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Pondering the purpose for communication

Concord, Massachusetts

conflict management

Recently, my reading and discoveries has me pondering the purpose for communication. There are arguably three of them. First, we communicate with the purpose of sharing information; second, we communicate to problem solve, and third, we communicate with the purpose of tending to a relationship… a lot of time this means venting! We often blend the purposes of our conversations. A co-worker walks into the office to give us a piece of information which then leads to problem-solving, or a child comes home from school and tells their parent about the crazy, unfair, surprise test they had to take …and aced! 

Sometimes though, there is only one purpose for our communication and problems arise when we get our signals crossed. For example, a colleague walks into our office with the purpose of venting and after about three minutes, we cut in suggesting several brilliant ways to fix the problem. In response, they explain to us with growing agitation why our brilliant solutions won’t fix the problem and we start to get annoyed that they are being a “negative nancy.”  In their heads they start thinking “how stupid do they think I am that I can’t solve this situation myself” or “why don’t you ever listen to me!” and in our head we are thinking, “if you could just stop being so emotional for about two seconds you’d see the solution is so simple!” or “stop being so stubborn and listen to me!”

A really similar scenario happened to me earlier today. One of my favorite people of all time walked into my office and was obviously looking to vent. I think her exact words were “should I scream inside or outside of your office?” She then proceeded to tell me what was making her blood boil. After listening to her for a bit, my mind start whirling- I saw a way to solve her problem. For me, problem-solving for others is one of the ways that I show that I care so I was really excited to offer up solutions. The moment I finished explaining my idea, I realized what I had done… Instead of giving her space to vent, instead of acknowledging how crappy her situation was, I moved into problem-solving mode for her. I waited uneasily for her response, fully recognizing that what could come next was new frustration… directed at me. 

Fortunately, something I said resonated well enough that she finished venting and then was able to use part of my suggestion to fix the problem. But I think I was pretty lucky. There are plenty of other times in my life where I have tried to solve other people’s problems or they have tried to solve mine and the results weren’t so pleasant. 

So as I sit here reflecting on what happened, I think there are two takeaways. First, it was a good reminder that while the literature might suggest otherwise, it is not always disastrous when we get our signals crossed (i.e. respond with solutions when our counterpart wants to vent); however, in the future, I want to be aware enough in the moment that I can choose how I respond to people communicating around me. In this particular situation, my response was impulsive, I didn’t even think twice about what I was saying. Wouldn’t it be awesome though to have the awareness- to be conscious of the situational dynamics around me so that I can make the choice whether to offer a shoulder, brainstorm solutions, or just listen to the information that’s being shared with me? Just add it to the list of things to work on this fellowship year!