New communication tool.

Barb and I had a major meltdown on Friday night.  It lasted well into Saturday.  What finally got us out of it was that I realized she really wasn’t understanding me.  She was trying, but just COULD NOT understand what I was saying.  My words would be translated in her mind into something other than what I was saying.  I did not realize this until I asked her to repeat back to me my words — a simple five or ten word sentence.  She could almost do it, but not quite.  A minute later the words were gone.  She literally could not understand me.  As I started exploring this with her I realized that a tremdous amount of stress in our otherwise wonderful relationship was due to this communication problem.  And it works both ways.  She would say things that I didn’t understand and she was completely baffled as to why I didn’t understand.  I worked out some techniques to reestablish communication once I have detected that a transmission error has occurred.  By Tuesday I had the tools working pretty good and had a couple chances test them out.  Here is a good example of fixing an error in her understanding me:

The phone rings.  I see from the caller ID it is someone she knows and the call must be for her.  She answers it and says a few words and hangs up.  I ask, “What did he say?”  She says, “Nothing.”  I know that literally speaking (which is how I am) this is not true.  He must have said something to her.  But she didn’t understand that I wasn’t interested in a summary of the conversation I wanted the details.  Rather than escalating and yelling “He did too say something, WHAT DID HE SAY?”  I said, “What were his words?”  She said, “Oh,  …ummm … I said, ‘Hello’.  He said, ‘Hello’, I said, ‘Joe is here and will leave soon, can I call you back?’.  He said, ‘Yes, that would be fine.  I’ll talk to you later.’  I said, ‘Good-bye’.  He said, ‘Good-bye’.” 

I was thrilled!  Previously that would have escalated into a fight as I demanded more and more insistantly that she tell me what he said and she would keep saying that he hadn’t said anything.  I had to halt our conversation to tell her what had just happened.  She hadn’t even realized that we had just avoided another fight over nothing but a communication problem.  Another incident from Tuesday when I didn’t understand what she said at first:

We were talking about our (relatively) new table and chairs.  She said, “These chairs are so solid that even Jamie can’t break them.”  Jamie is our 19 year old son who is 6′ 3” and weighs about 250 lbs and isn’t careful with the furniture.  What she said wasn’t literally true.  Jamie if he deliberately tried to could break the chairs, but he wasn’t likely to in everyday use.  I detected that what she said was not true and my strongest impulse was to tell her that it wasn’t true.  It took real effort to not say anything.  I struggled for a bit and realized that it was the communication problem again.  She said something that didn’t accurately represent what she meant.  It was close enough in the way her mind worked and she knew that if Jamie wanted to he could deliberately break them.  So in my mind I corrected the ‘broken’ statement and replayed it, just in my mind, “These chairs are so solid that even Jamie can’t break them during normal use.”   It worked.  I didn’t have this uncontrollable urge to correct her and have us get into a fight over me constantly nitpicking everything she says.

Here is an example where neither of us is understanding what the other is saying:

I ask if she has taken the film in to be developed. She says “I had a busy week.” I say “I’m sorry to hear that. So did you take the film in or not?” She, seeing that I didn’t understand her first answer tries to explain more clearly. She says, “I had to work extra hours because Walter was on vacation. Joy had a dentist appointment and I had get snow tires put on my Jeep.” and it goes on for a minute or more as she tells me all the details of her busy week. I keep expecting to hear something about the film, but I hear about the weather and the bad roads, her schedule and the taxi service for the kids and dealing with her mom in the nursing home. I ask, “Why can’t you answer my question?” She says “I did!!!”. “But I didn’t hear it. It’s just a yes or no question.” “I can’t give you a yes or no answer. I have to tell you all the background information.” “FINE!!! You just HAD to give me all the background information. I’ve got it! NOW WILL YOU TELL ME THE ANSWER TO MY QUESTION?????!!!!!”

