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The Power of the UNSpoken Word – Did you understand what I didn’t say?


Have you ever been part of an exchange that went something like this?

Wilma, “Will you take the trash out tonight?”

Donald, “Sure.”

20 minutes later, Wilma comes back and says, “I thought you said you would take the trash out 20 minutes ago? How come it’s still here?”

Donald responds, “Nag, nag, nag! The trash truck won’t be here until dawn! What’s the rush? I said I’d do it & I’ll get to it. Back off!”

Even if the argument ends there, feelings have been hurt, chances are good both people are frustrated, and both feel the other person is to blame. The challenge here is the request was incomplete and the agreement to help was also incomplete. If we break it down, it might look like this:

I say, “Will you take the trash out tonight?” But what I mean is, “Will you take the trash out right now?”

You say, “Sure.” But what you mean is, “Somewhere between now and before the trash truck comes at dawn? No problem!”

20 minutes later I come back and say, “I thought you said you would take the trash out 20 minutes ago? How come it’s still here?” I am thinking, “Wow, how rude to agree to something if you’re not going to do it! Jeez! Just tell the truth next time and just say, ‘No.’” I’m disappointed because I think you have broken our agreement. I blame you for being dishonest and lazy.

Meanwhile, you respond, “Nag, nag, nag, the trash truck won’t be here until dawn! What’s the rush? I said I’d do it & I’ll get to it. Back off.” You are frustrated because it feels like I don’t trust you. You blame me for being critical and hard to please.

The challenge with this incomplete request and the response is neither party has communicated all of the details of the agreement. This is like going to a bank for a car loan and signing on the dotted line because the loan officer said, “Sure, we can loan you enough for a car at a low interest rate with payments you can afford. Sign here, I’ll fill in those numbers soon.” Ideally no one would sign up for a loan like that, yet we offer and accept agreements based on assumptions frequently. This is where the breakdown in communication occurs and conflict appears. No, we didn’t understand what wasn’t said.

Disappointment, frustration, and blame are not a good foundation for a solid, loving, and happy partnership. What is needed is the gift of clear communication, expressed by stating the full thought in a detailed request.

Let’s look at our scenario again. If both sides expressed the full ideas, it might sound like this:

I could say, “Will you take the trash out in the next 15 minutes? I feel like there is so much to do tonight and I want to be sure the trash doesn’t get forgotten. If you’ll take it out very soon, I can check it off my mental list and that would make me happy.”

You now have the information about all the details of what I want & why, so you can agree or alter the agreement before it’s settled; that way we both understand what will happen.

You could say, “Sure, I’ll do it now so you can check it off.” Or you could say, “I’ll take out the trash, but it probably won’t happen until closer to midnight. The trash truck won’t be here until dawn so I’d like to do it later. I promise I’ll remember.”

Now we both clearly understand what I want and what you are willing to do. No disappointment, no nagging, no blame. Neither of us has to guess what the other didn’t say. No argument is waiting to happen.

The Power of the Unspoken Word is often in assumptions which lead to disappointment and blame. By practicing explaining in greater detail what you want, you give the gift of clarity by taking responsibility for helping others understand what you are thinking. Wouldn’t you prefer that your friends and loved ones understand what you want? Wouldn’t you prefer to know what they really want instead of playing a guessing game?

Words can be powerful and so can the lack thereof. When my request is unclear or not specific, “Will you take out the trash?” You may assume there is more leeway in when you take care of this than I do. When your full response is, “Sure,” I may assume that you heard the unspoken part and will do it right now, since that is what I imagine is the ideal outcome of this request. We are both assuming the other person is listening thru the same filters we use when we talk. In this case, we are both wrong and we both believe the fault is really with the other person.

Practice making complete requests: what do you want? When do you want it? Is there any particular reason this is important to you?

Practice responding fully: are you willing to do what was asked? When?

Speak up. Share what it is you really want. Eliminate the guessing game.

This holiday season and from here on out, give the gift of clarity.