My best friend has kidney disease. She has been on dialysis three days a week and has spent two years looking for a kidney donor, which is her only hope for survival. An old college buddy agreed to be her donor, but recently he has been delaying the procedure. My friend and I recently spoke by phone.
I just got a text from the guy who agreed to be my kidney donor.
What did he say?
He said that his wife needs knee surgery.
Well, isn’t your kidney transplant scheduled for next month?
Yes. I have passed all the tests, and everyone is waiting for him to fly in. He keeps doing this to me. It was originally three months ago, and he keeps delaying. He says his wife is ill, but he promised. I am so frustrated that I just want to tell him to forget it.
I can hear the anger in your voice.
It doesn’t do me any good.
It is not like you can fire him, as he is a match and the only one who has come forward, right?
Yes. But I feel like giving up.
But for you, that means you continue your dialysis, which after two years your body is tired of, right?
Yes. I get very fatigued. I can’t take it for much longer.
Does your donor know how you feel?
No, I have to be nice, as he is my only hope.
I could feel my belly clench and neck tighten. She desperately needs her donor’s kidney, yet she is afraid to disturb him. She is trapped and can’t see a way out.
How can she speak up and let him know what she needs and not upset him, or worse, lose him? Well, speaking your mind and heart requires vulnerability and it can backfire. So, you have to calculate the risk that you are willing to take. How high are the stakes? How unhappy are you by not speaking up? How much of your energy is spent tormented by some interpersonal conflict? If you decide it is worth speaking up, the best model to use is a four-part complete message. Here is an excerpt from my book, Communication Breakthrough: How Using Brain Science and Listening to Body Cues Can Transform Your Relationships. This is from chapter 9, “The Magic Power of Whole Messages”:
“In the world of expressing yourself, when you use a whole message, you are being so thorough that it is nearly impossible not to be understood. If you are misunderstood, it will be the fault of the listener due to some listening block. We cannot control others, but we can use our best tools, and this is the finest jewel in the expression box. So, come learn the magic power of whole messages.” (pp.135-136)
I turn back toward my friend, as I really want to help her. I don’t know all the dynamics going on, but I zero in on the communication issue. The donor may not know about the urgency, and only my friend can let him know.
Here are the four elements of a whole message:
1. Observations or facts (behaviors you notice) “I see…”
2. Thoughts or beliefs (may involve your philosophy or values) “I think…”
3. Feelings/emotions (“I feel…” must be followed by your emotion “I feel…”
4. Wants or Needs (may refer to an action by you or the listener) “I want…”
When we are upset, we can’t think clearly. Our brain is in fight/flight mode. But if my friend gets mad or withdraws from her donor, she could die. So best to take a break, relax until the thinking brain comes back online, grab a piece of paper, and craft a whole message.
She applied the formula to her situation and came up with this:
1. I read the text that your wife needs knee surgery soon. I have passed all the tests and my body is ready for the donation.
2. I believe in keeping promises.
3. I feel worried about the delays because my health is failing.
4. I want to know if the hospital has reached out to make your flight arrangements and I want to know when you are arriving for the donation transfer.
Notice that there are no “you” messages. As soon as you say “I feel that you…” It can be experienced as a criticism and engender a defense. My friend is reliant on this ambivalent donor. Unless she lets him know her situation, he may stay on the fence until she dies. She is trapped and can’t see a way out.
This may be a high-stakes example, but people suffer when they can’t get through to others.
My friend called a few days later and I was anxious to hear from her.
“I did it. I gave him a whole message.”
I crossed my fingers, “How did it go?”
"Well, he said, 'Okay. That gives me three weeks to make arrangements.' ”
We both sighed in relief.