I suspect some people, Barb will say 99%, say I should be able to figure out the answer (the answer is “No”, for those 1% of people like me). But it’s not at all clear to me. She has given me additional information that is apparently relevant to my question. But what she has done is increase the ambiguity. Perhaps she is telling me that she dropped the film off but didn’t have time to pick it up. Perhaps she is telling me someone else dropped it off (I asked if SHE dropped the film off, not just IF the film was dropped off). The more information she gives me the more possible answers there are. In her mind the more information she gives me the more clear the answer is. Simultaneous with her making the issue more ambiguous for me I make the issue more ambiguous for her. I give her less and less information trying to make it very specific and simple for her to answer. If I had given her more information then she would have understood the question. I should have said, “I’m going to the mall. If you haven’t taken the film in yet, I will.” By giving her less information and showing some irritation she interprets things in a completely different way that what I intended. In her mind I’m mad at her because she didn’t take the film in. Which was never true. But by the time the conversation is over she cannot possibly believe anything except that. And I cannot believe anything other than she is deliberately trying to avoid my question. Both of us are really pissed at the other.  With my new understanding I can probably correct the commuication error without the anger on either side.

Barb is pretty happy with things too.  I don’t think she really understand why I can’t understand her sometimes.  At this point I’m having to do all the work to correct the communication errors but I don’t care.  I’m so incredibly thrilled to be able to communicate with her.  And I’m reevaluating a whole bunch of things that have happened over the years.  So many of them are related to this relatively simple communication problem.  We each have blind spots where we don’t really get what is being said and unfortunately I think her blind spot is right in the middle of where I am the most comfortable and vice versa.  I’m having to work to understand her and to change to get her to understand me.  But that’s okay.  It’s so much better than before.

Last night at aerobics class I realized there were other communication errors that I was having with the instructor.  With my new tools I recognized what happened but I still don’t know how to fix them.  Here is the story on that:

One of the moves we do involves either doing it alternating off of each side of the step or multiple times off the same side of the step.  If alternating the instructor will give us a count “Two“ or “Eight“ or something like that.  If off the same side it will be twice and she will say “Double“.  She said “Two“ and I did it off alternate sides consistent with what she said, but she and everyone else in the class did the “Double“.  She saw that I was out of synch and thought back and realized she had said the wrong thing. She looked around, realized everyone else was doing the same as she and even as I struggled to get back in synch with them told me I might as well do it the same as everyone else even though that wasn’t what she had said.

What is going on is that I was getting all my cues directly from her words.  I watch her feet to keep time and to learn new moves but when actually executing things I rely on her words for what to do next.  The others in the class are probably picking up on other things such as knowing what comes next because we have done this same sequence before or because they are reading her body language better than I am to know what is about to come next.  There are other examples of this that happen on cosistent basis because the instructor always gives the verbal command late between these two different moves.  I mess it up every time.  It doesn’t matter that much if I can’t correct that error.  But it’s really cool that I now know how the errors are occuring.  I am very literal with words and they override other data sources.  Most other people are not.  This joke illustrates the concept:

Two engineering students were walking across campus when one said, “Where did you get such a great bike?”

The second engineer replied, “Well, I was walking along yesterday minding my own business when a beautiful woman rode up on this bike. She threw the bike to the ground, took off all her clothes and said, “Take what you want.”

The second engineer nodded approvingly, “Good choice; the clothes probably wouldn’t have fit.”

Life with Barb takes on a whole new meaning now.  I’m giddy and thrill to hear her talk.  It’s like a little orgasm each time I catch and correct a communication error.  If I can do that without making her feel like I’m blaming her for all the errors (which they are not) life with her is going to be very very good.


One thought on “New communication tool.

  1. Interesting. I think this must be very common; Lyle and I were talking about this type of issue the other night. I’ve also read about this in software development books; the example given was people who walk into a diner and ask if breakfast is being served. When answered in the affirmitive, they spin around and leave. What they really wanted to know was if breakfast was being served exclusively, or if the lunch menu was available. Instead of trying to educate customers, they should teach the waitstaff to answer “we server both breakfast and lunch menus all the time”. Answer the implied question, not the direct question.

    Not a lot of people parse English as precisely as a programmer.

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