What My Assistant Taught Me About Communication - Personal

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I don’t expect professional relationships to work effortlessly – particularly when they’re mine.

I say that because, as a relationship expert, I encourage the people I work with to check in with me about how our relationship is going. And I remind them to do it pretty often.

The result, not surprisingly, is that every couple of months, I find myself on the receiving end of ‘feedback.’ 

I place ‘feedback’ in proverbial air quotes since it generally makes me cringe - because although my fantasy involves my phone blowing up with declarations of how amazing I am to work with, the reality of those conversations generally plays out differently.

Last year I hired a virtual assistant. She lives in Texas and, as you probably know, I live in Manhattan.

We’re both Americans – not from vastly different cultures – and yet, the difference in the way we use and hear words could lead someone who didn’t know our nationalities to think that we were from different continents.

I should back up and say that my assistant has a lot of feelings.

And despite being a shrink, I really don’t.

I’m not easily hurt. I’d rather you use less words and be more direct with me, mostly because it will save us time but also because I’m not good at reading between lines. Which also might surprise you, given my profession.

The thing is, as a relationship expert, one of the most important skills I teach is communication. And the first rule of communication is that you need to say what you mean and mean what you say: Others in your life aren’t responsible for reading between the lines and extracting unspoken meaning. They’re only responsible for acting on the words that come out of your mouth.

So, back to my assistant: Here she is, with her feelings and an open invitation to ping me whenever she feels, I don’t know, a feeling. And I’m telling you, for the past year she takes me up on it. For about 9 or 10 months.

Then, suddenly in the last month or two, I stop getting ‘feedback.’

Which is totally weird, considering she just got married last weekend and should have been losing her mind in the weeks leading up to her wedding.

So, instead of giving in to the nervous breakdown I’ve felt this week since she departed for her honeymoon (read: I have no fucking assistant), I decide to reflect on the irony that she and I had the most peaceful months of our relationship during one of the most stressful times in her life.

And then I remember a conversation we had during one of the last times she FaceTimed me with feedback…

I’m summarizing here because this is approaching the length of a novella:

She asks me if I’m mad at her. 

This is not the first time she’s worried that I’m mad, frustrated, [insert negative feeling here] at her.

ME: What can I do to make you believe that when I’m mad at you or feeling anything even remotely negative, I’m going to call you up and discuss it with you?

HER: I just worry sometimes that maybe you’re not telling me how you feel. 

We’ve had variations of this conversation in the past.

In that moment, I feel myself become frustrated as those conversations float through my head, but I remind myself that she’s an amazing person who isn’t intending to distrust the words coming out of my mouth.

I decide to try to view the problem through a different lens, hoping I can find a different way to reassure her, ideally for the last time.

Here, I use my clinical training as a social worker: I decide to explore whether there’s something cultural that’s contributing to her fear that my words come with some hidden subtext.

ME: Is it possible that you’re just a polite southern girl who’s been taught that you can’t be sincere and be polite at the same time? So you continuously think I’m being nice rather than honest with you?

HER: YES!

It turns out there’s a term for how she communicates:

SOUTHERN people engage in implicit communication because it’s the polite southern way. They’re accustomed to looking for indirect communication cues: vocal tone, body language (neither of which she gets a lot of because she’s a virtual assistant).

She was raised in a culture where reading between the lines was expected.

Her relationship rules include assigning negative meaning to one-word answers (which seems efficient to me but which she feels hurt by, including but not limited to my sending her “ty” for “thank you”).

I’m a New Yorker. When I want to give you the middle finger, I’ll make sure you see me giving it to you.

I’m an explicit communicator. You can take me at face value.

So, from the moment we had that conversation, I think we both shifted a little.

I’m still a direct person who thinks niceties are a burden.

But I’ve found some (reasonably) authentic ways to be a little more polite with her.

I’m never going to send her the “Happy Thursday! 🌞❤️😘” text that she wants before she receives my first morning request. It’s a fucking TEXT MESSAGE.

But, because I love her, at least a few times a week I muster up the self-discipline to begin my daily texts to her with, “Good morning.”  No emoji. Or exclamation mark.

Which isn’t exactly what she wants but seems to keep her happy.

As long as I remember not to text her, “ty”.