I am often reminded of the difficulty in communicating our needs, and getting the response that we wish for. I speak with a lot of people who talk about not feeling understood by others. Or they feel that their feelings are being dismissed, ignored or made to feel unimportant. It is a profoundly difficult task – to speak with someone we are close with and get the response that we are hoping for. My experience tells me that there are four main points where this could fall apart.
1. The first and second part are quite similar yet discrete. To be able to communicate our needs we need to first know how we are feeling. And that is not at all simple. It is all too common to be aware of what we are thinking but less common to know what we are feeling. I love working with people where this is the focus, because it is under-rated and overlooked. It often takes people by surprise. “I feel bad” — but what does that really mean? Is it loneliness, rejection, sadness, fear, concern? And how do you know that? How does it feel in the body? Counselling is a great place to build a useful emotional vocabulary and bodily awareness, which leads onto the second point.
2. Communicating our needs also requires the right words, timing and presentation. We need to explain it well so that someone else can stand a better chance of understanding us. You might know that feeling intimately, that it is a sadness that needs reassurance from a parent. But you can’t find the right words. This can often be quite straightforward – working out what to say so that there’s a clear explanation for how you feel and what you need. It could also be about developing perspective so that you know how and when to speak to someone. I always advocate for speaking with partners, family members or friends during ‘peacetime’, when things are calm and quiet – use that time to outline how you feel when they offer solutions instead of reassurance or just listening, and give them guidance of what would help you.
3. The other person (or people) now need to hear you, and understand you. And, at this point, there is not a whole lot we can do if we have already found the words that fit, and spoken to them away from highly emotional situations. This is definitely a point where the communication can go wrong, and it seems mostly out of our control. What we can do is to gently correct them. If they use words that we haven’t used, or label feelings that don’t quite sit with what we are experiencing then it is important to say so. The difficult part is that it is now about thinking on your feet, and avoiding phrases like, “No you got that wrong” or “No, you don’t get it”. This is about a collaboration, not about pointing fingers or widening the gap between the two of you. Work out where the misunderstanding is and help them to make sense of it.
4. We now hope that the other person will respond in a way that helps us to feel understood, important and accepted. There is a great video called “It Is Not About The Nail” that beautifully illustrates that, sometimes, all we need is someone to listen to us and not offer solutions. Being given answers for what we should or could be doing can leave us feeling disempowered. I saw a post from a father a while back (I wish I could link to it) that outlined the three ‘responses’ he offers his daughters: Do you want me to just listen? Do you want me to offer guidance? Do you want me to get involved? It is so simple but would solve many of the issues with communication. We think we know what the other person needs, but sometimes it is perfectly OK to ask them. Similarly, it is perfectly OK to tell someone what you need — “I have an issue that I want to talk to you about. I need you to just listen please”.
It is not an easy task, but if we can spend time practising how to do each of the steps, and involving a partner or family member, we stand a better chance of being understood and getting the response we are hoping for. Being in dialogue with others can be tricky, let alone when emotions are high. Try and find a way to express yourself and get the support that you need.