Most people will agree that communication is one of the fundamental building blocks of a successful relationship. On our show and in our blog we’ve talked about various ways of improving communication, including understanding love languages, non-violent communication, mirroring, and many other techniques. We have personally used (and still use!) all of them but we recently came upon an incredibly informative talk by psychologist Kathy Labriola, which we then took and simplified and reshaped into something that has become a major game-changer in our communication. What is this mystical artifact of power, you say? Why, it’s The Triforce of Communication!
Cool! So…. what’s that?
One of the most common causes of miscommunication is when the two people involved don’t have the same goal for the communication. The stereotypical (and sexist) example of this is the story of a husband and wife where the wife tells her husband about a frustrating experience at work and he immediately responds with suggestions on how she can change the situation, whom she should talk to, what she should do, etc. and she gets more and more upset with him as the conversation goes on. Why? Because her goal was to share her day, receive understanding, and maybe some sympathy, while he perceived that the goal was to come up with a solution and fix a problem. Does this story sound familiar? I know I’ve been on both sides of this dilemma (and from personal experience, I can tell you the gender roles are often reversed in this scenario).
Now, armed with this understanding, we have broken down communication into three distinct goals. As long as you and the other person are able to share the same goal for that communication, you will have much better luck at both giving and receiving appropriate and helpful responses.
Purpose #1: Building Intimacy/Sharing
The first purpose in our Triforce of Communication is simply to build intimacy by sharing a story, a joke, a belief, or something about our past. This is not limited to romantic intimacy and, in fact, this type of communication is often what we do with our friends and family. This might seem like a non-crucial type of communication, but it is essential to creating understanding and a foundation for a relationship. The most important thing to understand about this communication purpose is that the appropriate response is simply to listen, acknowledge, and possibly share something of your own. Building intimacy and trust works best when it goes both ways.
However, if someone is sharing something with you for the purpose of building intimacy, and you respond as if they are looking for advice, it can actually hurt the comfort and trust they are trying to build. For example, if someone shares with you a story from their childhood that is traumatic, they might not be looking for sympathy or for help, but are trying to open up and share something important to them. By understanding the purpose of the communication you are able to better respond and, if you are the one sharing, you can help your conversation partner by letting them know you are just sharing and are not seeking advice or even sympathy.
In a recent polyamory discussion group that I attended, the facilitators asked that when someone shared that they would also tell us what they were looking for in response; this could be advice, reflection, or just being heard and acknowledged. Not only that, but if you said you wanted reflection or advice you were also perfectly welcome to change your mind, even after someone else has started. This same thing can be applied in your own relationships, too. If you realize that your partner is trying to give you a different type of response or support than you want, you can just let them know, even if you weren’t sure what your purpose was before.
Purpose #2: Asking for Support or Acknowledgement
The second purpose in our Triforce is used when you have something to share when you want sympathy and understanding or praise for something you are proud of. For some people, especially those who tend to focus on “solving problems”, this is a hard purpose to understand and can be immensely transformational once they do. When a partner or friend is sharing something with you for this purpose, they don’t want criticism, constructive feedback, advice, or anything like that. What they want is for you to respond with understanding.
Imagine the following scenario: Your partner has had a frustrating day at work and comes to you wanting to vent and get support. They might say something like, “My boss has been a real jerk lately. It’s especially hard because I’m really hoping to ask for a raise at my next review, but I’m worried that he’s making me look bad.” In this case, an ideal response would be to acknowledge their struggle and to tell them you have confidence in their abilities. Something like, “That sounds really hard. I’ve definitely been through things like that before and it really stressed me out, too,” can be exactly what they need to hear in order to feel loved, understood, and like they aren’t alone. On the other hand, a response like, “Well, you really should take that criticism and use it to make yourself better and prove to everyone that you don’t back down,” or, “Maybe you should put in some extra time networking with other people in the company to have more allies, so eventually they will outnumber the negative people like your boss,” may be good advice, but it may achieve nothing but making your partner feel hurt, ashamed, or frustrated with you.
If you are the one seeking to vent or share something like this, it can be incredibly helpful to simply let your partner know before or after you share that all you want is for them to be caring and understanding. Similarly, if you are proud of something and want to share it, let them know that’s the response you are looking for. It may seem overly direct to tell the person exactly what you want but many people, including myself, have found it to be incredibly helpful for both parties.
If you are on the other side and someone shares a difficulty or problem with you, it can also be helpful to take a moment after they shared and ask them what they would like. “That sounds hard. Are you looking for advice or suggestions right now? Or are you looking for support? Because I’m happy to give you either one,” is an example of how you could ask this. Again, it may seem overly direct or even sterile, but if it comes from a place of really wanting to give your partner what they need, it will almost always be greatly appreciated and will help to build trust in that relationship.
Purpose #3: Problem Solving
The third and final purpose in our Triforce is when you want to solve a problem, get advice, or impart information. Those may seem like very different things, but we’ve included them in one category because they all expect a similar response, which is matter-of-fact and tries to find a solution to something.
In the previous examples, we’ve looked at how jumping to problem-solving when the other person wants support and understanding can be a problem, but this is the time when that is exactly the correct response. However, if someone is looking for advice and you respond with support they may be a little frustrated and ask for more help but usually won’t be hurt by that. As a general rule of thumb, I respond first with acknowledgement and then ask if they want advice before offering it. This way, even if they were on the fence about whether or not they wanted your help solving a problem, they have the chance to ask for it specifically. Plus, it helps to show that your advice isn’t because you think they’ve done something wrong, but simply because you are trying to offer help when they want it.
Imparting information also falls into this category. It may seem different, but it still boils down to solving a problem. For example, imparting information could be telling a partner that you picked up paper towels today or bought tickets for that show you wanted to attend. The purpose of this information is to coordinate your schedules, make sure things get done, and that they aren’t being done twice. This information could also be to ask your partner to pick something up on their way home or be sure to make reservations at a restaurant. Again, the response is one that’s logical and the purpose is to make sure everything runs smoothly.
Now, to implement it!
To some people this all might seem overly simplistic or too obvious. To be honest, that was my reaction at first, too, but once I started talking with my partners about it and actually put it to the test, I found it to be incredibly useful in certain situations.
As we’ve already discussed, when you are aware of the different goals for communication, you can ask your partner to clarify when you aren’t sure what kind of response they need. This has been useful for myself and my partners and friends to offer each other the type of feedback they really need.
That said, I think the most transformative thing I’ve done is to meta-communicate and actually tell someone what my communication goal is before sharing something. That might seem awkward at first, and it’s not something you’ll do all the time, but it can be a life-saver when you want to talk to your partner about a topic that may have caused some conflict in the past. For example, since Dedeker left to travel the world and our relationship became long-distance, I have had many moments of feeling sad and missing her. In the beginning, I wasn’t always supportive of her travels because of my sadness, and over time she began to associate me missing her with me making her feel guilty for leaving. Now that it’s been over a year, I am much more supportive of her adventures and her traveling, even though I still miss her. In a recent conversation I said, “I am going for Triforce Purpose #2 today and just want acknowledgement. I really miss you and have been feeling lonely lately.” The response I got and her experience was so different from in the past. She understood right away that I wasn’t asking for her to change anything, and I wasn’t looking for her to fix it, but that I just wanted to share and be heard. She later told me how important that moment was for her.
If you want to hear more discussion about these communication techniques, you can listen to our podcast episode about it here. Hopefully thinking about these communication purposes will be helpful in your relationships as well. Have you used any of these techniques? Have they been helpful for you? Let us know in the comments below.