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Clarify your intentions: Say what you really mean

It is not uncommon to hear from one of my clients that their relationship with their spouse or child or parent is in trouble. They may say they do not feel as close as they once did. They may say they no longer talk very much, and that they don’t know how to get the closeness back.

In my experience, I have noticed that neither person in a troubled relationship is often saying what they really mean, and that both are expecting the other to intuit their intentions. The following example illustrates how ”saying what you really mean” can go a long way towards improving communication and positively impacting a relationship.

All identifying information has been changed in the following story for privacy.

Years ago, I worked with an elderly woman whose granddaughter had died in a car accident. The woman’s health was poor, and she was living with one of her sons because she needed help on a daily basis. The son was likely quite tired, given that he was caring for her mother, in addition to raising his own children, working full-time, and coping with his niece’s loss.

My client, the elderly woman, told me she was devastated because her son had said he would not take her to her grandson’s funeral. It struck me as unlikely that the same son that was being so generous to his mother by physically caring for her, would have told his mother that he would not take her to the funeral.

I asked my client to tell me exactly what words she had used when she asked her son to take her to the funeral. My client said her words had been, “Are you going to the funeral?” and that her son’s response to this question had been “No”.

Many of us would have asked the exact same question, thinking we were being clear about what we wanted. But can you spot what is amiss with the question my client asked?

It may shock you when I say that the son gave his mother a perfectly reasonable response to the question “Are you going to the funeral?” His response may make sense if you remember that the son was likely tired. The response may make even more sense when you consider that the son likely answered the question in a literal way, which is what most of us do. After all, we aren’t mind-readers.

When the mother was asked “Are you going to the funeral?, the son responded “No,” as in “No, I am not planning to go to the funeral myself.”

If the son had been given the opportunity to explain his response, he might have said, “I’m exhausted and don’t have the strength to attend the funeral, given everything else that’s on my plate.” Or perhaps he might have said, “I’m frustrated that my niece took so many risks and hurt the family so badly… I don’t think I can hold my tongue at the funeral and so I will protect her parents from hearing my opinion by not attending.”

But how my client interpreted her son’s response was, “No… I am unwilling to take you to the funeral.”

I asked my client if there might be another, clearer way that she could ask her son to take her to the funeral. With a bit of exploration, she was able to come up with the question, “Will you take me to the funeral?” I suggested that my client approach her son again and ask her this second, much clearer question.

I waited a week to learn what had transpired, and was rewarded when I next met with my client. She shared with me that she had asked her son, “Will you take me to the funeral?” and had been immediately met with the response, “In a heartbeat, ma.”

The son’s response suggested to me that he had spotted his own oversight when his mother asked him about the funeral a second time. With the second request, the son likely realized that her mother deeply wanted to attend the funeral.

The problem occurred when the mother asked her initial question, expecting her son to read her mind and to realize she was trying to ask the son to give her a ride to the funeral. Once the son understood what his mother had really been attempting to ask, the son was able and willing to give his mother the compassionate response she needed to hear.

In relationships, I frequently see my clients commit similar errors. They ask their spouses or other important people in their lives to read their minds and to intuit the intended meaning behind their words. And then they are hurt when they don’t receive the response that they wanted to hear.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

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