Communication Breakdowns…and Patches

My teenage daughter told me about a friend of hers who broke up with her current boyfriend. Her friend, “Samantha”, wanted to let the boy down gently. So Samantha followed the breakup protocols for the tech-savvy generation. She whipped out her texting device.

Samantha: i realy lik u as a frnd. i lik spdning time w/ u…

Soon-to-be-ex: me 2! u rock!

Samantha: but mybe theres some1 better 4 u.

Soon-to-be-ex: no waaaay! i wud nvr want any1 but u!

Samantha: but mybe u shud look…

According to my daughter, this breakup exchange went on for 30 minutes.

I asked her why Samantha wanted to breakup with her boyfriend in the first place. She told me, “He was WAY more into her than she was into him.”

Ah, I think I got it. This is the teenage equivalent to adults saying, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Feeling for the boy, I suggested that perhaps next time Samantha could accomplish the same thing by having a face-to-face conversation that might sound like this:

“While I enjoy spending time with you, I want to be with someone who doesn’t need me to make him happy. I feel like this relationship means more to you than it does to me. So while I want to stay friends with you, I think I need to take a step back to focus on our friendship instead of viewing us in a romantic way.”

I never knew that an eye-roll from a teenage girl actually made noise. It sounded like sandpaper scraping across a cinder block.

“Dad,” my daughter explained with ill-hidden exasperation, “She didn’t want to hurt his feelings!”

Samantha’s desire to let her soon-to-be-ex down easily caused a lot of drawn out pain for him, I’m sure. I imagine that for the boy, this breakup felt like having his arm amputated an inch at a time.


Sometimes we make communication harder than it needs to be. This is especially true when we follow the Golden Rule, modified for communication: communicate to others like you’d want to be communicated to. Scrap that idea. The Platinum Rule works better: communicate to others like they’d want to be communicated to.

Want to get better? Here two simple tips for clear communication:

Know your audience. Some people need very direct communication. Others thrive on ambiguity or they are just better at using their intuition to understand the meaning of your subtleties. I had one employee who couldn’t function without every detail being spelled out for an assignment. Another I had at the same time not only knew what I needed as I started to explain myself, but she had also started thinking about the same thing and working on it…without being told anything! Don’t get frustrated with your audience. Rather, know what they need as individuals, and then be willing to flex your approach.

Know your message. It doesn’t matter if your communication message is personal or professional, you really should consider having a point before you try to make one. When I was a family therapist, I would find myself listening for hours before a client stumbled on the crux of the matter, or the key, underlying point of their ramblings. Then I would say, “Did you just hear what you said? Say it again. THAT is the main issue.” By conditioning yourself to think through your emotional and mental clutter, even in tense situations, you will find the clarity of your thoughts. Refrain to speak just to fill the silence. If you need to hear yourself talk as a way of processing your thoughts, say that up front. That way you won’t confuse or bore your listener or, worse yet, have them responding to a communication rabbit trail that your stream of consciousness inspired. When all else fails, ask yourself, “If I had to express my feelings or thoughts on this matter in one sentence, what would I say?” Then say it. The rest is noise.

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