Doctor Neha: Today, I am with Pam. She’s willing to ask her a question in communication so that all of you can learn. Thank you Pam, and welcome.
Pam: Thank you.
Doctor Neha: What communication question have you been thinking about?
Pam: Well, over the past couple of years, I have had two very dear and long-term friendships come to an abrupt halt. Obviously, I must have said or done something that has offended both of these people. I’ve been very close to them; both of them I almost regarded as sisters. They won’t communicate with me about what exactly I said or did, so I have tried to apologize even though I didn’t really know what I was apologizing for. And I’ve continued to communicate with them by sending birthday cards and emails, and I’ve just been cut off. It’s frustrating. I don’t know where to go when they won’t communicate.
Doctor Neha: First of all, that has to be so painful.
Pam: It’s hurtful, yes, and it’s sad.
Doctor Neha: Where do you feel that physically in your body as you’re telling me right now? Can you feel your heart racing, your stomach turning, tightness of your muscles, shallow breathing, anything like that?
Pam: Yes, in my chest.
Doctor Neha: Okay, what does it feel like?
Pam: It feels like I’m constricted.
Doctor Neha: So you feel this constricted sensation in your chest. A tightening, a constricting is like a guarding—that’s your first clue that something is important to you because you can feel it in your body. Now, are you somebody who is outgoing or more reserved?
Pam: I can be both. People are always surprised when I say I’m an introvert, but I think I really am, because people are not where I get my energy from, but I can be very social, and I enjoy people; but I do need time alone to recharge.
Doctor Neha: Now, these people were really important to you. Tell me why they were important to you. What did you get from those relationships?
Pam: Well, when you’ve had a friend for a long time, you invariably go through ups and downs in life with them. We’ve had sick parents. One of them lost her brother to suicide; we went through that together. I’ve lost a child. All of us have lost parents. When you’re close friends in those sorts of situations, you support each other, you care for each other, you call, and you do whatever you can. Having been so close, it seems so strange that it suddenly evaporates.
Doctor Neha: It’s gone.
Pam: And there was no major happening, that I could tell, that caused it.
Doctor Neha: So how would you describe your style of communication?
Doctor Neha: You’re an introvert, and then when you’ve got something to say, you’re pretty blunt about it.
Pam: Yes. I have to guard against what pops into my head because it shouldn’t necessarily come out of my mouth.
Doctor Neha: So that’s not really how you work?
Pam: In one particular instance, I wrote an email, and I was very careful, because when you write, sometimes it can be misconstrued much more easily than if you’re speaking to someone.
Doctor Neha: Absolutely, so let’s take a minute to break that down. When I’m communicating with you right now, how am I doing it? Tell me the different ways that I’m doing it.
Pam: Well, eye contact.
Doctor Neha: Yes, so body language.
Pam: Body language, yes.
Doctor Neha: Including my arms and gestures.
Pam: Verbally and the nuances of your voice.
Doctor Neha: So body language, tone, and words.
When you write someone an email, especially when this person is important to you, emotions can start flying. And in order to kind of gain control over what’s happening in themselves and in the conversation, people write emails. Now, when I’m in person you have body language, tone, and words. When I’m on the phone with you…?
Pam: You’ve got mainly tone, yes.
Doctor Neha: So now you have tone and words. If I’m writing an email, how does the other person receive the message from me? How do I communicate?
Pam: Just words, really.
Doctor Neha: What matters is that the tone in which I say something to you can change the meaning entirely. It can make it be a 180. I can say, “Oh, Pam?” [surprised tone] or I can say, “Oh. Pam.” [skeptical tone]
They are the same words but I could say it surprised or skeptical like I just did with you. The tone could change and now I could be angry, but in an email, all someone sees is “Oh, Pam,” and they get to interpret the intonation, the body language.
So no matter how you actually wrote your email or with what intention you wrote it, the other person gets to make up anything they want. Make sense?
Doctor Neha: So if these friendships broke off after an email, if that was the final correspondence, it may be difficult because those friends may have interpreted something you didn’t mean.
Doctor Neha: You traveled through time with them; you think of these two people as sisters. Did this experience happen together, or did it happen separately?
Pam: No, several years apart.
Doctor Neha: Tell me what was similar about the two experiences.
Pam: The fact that although we had shared a lot of confidences and I felt very close to both of them, neither of them felt they could come to me and say, “Look, this is what you did that hurt me or upset me.”
Pam: I found that curious.
Doctor Neha: Wow, that’s interesting. What’s interesting, too, is you say you’re blunt, right?
Doctor Neha: And you said at the end nothing big happened.
Pam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Doctor Neha: What I wonder is, if along the way there were some small things that happened—I’m just making it up because I don’t know—along the way that caused the last or final straw to be something that didn’t seem significant.
