Willie is a story teller. If you ask him a question, even a simple question, you are likely to get a story. It drives Ellen crazy. “Why can’t he just give a simple answer to a simple question?” she says with exasperation. “If he asks me a direct question, I give a direct answer—yes or no.”
This is not an uncommon communication issue in relationships. I’ve heard the same basic frustration raised by parents and kids, workplace colleagues, and others. It is easy to identify with the one who just wants a straightforward response. We’d all like communication to be simpler, but it isn’t, a sentiment that is probably repeated in each of my “Thinking Out Loud” pieces. There is no getting around it, interpersonal communication is a complex process.
Back to storytelling. Storytelling is a fixture of culture. Stories allow us insight that we would not otherwise get with simpler, declarative statements. We need stories to understand the complex relationships in the material and non-material world. We experience stories in dance, music, visual art, literature, and literal storytelling.
For some people, there are no simple answers to questions. When they hear a question it opens the doorway to connections invisible to the eye of the questioner. Inside that doorway are many other doorways related and unrelated to the situation at hand. How to choose which door to open in the discussion becomes a creative and complex process.
Ellen acknowledges that she enjoyed Willie’s stories in the earlier part of their relationship. In fact, it was part of the interest and attraction. She saw it as a way to know Willie better because he was allowing her access to his inner world, expressing himself and being creative. But now, she often finds it frustrating. This is not uncommon: an attractive quality becoming troublesome in intimate relationships. As a relationship becomes more textured and complex, behavioral characteristics can become challenging.
Ellen questioned Willie’s motives for storytelling: Is he trying to be controlling? Is he condescending? Does he want to confuse her, so he doesn’t have to give a straight answer? The questions and their implications troubled her. As we explored these concerns and each person’s communication styles profiles, it was clear that Willie has a strong connection to the linguistic, visual-spatial, and intrapersonal components—not uncommon for storytellers. Ellen is much more oriented to the logical, linguistic, and interpersonal components.
The elements of style create a foundation for self-expression, which is not so much a matter of choice. Willie tells stories at work, at home and in social situations. He tells good stories, as Ellen remembers, but there are times when stories seem cumbersome and don’t lend well to the back and forth (interpersonal) that Ellen seeks.
Understanding and accounting for these individual differences and not criticizing one another’s style offers a beginning to fostering better communication. Once Ellen understood that Willie wasn’t trying to put one over on her, she could be more patient and at times ask him to be more succinct. Willie learned to be more flexible by giving “summaries” when possible and appreciating that his storytelling sometimes was cumbersome.