While I’m on the topic of communication styles, here’s a more personal situation about another lesson learned over the past five years.
Conversations are exaggerated for demonstrative purposes.
Steve: What’s wrong?
Corrie: I dunno.
Steve: No, really, what’s wrong?
Corrie: Ummmmm. Ummmmm. Ummmm.
[Pause. Steve begins to tap his foot impatiently.]
Corrie: I feel upset because you snapped at me during dinner.
Steve: Oh, I did? I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?
Corrie: What’s wrong?
Steve: I’m not happy with the way things are. We’re going to become old married people who never talk to each other in restaurants.
Corrie: Why do you say that?
Steve: Well, in the car, you always have a book! You’re always reading. I mean, as soon as the car starts moving, out comes the book.
Corrie: So do you want me to stop reading in the car?
Steve: Well, it’s not even that. I mean, I don’t mind you reading in the car, I really don’t.
Steve: It’s just that we don’t talk. You know? Like, we don’t talk in the car. We don’t talk at dinner.
Corrie: Uhhhh — but we just had that great conversation the other night!
Steve: No, I don’t mean that we don’t talk. We just don’t talk! But — you’re right. We did talk the other night. I guess I just think that we don’t really talk about many significant things. It’s like all we do is just talk about what happened during the day. But we don’t, you know, have discussions or talk about important things.
Corrie: So, what kinds of things do you want to talk about?
Steve: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t want to have to like, make a list or something. That’s wayyyy too structured for me. But I guess it’s not like I have much to talk about anyway. Maybe that’s the problem. I don’t feel like I have a purpose! I’m not doing anything of significance! My job sucks!
Corrie: I’m so confused.
Steve: Sorry. I guess I think we’re doing okay, we really are. We have a great marriage. I just hate my job!
Corrie: I’m sorry you don’t like your job, but I’m glad you’re happy with our marriage!
I’m poking some fun at myself and Steve with these somewhat caricatured conversations, but they aren’t too far off the mark! And they demonstrate our contrasting communication and processing styles.
I’m an internal processor, which means that I have to dive deep within, sift through my feelings, then put words to my feelings in my own mind, before I can say them out loud. This makes words very important to me, as they express exactly how I’m feeling and what I mean. In my first story, when Steve first asked me what was wrong, I had only vague feelings of discontent. It took me some time (which used to frustrate Steve) to figure out what was going on inside of me. Once I figured it out, though, I was able to say and communicate it fairly clearly.
Steve, on the other hand, is an external processor, which means that he understands himself by talking things out. He, too, had a vague feeling of discontent, but it took a lot of talking on his part, with me asking questions, to understand what was going on with himself.
The conflict occurs when we interpret the other by our own standards of processing and communication. Steve gets frustrated with my “thinking silences,” as he doesn’t know what’s happening inside of me or what I’m thinking. He misinterprets my silence to mean that I don’t care enough to engage with him. On the other hand, I get frustrated because as a valuer-of-words, I hear and believe everything he says and get confused when he makes conflicting statements, or get derailed when he ends up going off on a totally different topic.
We’re still in the process of learning how to talk with each other, but we have found a few things that are helping:
- I make faltering attempts to process externally for Steve’s benefit. I usually have to make a qualifying statement that I’m “still thinking about this,” but that gives me the freedom to say something that I might not really mean. Steve appreciates this because there isn’t a huge gap in the conversation, and he gets to see a glimpse of what happens inside my head.
- Steve tries to give me a bottom line for my benefit at the end of the conversation, distilling his “true thoughts” that have come out so that I can file it away and discard the rest.
- We both try to ask more questions. For Steve, I try to ask questions that I think will help his thinking process, as I’ve learned it’s very important for him to be able to talk things out. Steve asks me questions to get more detail beyond the “summary” that I offer him.
- We touch and cuddle when talking about hard things to help show non-verbally that we care about each other. (I would mostly recommend doing this with someone who is your sweetie! Otherwise, it could be… awkward.)
Where do you fall in the spectrum of internal-to-external processing? Does this also match up with introversion/extroversion (in terms of whether other people drain you or energize you) for you? (It does for us — I’m much more introverted than Steve.)