In March, I was a speaker on the fifth annual Matchmaker Cruise. I’ve attended and spoken at this event before, and, like most conferences, I always end up coming away with something different than I came for. Most of the attendees are matchmakers – sweet, generous, fun businesswomen who believe in their mission of helping others find love. It’s not that I can’t learn from them, but generally, I’m there to help them learn to coach their smart, strong, successful women into relationships. Which is why it came as a great surprise to me that my most profound connection from the entire four-day trip came courtesy of a man in his 70’s.
Richard Wolman is a Harvard psychology professor who is married to a matchmaker, Peggy Wolman. I’d heard about them from mutual friends and was told that I “must” meet them. Turns out, they are the brightest, warmest, most delightful people ever – and speaking to them for four days felt as comfortable as speaking to my own parents. Richard and I must have spent a good 8 hours talking one-on-one during the trip, and he taught me so much, that I asked him to email me notes of what I learned.
First: Surgically excise the word “should’ from your vocabulary.
Today, I’m going to share a snippet of his wisdom with you, verbatim.
There are two big ideas here that will help you in relationship communication:
First: Surgically excise the word “should’ from your vocabulary. This means the actual word and all the synonyms and quasi equivalents like, “must,” “have to,” “ought to,” and the like. Should is the language of morality and places moral pressure on the self or on someone else. As the teenagers rapidly figure out when a parent says, for example, “You should hang out with those people,” the answer is “Why should I?” It’s not a moral issue. Only God knows why we should or should not do or think certain thoughts or behaviors.(and She ain’t talkin’)
The corrective? Replace “Should” with “Could.” Could is the language of desire and is open to creativity. You can test this concept at home with your wife, parents, friends and the like. The conversations change from one of being directed in a power. morality driven relationship to one of equality and cooperative exploration. Listen to the difference between, “Evan, you should be nicer to your wife,” vs “Evan, you could be nicer to your wife.” One way behavior is being driven by guilt and obligation; the other it is driven by desire, “Yes, I really could. That would be a good way to make her feel better.”
Second: To build good communication, do not ask questions. Questions are a challenge or even an attack on another person. If you ask me a question, I have to think, “Uh, Oh. What is the right answer?” or “What does he want from me?” or “Leave me alone – that’s none of your business,” and so on. A question narrows the field between you and the other person and shifts responsibility for the response away from the self. Even a simple question like, “Where do you want to go for dinner?” can be a way of saying, I am going to put the responsibility for where we eat on you and not on me, so if it turns out badly, it is your fault. (That’s one of the reasons women hate that question on a date – it puts the burden on them – a time honored abuse of women.”) Of course, not every “friendly” question has such a dark side, but what I am saying is that the impulse to keep oneself and one’s own desires hidden is anathema to a quality relationship. So, instead of, “Honey, where do you want to go for dinner? can be replaced by, “Honey, I feel like Chinese tonight, what do you say?” She is then free to agree and the negotiations done, or she can reply with a desire of her own, in which case you have a real conversation. These micro examples scale very quickly to larger issues: “Do you want to come up to my place, tonight?” vs “I had such a good time tonight. It would be fun if you came up to my place to continue our evening.”
“I” statements put a person in the game, with all the risks and rewards that go with it.
Second: To build good communication, do not ask questions.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the dating trenches, coaching people, reading and writing articles, and these two ideas smacked me upside the head. They’re so simple and yet so powerful. We see a lot of “shoulds” on this blog – especially from women who think men “should” always want to pay for everything, should always be attuned to all of your unspoken emotional needs without failure, and should never have sex without the intention of marrying you. As Richard said, this implies a moral judgment, and none of us like to be judged (particularly the women who felt judged by the last sentence!)
I encourage you to reread Wolman’s wise words and consider how you can eliminate both “shoulds” and questions from your dating routine.
Your thoughts, below, are always appreciated.