I have written before about a peculiar discrepancy in my marriage: My husband and I have very different ways of making requests of one another.
(In case you are interested – in the original post, linked to above, I touched very briefly on my husband’s tendency to a) not do a task immediately and b) not respond to my request at all. Let me stress that this is not a failure on HIS PART. It is simply a Communication Challenge on MY PART to figure out the best way to get the responses I need. I have been dealing with this by a) putting a time limit in my requests [ie, “Could you please take out the trash before we eat dinner at six?”] and b) reminding him that I need him to respond, even if he just needs to tell me “Hold on, I’m finishing this article” or “I will do that as soon as I’m done writing this email.” It is not FOOLPROOF, but it has HELPED.)
Anyway, over Christmas, I came face to face with ANOTHER Communication Challenge, request-making-wise. I thought you might like to hear about it. (Yes, I am JUST NOW writing about it.)
(And I am writing about it NOW because we went to our personal money depository – ie, Home Depot – yesterday and he did the very thing to ME that I’m about to tell you about me doing to HIM.) (That doesn’t make much sense now, but it will. I think.)
The scene: Christmas evening, 2011 – my in-laws’ guest bathroom.
The cast: Me. My husband. A used washcloth, lying crumpled in the middle of the counter.
Me: Is that your washcloth?
Me: Is there a better place for it than right in the center of the counter?
Husband, angrily: If you want me to move it, just ask.
Me: **surprised silence**
Flashback to earlier that day, in my in-laws’ kitchen. I was unloading the dishwasher.
Me, flustered, to Husband: Would you like to help me put these away?
Husband: No, not really.
In the interest of Not Expecting My Husband to Read My Mind and Knowing Full Well That I Cannot Read HIS Mind, I did not get mad at my husband for not simply finding a better location for the washcloth.
Instead, I talked to him about it.
(Ground-breaking stuff, I know.)
Turns out that my husband feels I ask questions in a condescending way.
And he is not wrong, Internet.
I mean, he IS wrong about the INTENT. I am not trying to be condescending – I am trying to be gentle, as in, not forceful or bossy or commanding. But “trying to be gentle” SUCKS twofold because it makes him annoyed and it also fails to convey my needs. Which are “move the damn washcloth” or “help me put away these dishes lest you find a plate in your face.” PLUS it fails to elicit the desired result, which is a counter uncluttered by a soggy washcloth or a job that should not be mine alone done in half the time with half the frustration and put-upon martyrdom.
Wood board, Internet! WORDS. They are so FRAUGHT with potential for misunderstanding and resulting anger/frustration/hurt feelings!
So I am going to try to change the way I ask things.
Firstly, I have been trying to eliminate the “would you like to…” type of phrases from questions. Because no one would LIKE to help unload the dishwasher or take out the trash or chop the onions or shovel the walk or get the mail. Those are called chores for a REASON. So of course the answer would be “no.” And of course the askee would feel like the asker is being condescending by asking in the first place; the asker KNOWS the answer, so why ask the question? Why make the askee feel as though he SHOULD want to unload the dishwasher, and if he doesn’t, he is a horrible person not worthy of love?
Plus, it’s not the REAL question I want answered. I don’t care about my husband’s level of dishwasher-unloading pleasure. I care about him DOING the thing I want him to do.
Plus, it is confusing. This is what I discovered in Home Depot yesterday. My husband and I were there to buy a lawnmower (I know, we have terribly fascinating and wild lives) and we needed one of those flat trolley-things on which to put the giant lawnmower box. And he asked me, “Do you want to go down to the other end of the Home Depot and see if they store the trolleys down by the wood?” And I was all, “Sure.” And then we kept walking around, and then he asked me the SAME question, and I was all, “Sure, I said already that was fine. YOU’RE the one who keeps looking at giant grills.” And it turns out that he wanted ME to go look for/get a trolley MYSELF, when I had interpreted him as asking me to weigh in on what the TWO OF US should do next. You are now wondering how we made it out of the Home Depot at all.
Anyway, the solution to all of this unpleasantness is to simply ask the question, STRAIGHT OUT, comme ca:
“Would you please unload the dishwasher? It will really help keep me from wanting to drown myself in the swimming pool.”
“Will you go check the other end of the Home Depot to see if there’s a wheelhouse of trolleys somewhere near the ladder section?”
“Please move your washcloth to an alternate location before I stuff it up your nose hole.”
This is harder than it seems, by the way. Sometimes the real question I’m asking IS “would you like to.” For instance, if I say, “Do you want to make dinner?” I am not necessarily hedging around my desire for HIM to make dinner. No, I really want to know, “Are you ready for one or both of us to cook a meal?”
Plus, it seems to be DEEPLY INGRAINED in me to not just say what I want, straight out. But when I am able to remember/force myself to ASK A QUESTION, STRAIGHT OUT, I am typically pleased with how painless and simple it is to get what I want.
So I’m going to keep working at this one.
Secondly, I am trying not to ask questions about alternative options.
For instance, I asked, “Is there a better place to put that washcloth?” because I didn’t want my husband to feel JUDGED for his washcloth placement. WAS there a better place than the bathroom counter? Maybe there wasn’t – maybe he’d evaluated the rest of the washcloth-storage options in the bathroom and the counter was the winner. Or maybe he was going to use the washcloth in the next five minutes or had just finished using it and hadn’t had a chance to put it away. Instead of demanding that he move the washcloth when I didn’t know the circumstances of the washcloth’s position, I was trying to be both diplomatic and understanding.
But I can totally see how he saw it as condescending. It would have been better for both of us if I hadn’t tried to overanalyze the situation, as is my custom, and had simply requested, “Can you please move the washcloth when you’re done with it? It looks messy on the counter and it takes up room and I would feel better if it were hanging somewhere else.”
And let’s admit something here, Internet. Sometimes one’s intent really IS passive aggression. “Are you really going to put your shoes THERE?” is not a real question. It is an accusation of idiocy.
So I am TRYING, I SWEAR to be better about this – to say what I mean, and not to over-analyze. But sometimes I still opt for passive aggression because I am immature.
WHAT CAN I SAY, Internet. I am human.
However… when I DO go all out and say what I mean, it helps! Immensely! For instance, my husband has been working diligently on a big presentation for work. The other day, he headed up to the office after dinner to work on the presentation, I stayed in the living room to read an article. When I next visited the kitchen, I saw that he’d left his dinner dishes by the sink.
Instead of getting all dramatic-sighs and stomping around as I put them away… Or instead of saying something snotty like, “Is there a better place for your dishes than by the sink?” I went upstairs and told him, “Honey, I know you are very busy and I am happy to help out when you are so swamped. But can you please ask me to wash your dishes for you instead of leaving them by the sink and assuming that I’ll take care of them?”
Guess what? Not only did no one yell or get upset… But it turns out he did it UNINTENTIONALLY. He’d taken his dishes into the kitchen, I’d asked him a question, he’d come into the living room to answer me, and he forgot about the dishes. He wasn’t assuming that I would take care of them! He wasn’t “asking” me to take care of them! He just forgot!
And when I expressed my need to him – not even a need for him to wash his own dishes, but a need for him to ASK ME to do his dishes, which is all I need, I promise – he did the dishes himself.
Honest and open communication! Such a novel idea!
Okay, Internet. Please tell me that I am not the only one with Communication Challenges. Any communication secrets you want to share? Any particularly tricky Communication Challenges you’d like the collective power of The Interwebs to tackle in the comments section?