No, Really, It’s Not About the Nail

It’s hard to communicate what you want from someone else. These tips can help you feel more heard, and improve your relationships at the same time.

Have you ever had a conversation where you really just want to vent to someone, and they seem intent on solving your problem? Of course you have. Maybe you’ve even been the problem solver, and noticed the reaction of the person sitting across from you. In situations like these, the end result is frustration on both sides of the conversation, and everyone leaves feeling dissatisfied with what just transpired.

This video, which has been viewed over 15 million times, is popular because it is something that we can all relate to. The woman in the video is talking about her issues and how she is feeling, and her boyfriend is trying to solve her problem, when that isn’t what she wants. You can hear both of their frustration, and you can relate to both sides of this conversation. On his side, the problem seems obvious … there’s a nail in her head that’s causing those annoying sweater pulls and the headaches. He understandably want to just fix the problem and take it out of there! Seems like a pretty obvious way to address her concerns, right?

Image courtesy of Unsplash

It would be, except she’s not looking for a solution to the problem. What she is looking for is a supportive ear to listen to her issues, and to validate how frustrating they are. She is looking to get emotional support, and she’s not quite ready to take action on the nail in her head. Furthermore, by pushing the issue, he is actually pushing her into a more defensive and less flexible place with the nail.

This video is a a great example of something psychologists refer to as the “righting reflex.” This reflexive action is to try and help another person by providing solutions to their problems, even if the other party isn’t looking for solutions, or they aren’t ready to accept a solution. While the righting reflex often comes from a warm and caring place, the end result is that it can push someone away from actually making a change to the situation being discussed. Even look at the last scene of that video. When it’s obvious (even more painfully obvious, that is) that the nail is the problem, when the boyfriend was starting to say it, she turned away in frustration and was refusing to even hear or acknowledge there is an issue. She’s not ready to do something about the nail, and her boyfriend pointing out what a problem it actually is only serves to push her away from addressing the nail at all. In fact, in her mind, the problem is likely to become the boyfriend and his obsession with the nail, or the way he talks to her, when she clearly just wants him to listen to her. In other words, the nail becomes his problem, not hers!!

So, how do you deal with this, from either end of the conversation? How does one get the other person to know what they want in a communication, and how do you help when the other person isn’t quite ready to accept the help you have to give? The answers are Positive Communication and Listening Skills.

Positive Communication

Positive communication is a set of guidelines for how to communicate with someone in a way that might help increase the odds that they will listen to you and that you might even get what you want from them. These guidelines, which are outlined in the 20 Minute Guide and in Beyond Addiction, are drawn from a number of different evidence based treatment protocols can help raise the odds that the person you are talking to can hear your request and even raises the odds that they will agree to give you what you want

The seven guidelines are:

  1. Be Brief — Stay on topic and keep it short and sweet.
  2. Be Positive — Ask for what you want, instead of what you don’t want, and avoid using blaming words or statements that will cause the other person to get defensive.
  3. Be Specific — Use specific examples and ask specifically for what you want.
  4. Label Your Feelings — Tell the other person how you are feeling in this situation.
  5. Offer and Understanding Statement — Demonstrate that you can understand why they may be feeling the way they do (even if you don’t agree with it).
  6. Accept Partial Responsibility — Own your role in this situation (yes, you do always have a role, and no it’s not all your fault!).
  7. Offer to Help — Offer ways you can help them do the thing you want them to do.

By utilizing these seven guidelines to communication, you increase the chances that you will get what you want, and it has the ability to help your relationship as well! How would this look in practice? Well, here’s an example of what the woman in this video could say to her boyfriend:

I really appreciate our talks and the ability to talk to you about things that are going on in my life that are difficult. It makes me feel connected and not so alone when things are hard. At the same time, when I do discuss issues that are coming up for me, it feels frustrating to me when you push me to solve the problem and come up with a solution. I understand that you might see a way to solve things and make them better, and you’re trying to help me out. And, what I really want is for you to just give me time and space to vent. I’m aware that I don’t often tell you that I’m looking to vent, which means that you don’t know if I’m complaining because I want a solution or because I just want to vent. If it helps, I can let you know what I want from you prior to us talking.

You can find all seven guidelines in this communication, and it’s likely more effective than saying, “ugh, just let me vent! Why do you always have to solve my problems for me?”

Listening Skills

Listening skills are also covered in the 20 Minute Guide and Beyond Addiction in a lot of detail, and yet they seem to go out the window when we need them the most! When thinking about listening skills, think about OARS, which stands for Open-Ended Questions, Affirmations, Reflections, and Summaries. Each one of these skills can help the other person feel more heard, and even move them towards feeling comfortable to change.

It is helpful to learn all four of those skills, but if you needed to focus on one (OK, two), focus on Open-Ended Questions and Reflections. Open-Ended questions are questions that can’t be answered with a yes or no response (like “do you like broccoli?” “No.”). Transforming questions into open-ended questions pulls the other person to give more information, and leads them to be reflective of their own situation. It also gives them the space to speak more and feel more heard, which can make them more willing to hear your feedback and thoughts as well.

Reflections are just what they sound like, reflecting back to a person what you hear them saying. These can be as simple as repeating what you’ve heard the other person saying to something more complex, like reflecting back someone’s ambivalence (“You’re frustrated with the snags in your sweater, and at the same time you’re not ready to talk about what might be causing them.”). This demonstrates that you’re listening to the other person and hearing them, and also gives them a little more time to look back at themselves and decide if they want to make a change (without direct pressure from you).

While using these skills makes for much less amusing and entertaining YouTube videos, they do make for much more comfortable and healthy relationships.


Originally published at motivationandchange.com on June 13, 2017.

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