| Family Reflections |

Crossed Lines

When a simple conversation turns complicated, one party may be hearing more than was actually said



inah (thinking quietly to herself): Maybe I should give Dan’s grandmother a call. Oh, but wait… what if he already spoke to her today? I know it’s hard for her to have too many calls. I’d better check.

Dinah: Dan, did you speak to your grandmother today?

Dan: Why? Is she complaining I didn’t call her?

Dinah: No, but I was thinking of calling her.

Dan: Well, you didn’t ask me to call her.

Dinah: I know. I just wanted to make sure you hadn’t called her already.

Dan: Well, why would I have called her? Did you ask me to?

Dinah: No. It’s just that you’ve sometimes called her even when I don’t ask you to.

Dan: Well I didn’t, and I don’t understand why you’re complaining that I didn’t call her if you didn’t even ask me to.

Strange Conversations

Dinah and Dan regularly have exhausting conversations like this. Why didn’t it just go like this?

Dinah: Dan, did you speak to your grandmother today?

Dan: No.

The answer is crossed lines. In the first example, Dan is responding to the question he thinks his wife is asking rather than the straightforward question she is asking.

What Dinah said: Dan, did you speak to your grandmother today?

What Dan heard: Dan, why didn’t you speak to your grandmother today?

The whole conversation on his part is a defensive explanation about why he hadn’t called. His lines all make sense once we change Dinah’s words to constitute blame and criticism.

The problem, of course, is that Dinah’s actual conversation included no blame or criticism whatsoever. So why is Dan responding to an imaginary attack?

One possible reason is that Dinah routinely does blame and criticize her husband, so he’s assuming that this communication is the same old, same old.

Another possible reason has nothing to do with Dinah. It’s just that Dan used to be a little boy who routinely found himself in trouble. Suffering from a bad case of ADHD, he experienced constant complaints from teachers, parents, and others throughout all his developmental years.

Although Dinah is not a critical person, he assumes that any question about his actions must be some sort of complaint, as this is where his impulsivity and inattentiveness had gotten him his whole young life. Now that he’s an adult, being questioned about the weather could bring about a defensive response.

How to Deal with Strange Conversations

If Dinah is, in fact, a critical, complaining wife, she’ll need to improve her own conversation patterns before her husband improves his. People under regular attack do become defensive after a while, creating strange-sounding conversations.

If, on the other hand, Dinah is a casualty of Dan’s childhood experiences, she’ll need a different strategy. First, she needs to be on the alert for “crossed lines” — responses to her simple questions that are about something other than her literal question. Once she has identified a crossed line, she has a couple of options.

One, she can just end the conversation. Here’s an example:

Dinah: Dan, did you speak to your grandmother today?

Dan: Why? Is she complaining that I didn’t call her?

Dinah: No. I was curious. No problem. Thanks.

The abrupt end to the conversation will prevent the flow of further defensive and irritated remarks. When an issue isn’t that important, this may be a good strategy to employ.

However, if an answer to the question is necessary, then it may be possible to “trick” the person into answering it by simply repeating the question and then quickly ending the conversation. It might look like this:

Dinah: Dan, did you speak to your grandmother today?

Dan: Why? Is she complaining that I didn’t call her?

Dinah: Did you speak to your grandmother today?

Dan: No, but why are you asking?

Dinah: Okay thanks. I was just wondering….

Being able to recognize crossed lines is an important skill. It helps prevent one from drowning in a sea of confusing and painful conversations, wondering about one’s own sanity. Over time, it can also help reduce defensiveness and conflict.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 698)

Oops! We could not locate your form.