An Eighth Grader’s Guide to Communication

An Eighth Grader’s Guide to Communication

In eighth grade I volunteered to be a “peer mediator.” This was a student who helped other students resolve conflicts. I would be called from class to a private room with two students in some kind of dispute or one student who needed to navigate their feelings, and I would lead them in a dialogue (which I’m sure would be hilarious if I could go back and listen.) I always thought it was a pretty cool program. But I didn’t fully appreciated it until realizing that so much of what I learned as a peer mediator has helped me in my relationships, especially now that I am polyamorous.

Honest, productive communication is necessary for any healthy relationship, but for me, polyamory was the gateway toward actually exercising honest, productive communication on a regular basis. It’s been the most important part of it all. In all of the challenges and bumps along the way, poor communication was at the core. But knowing that, my partners and I became better and better at it. It felt like exercising a muscle. While I’m sure I have plenty of more progress to make, I’d like to share what I’ve learned so far.

I’ve learned how to talk, and it all goes back to that peer mediation training. It can seem kind of robotic, but using the formula “I feel [emotion] when you [action]” is a good starting point to avoid tension. Accusing your partner with “You are” messages leads to them feeling defensive and attacked. Assume good will in your partner. Do you really believe that they intended to hurt your feelings? Make the goal to understand each other, not to determine who is right and who is wrong.

I’ve learned to be skeptical of my emotions. This isn’t to say that my feelings aren’t valid. But if I make myself investigate why I’m feeling anxious or insecure, I might discover a deeper reason. This happened recently when Matt asked me how I would feel about his partner, my metamour, living with us in the near future. I felt a weird mix of panic and excitement. I told Matt that I could see that happening eventually, but I didn’t think it could work in the house we live in now. There wasn’t enough space. I felt very adamant about that. Matt did not share my concern. It ended up being a pretty tough conversation, but I had this moment where I just paused to feel how I felt. I put the not enough space part aside and found that it was blocking my view of the real reason for my feelings. I was feeling hurt because Matt did not voice a concern for how his partner moving in might impact our relationship. I needed affirmation that he did see the risks. When I told him this, it was easy to resolve. Matt had thought about the risks and felt concern but didn’t have the opportunity to voice it because we were stuck on the subject of enough or not enough space. We talked through our concerns, came to a consensus, and were feeling good again because we understood each other. The rest of the night was a great night, and I felt a lot closer to Matt because we figured it out together. We became stronger.

I’ve learned to make time for communication. I regularly check in with my partners by just asking them how they’re feeling that day or in that moment, and they do the same for me. It can address an insecurity or anxiety, related or unrelated to the relationship, before it gets the best of me/them. In learning to make time for communication, I’ve also learned to be patient. It’s really tempting to immediately address a problem through texting. Just don’t. It’s not a fair way to talk. And there’s a lot of meaning that can be conveyed in the tone of your voice or body language. If there’s something to talk through, make the time to actually talk.

I’ve learned to listen. It can be really hard to listen to your partner in a tense or tough conversation. While they’re talking, it’s easy to occupy your mind with what you want to say next. Be present while they talk and repeat what they tell you. Language is no where near perfect, especially when trying to describe complex emotions. By repeating what your partner has told you as you understand it, it tells them that you were listening and reveals what you did and did not understand.

I’ve learned to be wrong. This was a difficult change for me. Being wrong always felt like losing. It took some practice, but I’ve found a lot of benefits to being wrong. Just being honest with yourself and accepting that you can indeed be wrong is the first part. Then you’re presented with this opportunity to better yourself. It also makes it a lot easier for your partners to acknowledge when they are wrong if you can too. It takes trust.

There have been so many times when I should have channeled my eighth grade self about how I was feeling. I’m thankful that I rediscovered how powerful these simple tools are and had the opportunity to learn about them at all. So, thank you, eighth grade Libba. You may have crimped your hair and dressed like you were on an Avril Lavigne cover, but you taught me how to really talk.