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The easiest way to explain what precisely I'm asking is by quoting an email (minor edits) written to me by a well-meaning person with whom I was discussing a relationships issue. To help ensure that I managed to fully convey how I was feeling (very important to me to be fully understood/not misunderstood), I preferred using emails to communicate, so that I could fully process my feelings and make sure the full picture is conveyed; with oral communication I found you often end up not being able to ‘finish the thought’, especially with more complex feelings, or to express all the feelings which can come bubbling up. Here's what they wrote:

[emphasis added]

I want to draw your attention to a little point that perhaps will help you to understand why some people may find the communication with you difficult: You gave a number of good reasons for you preference for using the email... I understand that you feel that this is the only way how to make your point clear but perhaps this is part of the problem – people in therapy and in relations in general accept that it is impossible to pass over to the other side all the depth of how I think and feel and we have to live with it somehow.

After all you have been through, it may seem to you that by raising such a small issue I am picking on you but I think that it is important that you realise that with all your gentleness, which is extraordinary indeed, you are coming across as rather powerful and insistent person which naturally may draw some unnecessary counter reaction and opposition from the other side. It could be that accepting the limits of what you can express rather than driving your point with an absolute clarity will achieve better results. I am making this point because in our meetings your wife was saying several times that your form of communication doesn’t work with her; so perhaps it is the time for trying something new?

For a little more context, we're talking about something which everyone would agree is very hard to go through, this therapist understands and agrees. His issue is that I would typically make a list of 6 bullet points going through six emotions I had about the subject, with reasons and justifications for these feelings from my point of view, and the odd example of something which happened to back things up. I accept most people wouldn't do this, as you can tell I'm a very methodical and logical person, but this is how I've always worked, never having imagined that striving for clarity makes me seem inappropriately insistent and is therefore counter-productive.

This example relates to emails to my marriage counsellor, who was a little thrown by my methodical approach. I get the impression most clients don't do this. However there are other examples of the same thing from other areas, which although not as important to me, are worth mentioning as I'm comfortable to give more details to clarify my point. For example when my landlord initially refused to fix my garden fence, saying it was my fault for not maintaining the ivy, I emailed back with 4 reasons it can't have been my fault: it fell down only a few months after I moved in, when the ivy was already overgrown; the fence on the other side which had no ivy also fell down; the fences were very old; the wood was rotten through, so it wasn't due to the excessive weight of the ivy. Both then and now all the reasons are good ones, that's not the issue. The issue is generally does striving for clarity reduce impact by making you seem like a nutter (like my wife thought at the time, she's not so methodical).

The question isn't specifically about the counsellor/wife, but general. Say you worked in a bank and a client had a legitimate grievance, how would you react if the client spelled out 5 different failings on the part of the bank which led to the issue. Or if you were a journalist, a list of 7 criticisms of a piece you wrote. I'm talking about where all the points made are fair reasonable criticisms. Would you feel he was out to attack you, or just insistently trying to get his way, due to the large number of points and the methodical approach. And therefore it would have been better to just make one or two points.

Question

Do you agree with his point, and if so what would you say is the balance to aim for between clarity and not being insistent - or even better, is there a way of making your feelings clear without compromising on the clarity yet without seeming insistent?

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    I suspect that the context of who your communicating with and why may have a huge impact on the situation. Is this marriage counseling, or something else? You don't have to get into the deep details, but having a better picture of your situation will help people form more helpful answers. – apaul Sep 17 '17 at 1:31
  • Yes its marriage counseling. But its more of a general communication question, not relevant to only this situation. For example when my landlord initially refused to fix my garden fence, saying it was my fault for not maintaining the ivy, I emailed back with 4 reasons it can't have been my fault. Both then and now all the reasons are good ones, that's not the issue. The issue is generally does striving for clarity reduce impact by making you seem like a nutter! Thanks – noodle Sep 17 '17 at 9:17
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    @noodle In the landlord example, it's not about conveying your feelings, but stating facts. If someone is contractually obliged to do X, but refuses to do so, stating facts Y. Then making clear, that Y is not the case and so they have to do X is totally different from stating your feelings towards your spouse, for example, in e-mail conversation. – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Sep 17 '17 at 9:38
  • I'm not sure I understand what this question asks. Do you email your spouse about how you feel? – Tycho's Nose Sep 17 '17 at 9:47
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    @Tycho'sNose No I don't email my wife, I had been emailing the counsellor, who was a little thrown by my methodical approach. (Although at the end of the quote the counsellor does imply that there is a similar issue with regard to my oral communication with my wife) – noodle Sep 17 '17 at 10:25
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In situations like counselling, oral communication has 2 advantages:

