing you could do in response to address or correct an issue based on the info given. Even if you feel that there are communications elements you could work on improving, his feedback does not help that at all and only functions to make you aware of his judgemental views and his own inadequate communication skills.
posted by FatherDagon at 1:16 PM on December 14, 2022

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