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Communication for Comprehension

If “communicate, communicate, communicate” is the polyamorous secret handshake, or our motto, or whatever it’s become now - it’s useless if people don’t come away from the communication understanding each other. Communicating for comprehension is the goal.

I’m fairly sure we’ve mentioned this before, in passing, but I thought it deserved some actual explanation. When I say to make sure that you’re communicating for comprehension, or check that you’ve been understood before finishing a conversation - I don’t mean just going “are we alright?” at the end. Communicating for comprehension is both a skill you can grow as a polycule, by making sure everyone shares definitions and is on the same page - or similar enough pages for function of whatever you’re discussing - and a necessary part of communicating needs.

I spent 8 posts talking about how people differently define Kitchen Table and Parallel polyamory - and the internet is trying to make Garden Party Polyamory a thing, which, during a pandemic where we can’t even have garden parties, if we ever did, feels particularly off to me - so I think this blog has generally gotten the idea that people view and respond differently to the same words across before. That said, for the folks in the back - it’s really easy to get crossed wires over something that can have a broad variety of definitions like “Kitchen Table polyamory” or a word that you just define differently than a partner or a metamour. A person “wanting to reconnect” when a nesting partner comes home from a date could mean a half hour spent watching tv, or a whole day spent together. If you don’t clarify terms, this could lead to discomfort, arguments about whether an agreement has been kept to in good faith, or any number of any other problems in that relationship. So, make sure you define terms together so that there isn’t misunderstanding. That sounds straightforward. This would be simple - except that it isn’t, often. The words that it turns out you disagree on might be things you never imagined would cause a disagreement. That, of course, is why you land in a disagreement over them - all parties were so secure in “everyone thinks of this in thus and such a way” that no one bothered to define it.

When you land in this place - someone discovers either that they haven’t set out loud a boundary that they know is a problem for them by it being tripped over, and goes “But I said XYZ is a problem!” and their partner or meta responds with “this isn’t XYZ!” - instead of getting worked up over whether it is or isn’t XYZ, figure out what they need that makes XYZ a problem, and see if that gives you comprehension of what they think XYZ is. If you don’t get there, or can’t get there without a blowup, there’s a backup strategy to use.

This strategy is best employed after a few minutes to cool down, because it works best if everyone can stay calm. Go back and forth and tell the partner who thinks they shared their boundary, but didn’t define a term and it turns out that you define it differently, what you hear them saying. Let’s use the story I told you about me having a fight about sleepovers as an example.

Me: I can’t believe you won’t sleep over here! Why won’t you give me this sign that our relationship is important?

Partner: Sleeping over isn’t a sign our relationship is important! What are you talking about?

Me: Sleepovers are obviously a sign you take a relationship seriously.

Partner: They absolutely are not, and I can’t believe you’d say our relationship isn’t serious.

Me: I’m not saying we’re not serious, you are by refusing this!

Partner: No way.

Then we took a short break because we were getting shouty, and came back to it.

Partner: So clearly this is really important to you. Why?

Me: I’ve never been in a relationship where sleepovers didn’t start either before a relationship got serious or once it was serious if a poly someone had somewhere else to go home to, unless it’s a Rule They Set, and you’ve never said it’s a rule, so I don’t get why you won’t do this.

Partner: OK, so this is a sign to you that either I’m going to ambush you with a rule you didn’t know about or that I don’t think our relationship is as serious as you do.

Me: Yes.

Partner: To me, sleepovers mean nothing. I don’t like them. I like my bed. I joke a lot about falling out because with two partners we barely fit in a King size, but I have issues with insomnia and MY BED is pretty much the only place I can sleep now.

Me: Why didn’t you ever say THAT when I asked you to sleep over instead of just saying no? Or referencing your kids as a reason when they have other parents?

Partner: Because the other things are true too, sometimes. Sometimes I’m getting them on the bus and everyone is gone to work before they need to get on. But also because I don’t think this is a big enough deal that you should have a mental list of answers I’ve given. Are you saying you don’t see all these other things about our relationship that show that it’s serious? That really hurts.

Me: Is that why you got so mad earlier?

Partner: Partly that, and partly that I was mad I was being dragged into what felt like a dumb fight.

Me: So, can we agree that our relationship is serious? But that that’s part of why I would really like to at least occasionally sleep in the same place and since that’s hard for you it could be infrequent, but I kind of need that to happen at least sometimes or else I’m going to feel like a really unimportant part of your life, despite myself, because of the things I think sleepovers mean.

Partner: We can do that, probably. Is once a month something that will help?

Me: It’s not what I really want, but it’s a start. Is it OK with you that it might help, but not be a perfect fix?

Partner: We’re at a compromise, I think both of us will feel a little bit that way.

Me: Okay.

So, in that example, you can see that we disagreed both over what the implications of an action (sleepovers) were, and what a word (serious) meant in this context. That in combination, it took us getting upset, taking a few minutes to cool down, and then talking back and forth to understand why it was that we were both worked up about it. We were both upset about different parts of the situation, and our first instinct in attempting to communicate about this went right past each other. It took going back and going over what we meant in detail to actually get anywhere.

This is communicating for comprehension - recognizing when you aren’t communicating even though you’re talking, taking a step back, and when you come back, breaking things down into tiny little pieces to agree on one by one. If this isn’t working, or one of you still feels unheard - take a specific statement and rephrase it to each other back and forth until you agree you’re both saying the same thing and it’s the original sentiment. Then move the conversation forward. If there are a lot of those, it might be quite hard and quite a long process. But hopefully agreeing on terms makes each of these a little shorter than the last. And hopefully these agreements help you work your way toward overall communication for comprehension.

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