The Four Ingredients to Effectively Tell my Partner to Stop Telling Me Where to Go (in the Car)

The first in a two part series on a language-learning perspective/approach to NVC

Photo by Quynh Do on Unsplash

With guest blogger Elizabeth A. Thomson

Last Fall I was very happy to discover someone on the other side of the world (Australia) who, like me, has a background in linguistics and takes a language-learning approach to learning NVC (Nonviolent Communication). As some of you know, I have offered workshops on this topic (which I call “empathy hacking”) and am now writing a book on the subject, which will be published by PuddleDancer Press in 2022. Excited about Elizabeth’s ways of thinking about things, I asked her to write some guest blogs. Here is the first one. If you’d like to be in contact with Elizabeth, her contact info appears at the end of the blog. 

Photo by June Admiraal on Unsplash

Has something like this happened to you…..?

You’re off to a restaurant with your partner.  You are in your car and you are driving.  You know where you are going and you know that there are multiple ways to get there.  You’ve made a choice on the route that you’ll take, so you’re feeling comfortable and confident.

And then as you are trundling along, you are hearing a directive from your partner telling you, “Turn right!”  It is a red flag to a bull.  You are triggered and angry.  But you say nothing, and do as you are directed.  After stewing on this,  you might say something like I did:

When I’m driving, every time you are a passenger, you always tell me which way to go!  It’s like you think that I don’t already know. It drives me crazy!  It doesn’t matter if I tell you to stop.  You still do it.  In the end I just suck it up, do as you say, and get upset.  I wish you would just stop it!

Now, I felt a certain sense of release at having said what I had said.  But I also felt a degree of guilt at being so blunt, and so seemingly honest.  Sound familiar?

So, what was my partner’s response?  It was …. silence.  Nothing.  No response.  Nada.

My outburst was intended to stimulate a dialogue between us about my needs. But it failed miserably.  The rest of our drive was conducted in total silence, which continued as we were seated in the restaurant and made our selections from the menu. All in all, it wasn’t a great evening.  And later, we didn’t return to the issue to find a resolution, either.

So what went wrong?

Well, I wanted to communicate how I was feeling and what I was needing but I did it in a violent way.  What I mean by “violent” in this context is that I expressed myself through meanings which were unlikely to succeed at having my needs met: Wanting to exercise my own agency by getting us to the restaurant according to a route of my choice. 

But instead, I succeeded at off-siding my partner and leaving him feeling off balance and  distrustful…so distrustful that he chose not to interact at all with me.  My words had failed me.  

So, are you like me, wanting a different way to communicate?  

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Being a linguist, I know that as social beings, we share a special capacity to communicate with each other.  To transmit these meanings, we encode them in language. To understand, we decode the language into meaning

So that this encode/decoding process is possible, language is organised into patterns which we recognise.  This goes for all languages.  Learning how to communicate as a social being starts with learning the language patterns which the language community shares and then using these patterns to communicate what we want to mean.

Language users can select patterns which will connect interpersonally to others, and patterns which probably won’t.  My violent communication is an example of a set of patterns that didn’t serve my desire to have my needs met. I selected language patterns which expressed meanings of judgement and blame instead of connection, understanding, and empathy.

Consider this as an alternative, one that connects me interpersonally to my partner:

Right now, when I think about you giving me directions to the restaurant, I feel stuck and cross because I want to be able to make my own decisions by myself on which way to go.  That’s because I need agency and autonomy.  Next time we are driving, would you be willing to wait until I ask for help?

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Do you feel that this version would be received by my partner more graciously — and not with silence but with a positive response to wait until I ask for help next time? Do you think it will land better — and be more connecting?

To find out, and to hear more about the elements in this version, please read Part Two of this blog.

You can reach Elizabeth at: Coaching to Clarity,

6 thoughts on “The Four Ingredients to Effectively Tell my Partner to Stop Telling Me Where to Go (in the Car)

  1. I hear you Elizabeth. I sometimes say to my husband before we leave, I’m planning to go this way, do you have a better suggestion? That way we work it out together before we head off. Has worked so far.

  2. H Dian, thank you for this, I have this very problem with one of my housemates.The issue I have is that this keeps happening over and over and over again, it is a very ingrained habit for her. So after about 5 times of this my irritation takes over. So I am not sure how to “cope” with the fact that as compassionate as these tools might be, there is another angle in that us people are very slow to change.

    • I agree this situation sounds challenging and frustrating — and probably tiring too! And yes, it takes time to change behavior. You could go back and discuss this again, with the focus on what would support her in tracking/making the change. You also may want to consider what changes you can make on your end (which you do have some control and more say about).

    • Hi Ramiro, I regret that I am just seeing this message now! RE: changing habits, I agree this is challenging, esp if it’s related to the other person’s trauma and triggers. I suggest micro steps and agreements, focusing on mutual learning (rather than just being about the other person), frequent check ins/updating agreements, and also exploring how the habit/reactions might be connected to younger parts that are needing attention/support.

  3. Pingback: The Four Ingredients to Effectively Tell my Partner to Stop Telling Me Where to Go (in the Car)! (Part Two) | Work Collaboratively

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