Why You are Having Trouble Communicating With Your X


Title note: In the title when I say X, I mean [insert name here] and not necessarily your ex-GF, BF, spouse, partner, etc. So X might be your kid, your coworker, or your mailman. 

"You BLEW IT!"

We have a silly, recurring thing we do in our household based on a scene from the movie Cop Land. In it Sheriff Freddy Heflin (played by Sylvester Stallone) comes bursting into Moe Tilden's office (played by Robert DeNiro) and is scrambling to board the "S.S. Do The Right Thing." But that ship has already sailed. 

DeNiro's verbal thrashing is the type that plays over and over my your head - haunting and taunting me after I make a stupid mistake.

"I offered you a chance when we could have done something, I offered you a chance to be a cop, and YOU BLEW IT! You blew it."

Then, disappointment, shame and regret wash over my hunched shoulders as I picture a dismayed DeNiro plop into his chair and resume eating his sandwich. Brutal. Just brutal.

When might this scene play out in our household?

  • How about the time we went on vacation and the only thing I was asked to pack was my toothbrush. "You blew it!"
  • Or that birthday call that was made a day late. "You blew it!"
  • Try not filling up the gas tank the day before Hurricane Sandy. "You blew it!"

Thankfully, those are all incidents we can laugh about today with no permanent damage suffered. However, there is another type of "You blew it!" moment that is more serious. Have you ever had the best intentions of communicating, in a spirit of honest concern, an issue to a friend or loved one and it ends up like a scene from the Walking Dead? Feelings hurt, egos mangled, and barely enough energy to remember why you bothered in the first place. What just happened to turn your good faith outreach into a bloody nightmare?

The Bubble of Understanding


Try this. Picture the person you are talking to inside a giant bubble. Any communication that takes place inside that bubble is clearly understood. 

You lost me, Joe. What is this bubble and how is this supposed to help me? 

Great question. The edge of the bubble marks the furthest limits of that person's understanding. And here's a crucial point. What makes up the inside of the bubble are all the things that contribute to what that person is able to understand.

It might include any and all of the following:

  • Cultural background
  • Generational perspective
  • Conscious or unconscious biases
  • Intelligence
  • Emotional maturity
  • Energy level or mood
  • And so on...

In other words, the "world" of the listener is inside the bubble. Your world might be very different from theirs. The important point is you have to be inside their bubble of understanding for any real communicating to take place - otherwise, you are just broadcasting and no one is receiving. So I won't bother telling a 5 year old about how privacy laws impact global IT systems. That would be a waste of time. And talking to my parents about the intricacies of the Pokemon Trading card game is similarly a non-starter.

How about some answers, Joe? As Vizzini says in the Princess Bride, "I'M WAITING!!!"

Glad you asked. So with no further ado... 

EZPZ Tip #1: fit the message inside your listener's bubble

Remember, anything outside the bubble is pretty much wasted breath. And NEVER, ever assume that anyone else's bubble is the same as yours! It doesn't matter whether they have the same parents, grew up in the same town or had the same education as you. Nobody will perceive and understand things in exactly the same way you do. So in other words, no one will understand 100% of the things you say in the same way you do.

You can't be serious, Joe! You mean I have to tailor all my messages to each individual I'm talking to?!

In truth, you don't HAVE to do anything. You can just say it in a way you know you would understand and cross your fingers. Or you could get upset when people sometimes don't understand what you are you saying even though you are saying it (in your own mind, at least) in a super clear, helpful manner.

The main point here is to recognize the inherent difficulty in communicating with another human being and taking that into account in how you approach your expectations for what will be understood and how much work it might take.


Have you ever noticed you can say the same exact thing or ask the same exact question and get a different answer at different moments? No? Well my wife has!

I used to drive her crazy with my consistent inconsistency. We'd be navigating the IKEA labyrinth or chatting at dinner and she would ask me, "What do you think about buying a new couch?" 


On some days I would hesitate, and on other days I would be flippantly agreeable. My (half) joking advice was to just keep asking me on at different times until she got the answer she wanted. While this was a joking example, there is a true lesson to be learned here. 

Not only do you have to get inside the bubble, sometimes, people put shields up that make it difficult or impossible to get into the bubble. 

What do I mean by this?

Sometimes, it's something your X can understand, but under certain conditions and often without consciously doing so, they put a shield up that stops what would normally work from working. 

What causes shields to go up? This is not an exhaustive list, but a useful rule of thumb is the acronym HALT. Shields tend to go up when the person is:

  • Hungry 
  • Angry 
  • Lonely
  • Tired

So what does this mean? Do I have to monitor how everyone is doing before I talk to them?

Absolutely not. And I can understand the sentiment that good intent and clear messaging should be enough. As for me, I'd prefer the frustration of waiting for the best time to talk or first trying to improve the person's mood over the frustration of not being understood.

P.S. I first heard this concept from my friend Stefano Matini on my Why It Works podcast. Thanks Stefano for allowing me to steal this!