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Clean Communication

The importance of complete communication has been stressed by many authors. The term whole messages was introduced by McKay, Davis, and Fanning (1983). Whole messages have four components: observations, thoughts, feelings, and needs... Partial messages (those that leave out one or more of the components) or contaminated messages (those that mix or mislabel parts of a whole message) create serious communication problems...
Observations are statements of fact that are neutral, without judgment or inference. "Yesterday it rained nonstop from 10:00 till 3:30 ... Chemistry classes start tomorrow ... I'm going to find out what Beth is wearing before I go tonight."
Thoughts are your beliefs, opinions, theories, and interpretations of a situation. Thoughts are not conveyed as absolute truth, but as your personal hypothesis or understanding of a situation. "My idea was ... I wondered if ... I've suspected that .... I worried that ... The way I saw it was ..." "You're spending too much time at work" is not an appropriate way to express thoughts in a whole message. It turns your opinion into absolute truth...
Expressing feelings is a matter of first identifying and then giving appropriate voice to your emotions... One word does not expression make. You need to expand on the key affective word...

1. Definition. When Joan says "upset," she means that she is very worried and frightened. When her partner Gail says "upset," she means that she feels angry and irritated. You have to define your key affective word to clarify your meaning...

2. Intensity. ...If you are a little angry, say "a little" or "slightly." Choose synonyms that denote mild anger: "annoyed, irritated." If you are extremely angry, say so, or choose synonyms that make the intensity of your anger clear: "enraged, outraged, furious."

3. Duration. [Explaining] how long you have been feeling this way... can be another indicator that helps your partner gauge the seriousness or intensity of your feelings.

4... context. ...It's very tempting to blame your partner for any negative feelings you may be experiencing. This is especially true if your bad feelings really do stem directly from some unfair or inconsiderate action by your partner. But blame never solves problems... Your partner is moved to self-defense, not sympathy and problem solving. It's better to choose your words carefully so that you describe the context of your feelings without directly ascribing blame or causation:
"I felt mad after you broke the dishes."
"When I get an overdraft notice from the bank, I get very worried."
"When I was home alone today, I started to get depressed."

5. Historical precedents. Often it is helpful to share what this feeling reminds you of - some time in your past when you felt the same way...

I feel very angry (key affective word}. I'm upset and disappointed and I really feel let down (definition). This trip was a big deal for me (intensity). The moment I realized that you had forgotten to make the reservations (duration), I had this sinking feeling, just like when my sister didn't show up for my birthday (historical precedent). When I don't get something I've been counting on (context), it really hits me hard.

The fourth part of a whole message is your needs. No one can know what you want unless you tell them, so expressing your needs clearly is very important. Not even the people closest to you can read your mind, no matter how much they love you...
Leaving out one of these components results in a partial message. When you take your coat to the dry cleaners or your car to the garage or when you're buying a new pair of shoes, you can communicate effectively without including information about your feelings and emotional needs... When there's a lot at stake emotionally and you need to be understood, a partial message becomes dangerous...

Contaminated messages mix or mislabel these components to create hurt and confusion. A woman who sarcastically says to her partner at the dinner table, "You're talkative as usual," may pretend her statement is a simple observation. But the observation is contaminated with judging thoughts, feelings and needs. A more accurate statement would include all four components of a whole message: "I notice you're pretty quiet tonight (observation). It makes me think you're not interested in me (thought), and I feel hurt and a little angry (feeling). I'd really like you to talk with me more (need)."

...It's not so much that something is left out, as in a partial message, but what's said is covert or disguised.

An effective way to contaminate your message is to disguise it as a question, especially a "why" question... "Why don't you ever clean up after yourself?" is, even more clearly not a simple request for information. It could be more accurately be stated using all four elements of a whole message: "You tend to leave your clothes on the floor when you get undressed (observation). It makes me think that you want me to pick them up (thought). And I end up feeling taken for granted and unappreciated (feeling). I'd like to talk about our expectations with respect to housework (need)."


Matthew McKay Ph.D., Patrick Fanning, Kim Paleg Ph.D., Couple Skills, 1994, New Harbinger Publications, Oakland.
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