1) it is better at conveying feelings. in written form (especially e-mail) feelings are not very well conveyed. After all, you don't hear the tone of voice, see the gestures and facial expression. There is no direct interaction

2) with a written email, the recipient (counsellor) feels dictated to and doesn't feel he has a chance to get his two cents in or make any input. Instead of being able to communicate with you directly, the recipient just sees a (not literal) wall of text, they now have to go through. It is impersonal, they have to swallow it wholesale, without being able to reply immediately, and they don't see you - it comes a bit across as if they were talking to a machine or robot.

However the counsellors precise wording was "people in therapy and in relations in general accept that it is impossible to pass over to the other side all the depth of how I think and feel and we have to live with it somehow" - it is debatable whether a counsellor should be telling a client not to try to express the full depth of what he thinks.

With regard to professional relationships like with the landlord or bank manager, it would generally be considered more acceptable to give more details in a written email, as they are paid to provide you with a service, and the purpose isn't to convey feelings. Also, if the other party seems to be treating you unfairly by dodging their obligations, it is reasonable to go into more detail.

  • Answer largely based on comments and chat with @AnneDaunted and Tycho'sNose on the question – noodle Sep 17 '17 at 12:37
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Say you worked in a bank and a client had a legitimate grievance, how would you react if the client spelled out 5 different failings on the part of the bank which led to the issue.

You know all about the aforementioned 5 issues, because you had time to think about it. But the bank teller only opened your file five minutes ago, he's much less familiar with your case than you are. In your mind, everything is crystal clear, but he doesn't know everything you know. So, if you list all your problems at once, even in a well-organized bullet list, he will be overloaded with information.

If you talk fast, you're putting pressure on him to follow your pace, but he can't, because he misses information. When you reach point 4, he's still trying to understand point 1, so this won't work.

Also, if you sound like you're accusing him of all your problems, he's less likely to take your side and help.

There's nothing wrong with saying "There are several issues I'd like to discuss, which one would you like to start with?" Then you give him a printed bullet list (since this seems to be one of your habits). He can read it at his own pace, and ask for clarification at any time.

You can also point out one of the issues and say "Yeeeah, that's just me nitpicking but I really like to do things by the book."

Let him choose the order in which he'll solve your problems, relax and be friendly and helpful.

Or if you were a journalist, a list of 7 criticisms of a piece you wrote.

You really like to have things organized!

I'm talking about where all the points made are fair reasonable criticisms. Would you feel he was out to attack you, or just insistently trying to get his way, due to the large number of points and the methodical approach. And therefore it would have been better to just make one or two points.

Use the feedback sandwich method.

7 criticisms is way too much, focus on one or two.

First layer of the sandwich is complimenting their work, second layer is constructive criticism worded as suggestion of imrovement, last layer is reminding them that you're doing this to help because you like their work.

what would you say is the balance to aim for between clarity and not being insistent - or even better, is there a way of making your feelings clear without compromising on the clarity yet without seeming insistent?

There's no generic way, you should adapt your discourse to the other person and find a common ground.

If the other is very rational and not prone to switching to emotion-based thinking then you can fire up the bullet lists.

Otherwise, chop it up in easy to digest bits. Oral communication in this case has a huge advantage: you can let the other choose their own pace (which slows things down if they're not rational) but they can point out stuff you hadn't thought about (which makes things faster). And, of course, listen to what they say.

This guy mistakenly thought other people had the same thinking patterns as himself, with predictable results. The interesting thing here is that it was obvious he'd get fired for that memo, but although very smart, he didn't see it coming.

  • But in an email format, the reader has time to reflect on each bullet point. There is no "talking fast" involved. The OP stated: I preferred using emails to communicate, so that I could fully process my feelings and make sure the full picture is conveyed; with oral communication I found you often end up not being able to ‘finish the thought’, so the journalist or the bank teller who receives a detailed, rationalised, and unemotional memo should, in turn, be able to pick out the strengths and weaknesses of each point. – user3114 Sep 17 '17 at 18:11
  • That depends on the person... if it's too long, some will just give up. – peufeu Sep 17 '17 at 18:55

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