Communication Skills: Clarifying Needs

Conversations can sometimes go off of the rails simply because of a misunderstanding. One of the biggest misunderstands that I encounter is that the people engaged in the conversations are not on the same page in terms of what needs an individual is looking to be met through the conversation. Here is a simple example:

Person A has just had a very stressful day at work, including Person A falling behind on an important project. Person A comes home to their partner, Person B. Person A begins sharing their day with Person B; Person A needs to vent, have their feelings validated, and get a hug from Person B. Person B, hearing the dilemmas shared by Person A, assumes that Person A needs help with problem solving. Immediately, Person B begins to share their ideas and their own experience with such dilemmas. Person A becomes upset with Person B and storms into the other room.

I think this is a situation that most of us (including myself) have been in. In this example, Person B is typically doing the best that they can; they are attempting to support Person A in the way they assume is needed.

Be Explicit is one of my favorite directives, particularly in couples therapy. We can often get into patterns of assuming that our partner knows exactly what we are needing or wanting; being explicit, rather than expecting others to read our minds, can help to decrease the number of disagreements that occur due to simple misunderstanding.

Both partners can be responsible for being explicit and for clarifying needs or wants. For example, Person A can practice this skill by explicitly sharing what they need from Person B. “I had a really hard day at work, and I just need to vent about it for a few minutes. Right now, I don’t need any help trying to solve the problem.” If Person A does not explicitly share their need with Person B, Person B can gently clarify. “That sounds like you had a really hard day. That really sucks. How can I best support you?”

My suggestion is to validate first. Whether an individual is looking to vent or to get support with problem solving, experiencing genuine validation can be incredibly helpful in regulating emotions.

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Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Valencia, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation.