Three communication traps to watch out for

April 16, 2021
Jeff Couillard

If you like stories, we’ve got a couple to share as we line up our ‘3 communication traps to watch out for’. And if you don’t care for stories, feel free to scroll past them 🙂.

Child-rearing story: Part 1

“Hey! Stop! Get out!”

If you’re a parent, these loud, assertive, and panicked words might sound familiar to you (along with some initial feelings of fear, anger, and maybe frustration). Your toddler might then erupt into tears and high-tail it out of the kitchen as you carefully strain the boiling pot of pasta water down the sink. You take a few calculated breathes to calm the adrenaline coursing through your system. Whew, that was close. Then as you’re returning the pot to the stove, your toddler comes barrelling around the corner and collides with your arm - the one that had been balancing that pot of dangerously hot water.

Under these circumstances, and in this context, your demand was both well-timed and effective. It saved your toddler some serious burns and it saved you a lifetime of guilt. The temporary disconnection between your toddler and you, their momentary fear of you, their tears, and the abruptness and harshness of the communication they were receiving - a sacrifice we’re likely more than willing to make (instinctively, and from a place of protective fear).

Child-rearing story: Part 2

Fast forward to a few hours later, and your frustration and impatience starts to boil again (see what we did there?), this time with your toddler’s older sibling, who is working hard to “extend” their bedtime.

"Go to bed!"

A demand for compliance comes out of your mouth. A demand, not unlike the earlier one with your toddler, but this time notrooted in immediate safety concerns, without panic and adrenaline, without a pot of boiling pasta water - just frustration, impatience and an underlying desire to take off your parenting hat for the day to watch some Netflix.

Which brings us to our ‘3 communication traps to watch out for’.

Trap #1: The default to demands

In the case of the near-miss with a boiling pot of pasta water, having a default switch set to “demand” makes a lot of sense, and is part of our innate wiring. We’re really great at spotting danger and responding accordingly, protecting ourselves and those we care for.

What is less helpful, is when we default to making demands of others (and ourselves, but that’s a bigger conversation) when there isn’t an immediate safety issue. No threat to life and/or limb. Using demands in our day-to-day communication with others carries serious relationship risk and predictable consequences.

To illustrate the potential consequences of demand-based communication, let’s consider what happens when you experience a demand from someone in your life. We’re willing to bet that you’re faced with at least two responses, each with their own consequences:

Response A: Resist the demand. Push back, question or refuse to comply. This response often brings out a counter-response in the person making the demand - a louder, more insistent counter-response with an increase in consequences. All of this with the effect of disconnecting the relationship in pursuit of the task.

Response B: Comply with the demand. Do the “task”, but not because you want to, but because you’re afraid not to. The long term effect of complying with the demands of others results often in a build-up of resentment - one of the most potent ingredients in relationship breakdown.

Want less disconnection and resentment in your relationships? Save your demands for when you really need them - like when a toddler is about to collide with a pot of boiling pasta water or they’re about to pedal their bike off the sidewalk and into traffic.

Trap #2: The ambiguous request

At The Ally Co., we believe that all communication is “needs-based”. In other words, all communication is intentional and serves a purpose (even if we’re not always aware of what exactly that purpose is).

Have you ever had a conversation with someone, walked away and then wondered what the next action step was? Or has someone ever shared something with you, and it was unclear what they wanted you to do with that information?

The ‘ambiguity trap’ happens because we often fail to clearly connect the dots between what it is we’re observing, feeling or experiencing and what we want to happen as a result.

In short, we often don’t know what we need or want (or haven’t spent the time to fully understand it). So we communicate a vague message in hopes that the other person will filter through it and magically determine what it is we’re wanting from them. Not surprisingly, others will often interpret our vague or ambiguous communication in a way that causes misalignment and counterproductive actions.

Trap #3: The fear of blurred boundaries

This third trap exists on the other side of the spectrum, opposite from the ‘demand’ trap and over in deep listening land. It’s the ‘fear of a blurry boundary’ trap - opening up conversations about topics that cross over the normal boundaries of the role and relationship.

Some examples include coaches who are suddenly face-to-face with suicide or substance use issues, teachers who are told about neglect or abuse in the home, and leaders who are suddenly faced with a deeper knowledge of someone’s mental or physical health challenges.

When we establish true deep listening - the empathetic and compassionate kind - it can gradually (or, suddenly) result in a personal disclosure of information that blurs normal boundaries. And this possibility can often create a fear that results in less listening, less empathy, and less compassion. Rigid boundaries keep us stuck in surface-level, transactional, and task-focused perspectives.

Note: We’re not advocating for a breakdown or blurring of healthy professional boundaries. Far from it, we invite you to review this 1-page overview of the different roles and modalities (most of which we/The Ally Co. hold), and some of the guidelines and considerations we think are important.

The reality, is that often the fear of blurring boundaries is more of a challenge to developing deep and meaningful relationships than the consequences of the occasional step across the line (so long as you know what to do when, and if that happens). The consequences of not truly listening is that we never get to truly connect, and therefore risk disconnection and the build-up of resentment - the same consequences that occur in the first trap of defaulting to demands.

So there you have it. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading through our child-rearing stories and 3 communication traps to watch out for (in any relationship). And if you’re interested in learning more about how to avoid these traps, and what to do to get out of them, make sure to join us for our weekly learning-in-action sessions.

Questions? Thoughts? Feedback? Whatever it is, we would love to hear from you!