Figure Out What's Next

How to Dramatically Strengthen Your Marriage, Friendships, and Relationships

communication connection mindfulness peter axtell soft skills May 24, 2017

by Peter Axtell

image by Nicola Vetter (We were invited for a surprise dinner at a friend's house in Düsseldorf, Germany)

Language is generative, meaning that what we say and how we say it, literally creates our world.

Our words have the power to destroy our marriages, friendships and relationships. Those are very high stakes. Most people are unaware of the constructive and destructive patterns of how they speak.

This post is about and the two choices we have when we have a communication breakdown. Are we building trust or destroying trust?

The language we use when we want something from another person is a request. This is a far more effective way to gain the cooperation of others as opposed to a demand.

Five Elements of a Request

Dr. Matthew Budd and Larry Rothstein describe in their book “You Are What You Say” what the elements of a request are:

  1. Speaker: The person making the request.
  2. Committed listener: The person who is at least willing to hear our request. When we don't have that person, our request falls on deaf ears.
  3. Shared understanding: If I ask you to go and buy me a newspaper this morning, we both know what a newspaper and what the time is.
  4. Conditions of satisfaction: I get the newspaper and it arrives in the morning.
  5. Timeframe: This is the time by when I want my request to be fulfilled: in the morning.

Here is a fun story that happened to me last week.

I had a request and asked: “Nicola, will you go to WholeFoods and get me a value meal for lunch?” Nicola knows what a value meal is at WholeFoods and that my favorite is the steak version.

When will I, the speaker, be satisfied? When a steak value meal from WholeFoods arrives by lunchtime.

Nicola walks in the door with a value meal from WholeFoods. By now I'm famished, and my mouth is watering as I imagine eating the delicious steak value meal.

I open the box.

It's tofu...


The cause of much human misery comes from requests that are unclear. 

When this happens we generally get upset. 

We call this a “Communication Breakdown” or “Breakdown” for short. It arises from missing or confused elements in the request.

We request something, the other person acts but doesn't deliver what we want. There are any number of reasons for this. I was assuming something but not stating my assumption. I was thinking Nicola could read my mind - she guessed what substitute I might want since the steak was out. I was thinking I could read her mind, and on and on. Again, the result is, we get upset, which is not what either person wants. 

The Risk

Every time this happens, we run a serious risk of rust and corrosion in our relationships. Over time, stories and assumptions build in our mind and that voice in our head starts talking and making things up that aren't true about the other person. This is exactly what can kill a relationship and it happens every day.

The Expert at Predicting Divorce

Dr. John Gottman wrote one of the definitive books on relationships called “The Science of Trust”.

After four decades of experience, he can predict divorce with about 91% accuracy. He says that 96% of the time the way a discussion begins can predict the way it will end.

Dr. Gottman states that the number one worst, most corrosive emotion is contempt. Contempt communicates disgust towards another person.


After I read that, it put the fear of god into me. I remembered Neil Young's song “Rust Never Sleeps”. 

I understand what Dr. Gottman is talking about because it happened to me.

In my former marriage, there was so much miscommunication. Then negative stories developed. What followed were wrong assumptions my egoic voice (and certainly hers) made up. We didn't have the awareness about the egoic voice and how it works. Over the next eight years, those little negative stories grew bigger. In the end, the rust corroded and turned to contempt. We never recovered from that. We couldn't get the trust back. We couldn't get the care back. It was too late. I never forgot this hard lesson and vowed I would never let that happen again. 

It's one thing to get the wrong value meal it's another to blow up your relationship. 

The wonderful Irish Poet John O'Donohue put it like this: 

When the gentleness between you hardens
And you fall out of your belonging with each other, 
May the depths you have reached hold you still.

When no true word can be said, or heard, 
And you mirror each other in the script of hurt, 
When even the silence has become raw and torn, 
May you hear again an echo of your first music. 

When the weave of affection starts to unravel
And anger begins to sear the ground between you,
Before this weather of grief invites
The black seed of bitterness to find root,
May your souls come to kiss. 

Now is the time for one of you to be gracious,
To allow a kindness beyond thought and hurt,
Reach out with sure hands
To take the chalice of your love,
And carry it carefully through this echoless waste
Until this winter pilgrimage leads you
Toward the gateway to spring.

Breakdowns Are a Golden Opportunity

The good news is that we can learn from breakdowns. We can apply what we learn and dramatically improve our relationships.

The breakdown is an opportunity to dispassionately analyze what went wrong. We bypass the negative emotions that cause us to make wrong assumptions.

We can explore what happened between the request and the fulfillment. What this gives you is the preservation of the relationship. That way we strengthen our relationships rather than erode them. 

How to Analyze a Breakdown

Our request is that you note down over the period of a week when you have Breakdowns in connection with others. 

Here's a framework: 

  1. What happened, what's the story?
  2. What was my emotional reaction to the breakdown?
  3. What are the potential consequences of this breakdown? 
  4. What element was missing for an effective communication? Was there a lack of clarity? A lack of care? Did we have a shared understanding? 
  5. What could I have done to avoid this breakdown? 

Write down three breakdowns you experienced lately and see what you discover.

Question: What's your experience with this exercise? 


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