Absence of Communication

Nancy Ferrell

Former CRS Mediator, Dallas Office; Private Mediator and Trainer

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: When it comes to families, I really think that families are desperate to know how to reconnect. I think most of our families have lost intimacy and a lot of that is based on the fact that they don't know how to engage each other with their differences. And so for fear that you're going to leave me or fear that you're going to reject me, I don't really honestly tell you what I need from you. And I shut down on that and I think it's just a little thing and ten years later all of those little things that I haven't even dealt with says, "You don't even know me. You haven't met my needs or you haven't let me meet yours because we've been afraid to talk about it."

Q: And so the worst fear comes to bear, which is the greatest irony. You don't want to tell that person for fear of driving them away, but by not telling them in the end you've been driven farther away.

A: Exactly. The very thing you fear most is what happens.


I was talking to a couple that had been married for a long time and the husband had had a stroke and sometimes strokes will cause people to be less filtering of what they say, they're just more direct about what they say. The wife was buying cereal and she was buying corn flakes and he said, "I hate corn flakes." And she says, "what do you mean you hate corn flakes, you've been eating corn flakes for ten years." "I hate corn flakes, and I've hated them for ten years." I mean, that's a simple thing, but it happens at every level. You sit at the table and eat corn flakes for ten years and don't ever say anything. At the first event, it would have been, you know, I really don't care for corn flakes. Okay, what kind of cereal do you want me to buy? But ten years later I'm so angry because I've been eating corn flakes for ten years and didn't want to. But whom do I blame for it? I blame you for feeding me cornflakes.

Q: Because I was too afraid to say, you know what honey; these corn flakes are not really what I'm looking for. And I was afraid that you were going to say, well then go buy your own damn cereal, because I do all the shopping and cooking and whatever.

A: That's right. And it's really a very simplistic example of how we interact with people in a relationship and it's based on a fear of being rejected.


One of the benchmark or key points in what I try to do is help people learn how to clearly describe what they expect from each other. And then to understand that you saying you can't meet an expectation doesn't mean you don't accept me. And not anybody can meet all of my expectations, not any one individual. That's another fantasy of our family structure, is that I'm going to be married and whole and this family's going to provide all of my needs and expectations. Nobody can live up to that. So we've set ourselves up for failure to begin with. So what do you clearly need and expect from me, and then I have to be honest to say I can clearly make this need, or I would love to be able to meet this one, but I can't. This one I don't know that I can now, but I think I can learn that. Being honest about what we need and what our expectations are, and the other side of that, being honest about what we can and can't do.

I come from a background of religious education ministry and then got into conflict resolution and mediation; it's very helper oriented, a nurturing kind of orientation, and it's hard for people like me to say no I can't do that for you. We're always wanting to help and so to me, it is as powerful and as necessary for me to be able to say with integrity, "no, I can't do that for you," and that it's irresponsible of me to say yes when I either don't have the time, I don't have the energy, I don't have the skill, but I want to and so I say yes. We do it all the time. So in families, having a place where the trust level is there, where you can ask for what you need and if I can't provide that for you, I will help you find the resource for it. And the other thing is simply creating a place that is safe and that involves being clear about your expectations and also setting boundaries and understanding what the boundaries are.

Q: Are there non-negotiables in terms of those needs? Are there needs in families where one member of the family says I really need this and the other member of the family says I absolutely can't provide you with that. And then family member A says, well, then what are we doing here?

A: The thing that comes to mind is the ethical dilemma or moral dilemma about what's acceptable or non-acceptable as far as a need is concerned. And it always goes to sexual things. What if I need more than one partner. Is that okay? Well, no, I don't think so. So, where's the boundary? That's where the ground rules have to be built with the expectations and the need statements. What are our ground rules for a relationship? And is monogamy one of our ground rules? For some people it's not. But for me it is, so in our relationship that would have to be one of our ground rules.

Q: So, explain to me the difference between a ground rule and a need.

A: The ground rules set the parameters.

Q: In this setting, we're talking specifically about a family mediation setting. So in a family mediation setting, what's the difference for a family between a ground rule and a need?

A: The ground rules would tell me where the boundary is in terms of resources. How will we manage our money, sexual and emotional satisfactions, is it bound by certain things? And then within that, I need more experience or more diversity in our sexual relationship or our emotional relationship or whatever. That's fine within the bounds of the ground rule, which is that it's a monogamous relationship. But we can still meet some needs other than that, as far as diversity and having some different kind of experiences. There is a shared responsibility as far as money. I need to have some control over the money or some cooperative relationship about how we spend money. That's great. We need to work this out together. But what if on a particular situation I really need X number of dollars to do a certain thing? How do we negotiate that? We're still going to negotiate it together, but I need this and we need to talk about it. So the framework is the ground rules and then the need statements are the things that we have to deal with within those ground rules.

Q: So the degree of the ground rule is like the need. The ground rule is almost like the bounds, the limit.

A: The outside limit.

Q: And what can we achieve within those limits.

A: Yes, within those limits.