Want to Communicate Better? Use Stories

Years ago my mid-teen aged step-daughter moved in with us.  When her birthday rolled around I wanted to make it special for her and among other things, I asked her what kind of birthday cake she’d like me to order.  I asked what kind of frosting, what kind of decorations and what colors she wanted on her cake.  On her birthday, we celebrated with family and the special cake and I felt very good about the whole event.

Fast forward a couple of years, and more birthday cakes chosen with her preferences.  In a convoluted conversation one day, I heard something that made me wonder if I’d hurt her feelings.  Upon questioning, I learned that she felt hurt that I never made her a birthday cake that instead I just always went to the store and bought one.  MAKE her a cake?  In my family, having a store bought cake was a BIG DEAL!  My siblings and I looked forward to picking out our own decorations, flavors and colors with much anticipation.  I explained this to my step-daughter and told her we never wanted my mom to make our birthday cake.  I then asked her to tell me her story about birthdays and cakes.  For her, making the cake was a very special mom/daughter time and picking out the kind of cake and then helping to make it, especially licking the beaters (of course!) was what made her birthday special.

Wow.  The power of stories.  I asked why she hadn’t shared this with me earlier and she said she didn’t want to hurt my feelings.  In the meantime, she was hurting because she thought I didn’t care enough about her to take the time and make her a cake.

I wonder how often that happens with our loved ones.  Because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we don’t share our own hurts.  Or maybe we interpret their behavior as intentional and uncaring and don’t take the time or have the courage to say, “Hey, I’m wondering about…”  We all bring the culture of our growing up families with us into our adult relationships.  By culture I mean our traditions, our ways of doing things, our beliefs about love, life, people and the world, our religious and spiritual traditions, and our birthday cake memories.  Getting to know our loved ones traditions and beliefs may shed light on why they do, say, act the way they do and in turn open some doors to increased closeness with them.

Today my step-daughter is a beautiful young woman, and the director of a halfway house for teens.  She recently shared with me that she used our birthday cake story to help one of her clients understand how important getting to know our loved ones really is and how assumptions without understanding can create unnecessary distance and heartache.

The next time your loved one, be it spouse, parent or child, seems upset, or distant, remember the power of stories and ask them to share with you the story behind the story.

I wish you the courage to share your stories and to find opportunities to explore your loved ones’ stories.  They can be powerful ways to draw closer to each other.

About The Author

Patti Bitter, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker, and owner of Tapestry Counseling, LLC, in St. Louis, MO.  Ms. Bitter provides individual and couples and marriage counseling in the St. Louis area.  To learn more about her practice, visit her website at www.tapestrycounseling.com or call 314-965-7494.