As is his habit, my husband walked into the room where I sat reading and said, “Guess what I just saw on TV?” I wait. He waits. Assuming it’s a rhetorical question, I wait for him to tell me. He can’t possibly expect me to guess amongst millions of permutations. He’s waiting for me to ask him. “What?”
We are the salt and pepper of opposites attract. Our communications move from humorous to irritating as we attempt understanding. A bystander, hearing us bicker, pointed out we were both saying the same thing, in different ways. It happens when an ASKER and a TELLER talk and neither one listens.
After many years of being together, and many pleas on my part that he just tell me what he wants me to know, I recognize the situation won’t change. Maybe a psychiatrist could explain how asking serves him best. Is it an act of politeness, a plea for attention, a passive aggressive mechanism?
Likewise, what would an analyst say about my TELLING technique? Does it give me a sense of control, feed my ego, come from my enthusiasm for passing on information? Years ago, my husband flew some clients to Vegas for a business meeting. Just before they took off, he told me he would look for some antique jewellery while he was there. When he returned and handed me a small velvet box, I anticipated a gemstone ring. A cheap pin shone up at me when I lifted the lid. “Everyone’s entitled to my opinion,” it read. It wasn’t meant to be hurtful, just his idea of a joke. But it did express what he thought about my ‘telling personality’, and his expectation of changing me.
Telling is the method I take into a meeting, a family gathering, a social situation. I don’t ask if they want to hear what I have to say, I assume they do. Streamlining my words is something I do instinctively. Because I am task oriented, I focus on getting the job done expeditiously. I don’t waste time circling the point, asking questions or adhering to the niceties. Often this makes me come across as brusque, impolite, even bullying. Hurting someone’s feelings or talking over them isn’t my intention. I’m like a SCUD missile programmed to hit the target. I won’t say the collateral damage is necessary, because nothing excuses leaving casualties in my wake. What time I gained by being direct, I often lose when I apologize. It would be so much better if the injury weren’t inflicted in the first place.
Askers on the other hand see time as limitless. They can stretch a second into a minute without effort. While they wait for someone to respond to what is often an ambiguous question, people go off topic. The conversation lurches from “Guess what I just saw on TV?” to “A shark documentary.” “No, but I saw one last week and guess what they said?” Yikes! Suffocate me now! Other askers might get into the spirit of guessing, but tellers become frustrated – not the best scenario for communication.
I can’t conceive of a time when I won’t find both types of people around me. A retreat organizer who tells (dictates) without asking how I feel about his plans; or a physician who asks me for the answers I expect from her. How do I know if an ultrasound is the next best step?
The key is awareness. If I stay aware, I know when I’m telling and sounding abrupt. I can curb my enthusiasm or impatience and soften my approach. When I’m aware someone uses an asking style, I can prepare polite and practical ways to move them along and keep them on topic. I found saying, with humour, “But we digress,” gets people back on track. Askers awareness come with the cues of tapping fingers, grimaces, someone circling their finger in the air. When they read these tells and limit their questions, they enhance communication.
Understanding why a person is an asker or a teller isn’t important. More imperative is accepting they are, recognizing why communication is going amuck and using awareness to pull the conversation back on safe ground.