I was sitting in the middle of a river, pleasantly high from a brownie I had made. My green trunks and tan hat made me one with the green of the trees and the tan-colored rocks on the riverbed. I dipped my hat in the water every now and then and put it back on to cool myself from the hot Texas day. It was during Burning Flipside, a regional version of the Burning Man festival.
One of my campmates saw me and came to sit with me. We talked a bit about communication in relationships - something I had become very interested in at the time while experimenting with polyamory. She told me about this technique she had learned in a professional setting called whole messages. We experimented and tried a few in the river. I haven't forgotten them since.
Everyday we communicate in partial messages. We have an expectation that people will understand exactly what we mean through the use of tone and body language. Often though, pieces of our messages are misunderstood or lost entirely.
A whole message
We lose things when we communicate verbally. Sometimes you say something and the person you're saying it to hears something else.
For example, my partner might come home at 4 in the morning and I could say to her:
"Gee, you're home late."
But what does that mean? It's definitely passive-aggressive. It's laced with emotion that's not easy to decipher. Am I angry? Sad? Disappointed? Jealous? Turned on?? What do I want my partner to do about it? What do I expect her to know from my tone? Is my passive-aggression just going to get us into a fight?
Instead, I could use a whole message.
A whole message is a template for communication. It is made up of:
- An observation
- A thought
- A feeling
- And a need
In this example, my whole message would be something like:
"You're home late. It's 4am. I think you were out with Jack again. I feel abandoned because you didn't tell me where you were going and how late you were going to be. I thought we were going to hang out today. I was worried too so I waited up for you. I need you to let me know if you're going to break plans with me so I'm not waiting around doing nothing."
We just went from a passive-aggressive, emotionally-laced, and vocal-tone-encrypted puzzle to something complete and easy to understand.
Whole messages are not only easy to understand, but they're easy to construct as well because all you have to do is memorize the 4 components. They readily translate into sentences:
- "I noticed..."
- "I think..."
- "I feel..."
- "I need..."
It gives you:
- An easy to follow template for communication
- A template that inherently discourages passive-aggressive communication
- A way to communicate that is fully expressive rather than partially
When I use whole messages
I don't speak this way all the time. Only when I have something important or very emotional to discuss. I don't even use them that often. But when do, I'm always glad I have this tool.
They're a tool I wish I had known about when I was younger - that's why I want to share them with you now.
I've used them with romantic partners, clients, and even overly-emotional engineers while discussing software architecture.
We believe we are born with certain knowledge
But we are not. Not this sort of communication. Advanced communication techniques are not even something most of us are taught in school. For something we do every.single.day. you would think we'd spend more time becoming professionals at it. I hope you'll try out a whole message with your partner, coworkers or family sometime.