Tell Me What You Want, Not What To Do

Eden was upset.

John was nervous.

Eden, with her good communication, had asked John to “just listen.” John knew that meant he couldn’t fix her problem. So he listened. And when she was done talking it all out, she looked up at him with pain on her face and cried out,

You’re not going to say anything?!!!

John threw his hands in the air. “What do you want from me? I don’t fix and I listen, and now it seems you want me to fix . . .something . . . Tell me, what do you want me to do?!”

Eden was about to launch in and tell John exactly what she wanted him to do. But then she paused.

I know you’ve been where Eden and John were.

It can be maddening. With so many different communication needs and styles, how do we navigate?

We learn to teach our partners, friends and even co-workers how to treat us. Sharing our preferences and needs is an adult way to get the love we want (thank you, Harville Hendrix). Everyone needs a little direction in how to behave in relationships. But there is a difference between giving someone “direction” and telling them what to do.

Telling our loved ones what to do comes across as controlling and usually activates a parental role — one that works against intimacy.

Sometimes the difference lies in intention, tone and syntax. Here’s an example of two similar directives:

Direction: I really need you to just listen (a request)
Instruction: Just listen to me, please (a command, even with the please)

John was asking for Eden to tell him what to do, and Eden found herself in a bind. In his exasperation, John thought he was seeking direction, but he was seeking instruction. Eden knows that nobody likes being told what to do. She had been down this road before and knew she would overstep her authority and increase both of their frustration if she told him what to do and tried to teach him how to listen to her. She waited till they calmed down to see what requests she could find.

Here’s what she came up with: “I know how frustrating I can be when I’m upset. I can’t teach you how to listen in a way that makes me feel you really hear me. But I do know we’ll figure it out.”

(a stellar communique that acknowledges difference and inspires hope)

John, genuinely wanting to please, pushed, “Can you give me a few pointers?”

“I like it when you look me in the eyes .  . .  But other than that, you might have to figure this one out on your own. In the meantime, I’m going to try to talk to my girlfriends when I’m super upset first, so I can be more logical when I share with you.”

And just like that, they were collaborating.

In your clear communication, are you directing, or instructing? Here are some guidelines that can work, if you use them with loving intentions and tone:

Direct by request:
Can you put the dishes away after you dry them? Ask me if you don’t know where something goes.

Direct by feedback:
I love it when you . . .
It turns me off when you . . .

Teach only activities:
If (and only if!) your partner is a willing student you can teach your partner to cook, climb, or swim, but when it comes to matters of the heart — better to let them learn the skills they need from someone else. Otherwise, you run the risk of setting up a power dynamic and appearing to be the controlling parent — no fun for date night!

Can you think of other guidelines? Share your thoughts, experiences and additions below!

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2 responses to “Tell Me What You Want, Not What To Do”

  1. Ric Dragon says:

    Of course, over time, Eden could model the behavior that she might know is indicative of better listening. If she does that – then she’ll be teaching without the downside of teaching (parentally).

    Or, as you suggest, why not the “direct by feedback?” “I like it when you give me clues that you’re listening – when you nod your head, etc.”

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Love the idea of modeling, or “leading by example” Ric! Although sometimes it isn’t explicit enough to actually create behavioral change. Thank for your comment! I agree that feedback is a terrific way to teach people how to treat us.

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