Ok – I am about to admit something very embarrassing.
Not-So Book Smart
After decades of teaching, writing, coaching and speaking about communication and negotiation skills, I am learning that I can be a real communication hack.
I’m wondering if something weird happens to the brain when you’re finally in a healthy, loving relationship and there’s a communication breakdown. What happened to all those pearls of wisdom that I imparted to, literally thousands of people? Where did they go? Maybe there’s a bigger difference between effective workplace communication and healthy conflict resolution with a life partner than I realized. Somehow, I think all those “pearls” are still stuck between the pages of the books I studied because I’m finding out that real-time, authentic and healthy communication doesn’t feel very much like what the books said it would be.
Background… (aka: the real story)
So just a little background on exactly why I had a mini – or maybe not-so-mini- meltdown and communication breakdown with Jerry.
Eleven months ago, Jerry and I met and fell in love. Many of you have followed my blogs and know that in August we vacationed in St. Croix, Virgin Islands and bought a house together here. In September, sold everything, except 3 pallets of belongings that were shipped here. We drove cross country in October, as safely as possible, during the pandemic and a hurricane in New Orleans. Then we shipped the car from Miami, boarded a plane on November 1 and started our island life.
Sounds romantic, exciting and blissful, right?
And yes, for the most part, it is.
Let The Fun Begin!
The “fun” began when we realized our house was used primarily as a rental property and there was a lot of deferred maintenance and neglect. The fun part was picking out all the new island colors for painting inside and out and new fabric for couches and chairs that were badly stained and tattered.
The rest of the repairs and restoration, while important, are expensive and unseen… like replacing every single light switch and electrical outlet in the house due to corrosion from salt air. Over 200 of them.
We’ve had between 1 – 15 people working on the house every single day since November – often on the weekends too. We haven’t had a kitchen in 3 months (no sink or stove) and no one knows when the counter tops, which were ordered in February can finally be measured, let alone installed.
And like most of you, due to the pandemic, this past year I haven’t seen friends and family except on Zoom and work opportunities dramatically decreased.
Plus, navigating a new relationship after being single for 35 years.
On the stress level scale of life-changing events, I get a pretty high score!
Overwhelm and Build Up
Jerry is amazing in so many ways and is managing the multitude of projects with precision, calm and grace. I, on the other hand, have to escape for a “time out” to avoid the constant hammering, drilling and people traipsing inside and out.
Despite expressing my overwhelm with all the changes in my life and frustration building up with the parade of workers here and the start of yet another project, I could feel my fuse shortening by the minute.
Jerry would calmly state that: “It’s almost over and will be done soon. And the house is going to be exactly the way we want it.” Unfortunately, he thought that was a good answer. My best guess is that things will be complete by December.
Boxes and Brains
Then I remembered the wise and hilariously funny story by Mark Gungor, on how men and women’s brains are wired differently. (Please watch this 7-minute clip. You’ll be glad you did.)
Briefly, according to Gungor, men’s brains have specific boxes to categorize things. (And then there is men’s favorite box, the giant “nothing box” that has absolutely nothing in it.) In Jerry’s case, he has a box for house remodeling projects and had neatly tucked away his response to me in that box: the projects will be done soon and you’ll love them. Asked and answered. Move on.
Women’s brains, Gungor says, have no boxes. Just a continuous set of wires where everything is connected… and remembered and needs to be discussed. So instead of Jerry’s tidy response providing a real ending or relief, my wires started to explode!
Communication Rule #1 – Listen
When we were finally at a point of talking, without being in B.E.D.: Blaming, making Excuses or being in Denial, (or me being overly Dramatic…), Jerry acknowledged that he’d heard my concerns but didn’t really get it. (duh!) He sees me as a strong and independent woman who has made many significant changes in my life, so, of course I could handle this…. It wasn’t until he really reflected on the magnitude and pace of major changes in the past year that he could take in what I was saying.
When I asked what I could have said or done differently to get him to hear me, he said 2 things:
- I should tell him to stop being a jerk. And
Communication Rule #2 – Be more specific
I was like the women in Gungor’s video – on a rant with no beginning and no end. He couldn’t distinguish the problem to solve it. In our case I was ranting about a project I called “Jerry’s Folly” because he had a vision for a home improvement and I did not see his vision for it at all, but he was sure I’d be happy with it in the end. (aarrgghh.)
When I finally was able to stop my repetitive whining and express specifically why I didn’t like the project or see how it was an actual improvement, we discovered that there was a flaw in the design that he hadn’t noticed and we had time to correct while it’s still under construction.
We each took ownership of our role in contributing to the breakdown, which really helped in problem solving.
What Could Be Done Differently?
A coaching tool from my corporate days was to ask my team members: “What went well?” and “What could be done differently?”
When possible, it’s best to ask these questions in this specific order and to focus on what went well first, because most people gravitate to what went wrong. By focusing on the good things first, it provides encouragement and builds trust. By asking what could be done differently, new solutions can be found and dignity and respect are maintained.
Later, Jerry and I triaged our communication breakdown with these questions over a glass of wine while we admired all the improvements made to the house in the past 6 months. We got to pat ourselves on the back for the thousands of big and small choices that we made to get here today and have ideas for the future for making our communication even better.
I hope you try asking these two questions. Let me know if you do! I’d love to hear your results.
Marty Stanley is a national speaker, coach and consultant on personal and organizational change. Just because she’s living in the West Indies now doesn’t mean she’s not open for business! She’s been doing team building, training and coaching on Zoom for over 6 years. And St. Croix is a U.S. territory not far from Miami! If you’re ready for change and want some expert support in achieving your goals, contact Marty today: 816-695-5453 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Curious about how two old people fell in love during a pandemic and moved to a tropical island? Check out these blogs for more behind-the-scenes thoughts and experiences: