Communication Skills for Sharing

Skillful communication is the key ingredient to a successful sharing arrangement. This means not just communicating information accurately, but also conveying it in a way that encourages others to listen openly and communicate honestly in turn. This can be more challenging than it may seem.

Many of our day-to-day communications are fairly simple because they are intended to convey primarily facts. Someone who says, "I will drop the kids off at the south field by 4 for soccer practice," for example, has communicated who, what, where, when, and why, succinctly and effectively. When we integrate sharing into our lives, however, there's a lot more to talk about, spanning all kinds of topics. We need to communicate not just facts, but also topics that can be tough to talk about, like our values, feelings, needs, fears, and personal habits.

Sharing can be a simple transaction, meant to meet our material needs. More often, however, sharing arises from a deeper desire to create community. For example, people who start a neighborhood home repair group certainly want to get help with home improvement projects and may be interested in learning repair skills, but they may be even more motivated by the desire to know their neighbors and enjoy the company and camaraderie of working together.

There are innumerable ways to express ourselves, and the nuances of expression can elicit different emotional responses from listeners. If we want to understand others and be understood by them, we must say what we mean without triggering defensiveness in our listener. To the extent that we can achieve this, we will create durable and successful sharing relationships.

The chart that follows lists some of the qualities inherent in sharing and the communication skills those qualities require, with examples.

Qualities of sharing Communication Skills Required for Sharing Examples
Sharing requires give and take.If a sharer feels that other sharers aren't pulling their weight, it's important to say so before resentment develops."I try to remember to clean the tools before I put them away, but I've noticed that the tools aren't always clean when I take them out to use them. I'm concerned that they won't last as long unless we all clean them after each use. Can we all agree to maintain the tools?"
Sharing makes sharers interdependent and requires that sharers be sensitive to each other's needs.Sharers must communicate their needs and listen openly when other sharers express theirs, recognizing that everyone's needs are different."It's very important to me that my dog gets enough exercise every day. Can we talk about how far we plan to walk the dogs each day?"
Sharers may have different motives for sharing.Sharers should communicate the values or practical matters that are important to them."I realize that your primary motive for forming this buying club is to help us all afford socially and environmentally sustainable products. I share this goal. At the same time, I'm on a tight budget, and there may be certain things I can't afford, like the organic pecans. Could we visit the option of buying nonorganic foods when prices seem very high?"
Sharing requires trust.If something occurs that undermines trust between sharers, it's important to discuss the issue, air hurt feelings, and have everyone take responsibility for their role."I was surprised to see that the kids were still napping at 3:30 when I came to pick Sarah up. It's really important to me that we stick to the schedule we agreed to, including naps ending by 1:30. Otherwise, Sarah stays up late and all of our schedules are thrown off. I'm curious: What made today's schedule different?"
Sharing relationships are often built on or create a sense of community.A sharing arrangement can break down if someone doesn't feel like part of the group."I notice that when we get together for work days, you tend to choose tasks that are separate from the rest of the group. What makes you choose these tasks?"
Sharing can involve unequal power arrangements, where one person has more control or ownership than another.It's important to talk about how the imbalance could make the sharers feel or how it could affect the arrangement."Although I will remain full owner of the car, I want you to feel free to use it as if it is yours also. On your days, I hope you will consider it to be your car."
Sharing arrangements may result in people sharing physical space more, such as in carpooling or group housing.Sharers should feel comfortable asking for space or for quiet."I had to take Johnny to the emergency room last night for his asthma, and he and I are beat. Would it be possible for you to have your Monday night meeting at someone else's house just for today, so we can get some sleep?"
Sharing can require making decisions in groups.Sharers should encourage each other to express their personal needs, even when they may initially seem in conflict with that of the group as a whole."I realize that this could create an inconvenience for some folks, but I at least wanted to communicate an idea I had, which is to keep the television off when we are providing child care."
Sharing is based on overlapping needs.People's needs evolve over time, so it's important to be willing to reassess a sharing arrangement. It's good to plan to check in with each other periodically."This carshare has been such a great thing for me. But now that I can walk to work, I'd like to get rid of my car altogether and use the City Carshare program for the once or twice a month when I need a car. Maybe the group or one of you would like to buy the car from me; at any rate, I won't change anything for the next month, so you'll have time to figure out what to do."
Sharing can require more planning than sharers would have to do independently.Sharers need to talk through the logistics of a sharing arrangement and create routines, schedules, or systems."If we're both going to use the elliptical machine that's in my basement, you'll need a key to my house. I'd like to talk about how we'll allow you as much access as you want and still preserve my privacy."
Sharers experience both the benefits and losses of a sharing arrangement together.Sharers should talk in advance about different contingencies."Because the lawnmower belongs to you, you'll be bearing all of the wear and tear. How should we compensate you for this?"
Sharing requires generosity and gratitude.Sharers need to express their positive feelings about the arrangement, and remember that everyone is benefiting from it, and giving to it, in different ways."I really appreciate that you open your home to the mealsharing group every week. It's such a beautiful and comfortable space, and it is so nice to all be able to fit around the table!"

Tips for Effective Communication

People communicate in very different ways. Many communication styles have a cultural basis, and our experiences growing up also form our approach to interacting with others. We communicate best when we acknowledge these differences, accept other people's communication styles without judgment, and commit to bridging gaps by finding common communication ground. Fortunately, there are a lot of concrete, practical skills that can help you do this.

In any communication, you can control only your own side of the interaction. Trying to get the other person to communicate differently or come around to your point of view isn't very productive. Just try not to be defensive or judgmental, and it's likely the other person will follow along. This means trying not to accuse, blame, deflect, or demand. It also means approaching your communications with genuine curiosity about what motivates the other person rather than making assumptions about the other's needs or goals.

Here are some tips and examples of positive ways to bring up concerns or talk about difficult issues.

Concentrate on listening rather than talking. Often, we spend the "quiet" end of a conversation thinking about what we want to say next instead of really listening, and the other person can feel it. When it's our turn to talk, we can expect the other person to return the favor. Try imagining that the most important thing in the world to you is understanding what the other person has to say, and ask questions that allow the other person to explain—and you to understand—more fully. Make sure you're hearing correctly by reflecting back what the other person is saying. Listening is not the same as agreeing: You don't give up anything by providing your full attention.

Instead of: I understand your concern about spending too much money, but these home improvements will be a good investment.

Try: I understand your concern about spending too much money. It sounds to me like you are saying that even though the home improvements might be a good investment, and you don't want to disappoint me, you simply don't believe you have the money to spend right now. Have I understood you completely, or is there anything I missed?

Don't assume, and do be curious. Don't assume you know what the other person is going to say or why. Instead, make sure you're listening openly, so you can recognize new information. Allow yourself to be surprised. Ask questions about anything you're not completely sure about. Find your genuine curiosity and ask sincere questions that don't assume you already know the answer.

Instead of: Why have you been grumpy all week?

Try: How have you been feeling this week? It seems like you haven't been yourself lately.

Give the benefit of the doubt. Here's one assumption you can make: that the other person is acting with good will and good intentions. Even if you have been hurt, assume that it wasn't on purpose and ask about what happened and why. There may be an explanation you never considered.

Instead of: I can't believe you didn't put gas in the car after you used it!

Try: What prevented you from fueling up the car yesterday?

State your intentions at the outset. Say why you're bringing something up—in other words, whether you are simply communicating facts, have a question, or are stating a concern or problem that needs a solution. That way, the other person knows what your expectations are, instead of having to guess how long you want to talk or how involved the conversation might be.

Instead of: Can we talk?

Try: Do you have a few minutes now, or could we plan a time later to talk? I'd like to tell you about some changes in my work life that might require some adjustments to our car-sharing arrangement.

Be specific and concrete.Say what actually happened or what your concern is—don't beat around the bush or use generalities.

EXAMPLE: Instead of: You're inconsiderate.

Try: I'm having a difficult time concentrating because of the volume of your music, which I can hear even with my door closed. Could you turn your music down?

Avoid blaming.Don't make something the other person's fault; just state a problem that exists and work toward fixing it. Also, don't call names or insult the other person. These are ways to end a conversation, not to start one.

Instead of: You are making no sense! That's absurd!

Try: I'm finding this conversation frustrating. I want to understand how you feel about this, but I don't want us to take extreme positions in order to defend ourselves. I'm just not understanding why this happened, and I'm concerned that we might have the same problem again if we don't figure out what's going on.

Try using "Yes, and" instead of "yes, but." If you agree with part or all of what the other person is saying, and you also have some kind of response you want to make, you'll get a much better response by indicating your agreement clearly, and then using "and" rather than "but" as a bridge to your own point.

Instead of: Yes, but it isn't just my fault that the convection oven isn't clean. The owner is supposed to have it cleaned once a week.

Try: Yes, and I've asked the landlord to make sure the weekly cleaning gets done. I'll also make sure to do my part.

Never say never. Words like "always" and "never," and especially phrases like "you always" and "you never," are rarely productive. Instead, state what happened in the current situation in concrete terms.

EXAMPLE: Instead of: You never listen to me!

Try: You are looking out the window and at your watch. It's making me feel like you aren't listening, and I'm wondering if you have time to talk right now.

State how a situation is affecting you. Instead of judging someone's actions, say how those actions make you feel. People would much rather volunteer to alleviate the problem than feel like they have been unfairly judged. Make "I" statements.

EXAMPLE: Instead of: You always take more time than you're allowed in the conference room—it's really unfair.

Try: The other day I had to keep a client waiting because you were in the conference room during time I had signed up for, and the same thing happened two weeks ago. I like to be on time for my appointments, so it would help me if you would agree to keep to the schedule in the future.

Try to understand each other's expectations. Differences you have with your sharing partner might be the result of differing expectations from the outset. Even if you feel disrespected or disappointed, your sharing partner might not know it, and might even believe everything's going just as planned.

Instead of: Why don't you ever want to have dinner with me?

Try: I feel sad that we don't share many meals, which is one of the things I was looking forward to when we first moved in together. I am wondering whether we have different expectations about sharing meals together.

Hold back on solutions. Often, there's a particular way we'd like to see a concern or problem resolved. But there may be a variety of ways to solve the problem, and your solution might not take all of the facts into account. Try to maintain an open mind and don't present your solution along with the problem at the outset.

Instead of: You're going to have to start doing the dishes in the morning before you go to work, so that they're not sitting in the sink when I get home.

Try: I really like having a clean kitchen to cook in when I come home. Any ideas about what we can do to make sure that happens?

Acknowledge how the other person feels. If you have hurt someone's feelings, it's often tempting to defend yourself. But offering a sincere apology is the best way to make sure that you have an honest conversation about what happened, rather than an argument.

Instead of: But it's not my fault I was late!

Try: I'm sorry that I was late.

Want more information on effective communication? For a full description of a very effective communication method called "Powerful Non-Defensive Communication," see Taking the War Out of our Words: The Art of Non-Defensive Communication, by Sharon Ellison (Bay Tree Publishing), most easily available on Ellison's website,

Setting Limits and Asking for What You Need

Sharing arrangements usually require you to communicate something about your personal preferences, needs, expectations, abilities, or worries. The carpool driver may like quiet, while the passengers want music. One parent may prefer that the nanny never give the kids sweet snacks, while the other may believe that a cookie or an ice cream cone once in a while is fine.

In Part II, which covers specific sharing arrangements, we encourage you to communicate clearly at the outset, so you know each other's preferences and concerns when you make your sharing agreement. It's easy to hesitate to bring up topics pertaining to needs or concerns, feeling that it might kill the mood or cause resentment. At the same time, successful sharing requires that the arrangement work for diverse people with diverse needs. Addressing concerns early prevents them from seeping in later in the form of tensions or conflict.

One key is to phrase your concerns in a way that doesn't sound judgmental or untrusting of your cosharers. We've provided some examples below, based on real situations we've heard about in sharing arrangements.

If you have started a carpool but don't want to feel obligated to make conversation all the time: "I just want to give you a heads-up that I often use my commute time to unwind or let my mind wander, so I may not always join in the conversation. I'll let you know when that's the case."

If you are sharing a house with your friend and don't want to feel obligated to always invite him to your dinner gatherings: "I would like it if we could talk about giving each other social space. To me this means recognizing that there are times we may want to be alone with certain friends. For example, I like to have small dinner gatherings, and I enjoy the opportunity to spend time just with my guests. I want to make sure we both feel comfortable to ask for social space or to not invite each other to join the dinner party, for example."

If there is someone you do not want to join your sharing group: "I think it's important that this child care co-op be composed of people who we get along with and fully trust. I understand the urge to bring more members into the fold; at the same time, I don't feel entirely comfortable having Shoshana and her family join us. It wouldn't be fair for me to elaborate on why, since many of you have a good relationship with her. I just don't think I would work well with her."

If you have formed a child care co-op and you worry about your child eating unhealthy food at other people's houses: "We try to limit the amount of processed and sugary foods Sylvester eats. I'm wondering what would be the best way to approach this if he will be eating different snacks than other kids."

If you are worried about committing to a sharing arrangement that you may want to get out of later: "Can we make a plan to check in and assess how our sharing arrangement is going after two months? Before we take the significant step of transferring title to the car into both of our names, I'd like to share use of it for a couple months and make sure this is going to work for both of us."

If you have a tighter financial situation than your co-sharers and you worry that they will make expensive decisions: "I'd like to talk about our individual financial situations with respect to our cohousing. How should we handle situations where some of us want to invest in something and the others can't afford it? I just want to put it out there that money is a concern for me and I try to keep a careful reign on my finances."

If you are sharing a yard with another family and worry about having to watch their child: "Our children will be spending a lot of time in each other's yards, and I'd think it would help to come up with a system for alerting each other when the other's child needs supervision. That way, neither of us will feel responsible for caring for the other's child."

If you are sharing a kitchen, but don't want to share your nice knives and expensive frying pan: "Do you have any kitchen items that you would like to reserve for your own use? There are certain kitchen items that I try to take meticulous care of, so I would prefer to have those be for my own use."

If you are worried about being bowled over by louder and bossier people: "I often have difficulties speaking up in a group setting. It would help me if we came up with a format for communicating that would ensure that everyone always has a chance to speak."

Take communication training. Many of the sharers we interviewed for this book emphasized the value of having a training session in communication. It's especially effective if your whole group goes together to training, or at least takes the same kind of training so you can work from a common set of guidelines for communication. You'll find training resources we recommend in Appendix A.

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