by Yumay Chang
Many childhood trauma survivors are not very good at communicating when they experience unpleasant feelings. Since we didn’t have great role models growing up, our default is either silence or violence. Either we eat it up and say nothing at all or go on the offensive and say what comes to mind in a moment of anger or frustration. See if these sentence structures sound familiar.
What all of these statements have in common is they put the other person on the defensive. When we put people on the defensive, they no longer hear us very well. Their number one priority becomes defending their ego from being attacked, and those who believe “attack is the best defense” might resort to counterattacking us.
In this type of communication, both parties are left frustrated. Even if we managed to coerce the other party into doing what we wanted them to do, the price paid is a built-up of resentment and a damaged relationship. Also, compliance is often half-hearted or temporary at best. Rarely is such a trade worth it.
So what is the one skill we need to master to communicate well?
The one skill that will instantly improve your relationships is to communicate your needs with honesty, clarity, and vulnerability.
The traditional wisdom is to communicate feelings, which is a good start, but it can’t stop there. We need to go one step further and communicate the needs (met or unmet) behind why we feel the way we feel.
“Every message, regardless of form or content, is an expression of a need.” — Marshall Rosenberg
Some basic humans needs are love, sustenance, rest, safety, empathy, autonomy, creativity, community, and purpose.
Why is clearly expressing the needs behind our feelings to the other person so important?
If we are not clear on our needs, it can lead to misunderstandings. For example, if we are frustrated that our spouse works too much and there isn’t enough quality time with them, we might say to them, “I don’t want you to spend so much time at work.” However, since we did not clarify that our unmet need is quality couple’s time, don’t be too surprised if they sign up for golf on the weekend instead.
You might say, “Isn’t it obvious that they should know that we want to spend more time with them?”
Actually, no. I’ve coached enough people over the years to know that no two people see the world the same way. We all interpret facts and events through our own lenses. These lenses are shaped by our unique combination of nature (genes) plus nurture (experiences), with early childhood experiences playing a big part in the nurture side of things.
I recently posted this comic in the Life Is Love School Facebook group and asked people to share their interpretation. Here are a few sample answers people shared:
Our group members are almost all adult female survivors of childhood abuse that grew up in the western world; still, people came up with vastly different reads of the same comic. It is a good reminder not to assume that other people ought to see facts and events the same way. Since no two people see the world the same way, don’t leave anything up to chance — be explicit with your needs and seek confirmation from the other person if you are uncertain that they understood what you said.
Another reason to communicate needs is that we enlist the other person to work with us to find creative ways to meet our needs. For example, our need for more quality time with our spouse might not require them to not work over the weekend (which might not be possible, depending on their job requirements) but can be met by setting aside time in the morning to talk.
By sharing our needs, instead of demanding that our needs be met a fixed way, we increase the odds that our needs can be met by being open to how our needs are met.
How we say things matters. For example, if we say, “you always prioritize your work over the family,” or “why am I the only one taking care of the kids…,” our partner’s ears might start to malfunction immediately. Their need for safety, love, and respect is now unmet, and unless they are skilled at tuning into the needs behind your accusations, most likely they will switch on their defensive armor, making it next to impossible for them to hear our needs.
Communicating needs, on the other hand, does not put the other person on the defensive. We are simply expressing what we need, which is about us, not about them. Expressing needs (vs. complaining and making accusations) makes it that much more likely that the other person will be willing to help us meet our needs.
So remember, communicate feelings, but go beyond that and express the NEED behind it.
Just as we are constantly communicating our needs to others, other people are also communicating their needs to us. The next step of this practice is to see the need behind what people are saying, no matter how they say it. Learn to see every communication either as a message of love or a cry for help to meet an unmet need. If we can do this, not only do we have a better chance of having our needs met, but we will be better at meeting the needs of others too, which is crucial for any relationship to thrive in the long run.
My name is Yumay Chang, and I run Life Is Love School, a global support group for childhood trauma survivors. I had a challenging childhood, and I know what it’s like to feel not good enough and not lovable. I learned through over two decades of research and plenty of trial and error how to heal so I can live a life of joy, love, and purpose. Now I help women that are successful at work but are unfulfilled in their personal lives do the same so they can also shine their brightest.
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