Pam: It’s a build-up. That’s entirely possible.
Doctor Neha: If you could say anything to them, what would you say?
Pam: I would say that I care about them. I still am incredibly sad about the end of the relationship and that it was never my intention to hurt either of them.
Doctor Neha: Would you still be open to re-engaging in a relationship?
Pam: Yes, I would be.
Doctor Neha: Would you be curious about how you could show up differently, as well? Like how you might be able to connect to them in times when they might have felt vulnerable?
Pam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Doctor Neha: Or there might be something that you can work out together as a new way of being together or being more sensitive with each other?
Doctor Neha: Because you didn’t hear anything and then all of a sudden were cut off. You know what’s interesting? That’s blunt.
Pam: That is blunt, yes.
Doctor Neha: You got the experience of what blunt might feel like.
Pam: I’m very aware of the fact that I’m sometimes too straight with my answers and too quick. So I try and don’t always succeed to be the first one to admit that. And when somebody does something that offends me, even though it’s hard, I do try and take them aside and say, “Look, can we just go over what happened? Because whatever was said here, I felt, was a misconstruction of whatever happened, or that what you said really upset me because of so-and-so.”
Pam: With my two friends, I find it so interesting that that doesn’t happen. I feel like I’m at a dead end because I have continued to try to communicate with both of them, and there’s been no response.
Doctor Neha: Well, one thing’s for sure: you care about them. When you give, it needs to be without expecting something back. That’s true giving.
The other piece here is I love your curiosity. You say, “I say what’s on my mind, and then I’m curious—if something doesn’t go well, I wonder, ‘What happened?'” Your friends may feel really hurt about something and don’t have the words you do to express themselves. So the way to be safe for them is to cut off feeling that pain.
Pam: Yes, and that’s a very English way of dealing with things: don’t discuss it.
Doctor Neha: Cultural, yes.
What I really appreciate about you is that you care about them, and your actions align with you showing them that. What you might need to do is acknowledge it like this: “I know there are some ways that I’ve been blunt, and I can be blunt. What I’m learning is, for some reason, that didn’t work in our relationship. Can we come together and maybe figure out a better way?”
The other thing is sometimes you’ve got to let go.
Pam: Yes, you do.
Doctor Neha: I wrote this book on communication called TalkRx, where I teach you all these tools to communicate effectively, and reconnect and engage through conflict. But my last chapter is “Surrender,” because if you’ve shown up, you’ve been curious, you’ve apologized, and you’ve tried everything you know, sometimes all that’s left is to let go.
So what were your takeaways from today?
Pam: Well, there were quite a few. I have to learn to be gentler. I have to approach people in a different way when there is a problem, and if all else fails, then I have to surrender.
Doctor Neha: I don’t know that you have to do any of these things. You value your relationships a lot, and it would be worth it to you to expand your skill set of how you communicate. Because your bluntness has served you, and I’m sure some people really appreciate it, and you do too, right?
Pam: Well, I wish I had a little more of the charm offensive at times. If somebody in my inner circle asks me a question, I will endeavor to give him or her my honest opinion, and it hasn’t always served me well.
Doctor Neha: Well, you know what I always say, I’m all for honesty. Honesty without compassion can come across as brutality. Whereas honesty with compassion is authenticity and it stimulates connection.
So keep what’s working. Honesty is amazing, and it’s hard to come by. That’s one of your amazing traits. What you just want to do is merge it with a little bit of compassion because you adore and love these people. Maybe what you’ll do is expand your skill set of how you connect. It’s actually not about changing who you are.
Pam: Thank you so much.
Doctor Neha: You’re very welcome.
If any of you know that you’re the one who comes across as blunt, because you’ve received feedback—or if there’s somebody in your life who can come across as blunt and you’re not exactly sure how to deal with it—I hope you can see both sides of it from here, which is I always say that a weakness is just a strength overused.
The strength here is that someone is very honest. And sometimes you get feedback that it’s overused, which can lead to losing relationships or things that are dear to you. So make sure that if somebody gives you feedback, ask yourself, “How might this be a strength that’s just being overused?”
The art of truth telling comes with what I refer to as double vision—speaking what is true for you while also holding an awareness of your impact on others. I’d love to hear your questions and comments below or drop me a tweet at #AskDoctorNeha.
- Acknowledge your part in the situation.
- Ask yourself, “What would honesty & compassion do now?”
- Watch this short video to set up the conversation for success.
- Admit and apologize for your approach.
- Get curious about how to connect in a new way to your friend.
And, if all else fails, it may be time to let go
and move in a different direction.
To the art of truth-telling,