Each of us has an expectation about the way we like to be spoken to and these preferences form our ‘terms and conditions’ with regard to our communication needs. I call this the Communication Contract. The tricky part of Communication Contracts is that they are often unconscious and therefore unexpressed, making it very easy for others to break our communication rules unknowingly. And that’s when the trouble begins….
Her: “I had such a bad day at work today! Suzy was being her usual demanding self, and was completely oblivious to my workload. It’s so annoying.”
Him: “Why don’t you just leave.”
Her: “You know I can’t just leave. It just drives me crazy and I feel so overwhelmed sometimes.”
Him: “Just tell her you won’t do it.”
Her: “I can’t do that. You’re not listening to me! I’m just upset and annoyed right now.”
Him: “I am listening. You just said your boss gives you too much work and I just want to help you find a solution honey, that’s all.”
Her: “Well you’re not helping. You’re being unsupportive.”
Him: “What?! I give up! I just don’t understand you sometimes.”
Her unexpressed Communication Contract - she needs to vent and wants him to listen and support her.
His unexpressed Communication Contract - she has a problem and he wants to fix it for her.
Neither can figure out why the other won’t fulfill their contract and neither realises the importance of actually articulating their implied Communication Contracts.
Compare the alternative:
Her: “I had such a bad day at work today! Suzy was being her usual demanding self. It’s so annoying.” (Venting mode)
Him: “Why don’t you just leave.” (Problem-solving mode)
Her: “I don’t want to leave. I’m just frustrated today and really need to vent. You don’t need to fix this one for me honey.” (Articulating her Communication Contract)
Him: “Oh ok then. Come here and tell me all about it…” (Understanding the Communication Contract – Switching to Support mode)
A Communication Contract is the vehicle for shaping how the interaction occurs. It’s the agreement between people about what they need from each other, in order to feel satisfied in a communication exchange. It is also the life raft that saves us in the sea of miscommunication at home and at work.
Tips for Communication Contracts:
- Know what yours is!
- Know how it changes in different contexts and with different people.
- Articulate it whenever you can. Set people up to have a positive communication experience with you and help them win.
- Understand the terms of other people’s contacts. Discuss and explore each other’s communication needs.
- When you hit a road block, check your Contract first; Do you know it? Have you expressed it? Have they understood it?
- Get clear on what you most need and check if you’re really asking for it.