Scene: Monday evening at 6:00 p.m. Family seated at the dinner table, I’m exhausted, my husband has just gotten home from work. The kids are cranky.
- Husband: Dinner is good, thank you. Did you do something different with the roast?
- Me: I tried a recipe from one of the moms at school. It’s crusted with caraway seeds.
- Husband: Oh, yes. That’s what it is. Sorry, I’ve just never liked caraway seeds. My mom used to put them on egg noodles when I was a kid.
- Me: Ugh, okay so I’ll just never try anything new, then. Same old chicken and rice, same old roast and potatoes. This family never likes anything new or interesting for dinner. I used to like cooking but you guys are starting to make me hate it.
- Husband: Well, if I cooked something you didn’t like, I would hope you would tell me so I wouldn’t make it again. It’s just caraway seeds.
- Me: This week it’s you and the caraway seeds. Last week it was the kids and the cauliflower. It’s always something in this house. I watch the Food Network and I don’t even let myself get excited about a new recipe because I already know it won’t go over well.
That little bit of dysfunctional communication is called switchtracking. My sweet husband just wanted to give feedback so I would know he doesn’t like caraway seeds. I switched topics to rant about my perceived inability to get creative in the kitchen. We may have looked to be having a conversation, but we might as well have been on opposite ends of the planet as far as effectively communicating is concerned.
The phenomenon of switchtracking is instantly recognizable. The first person in a conversation brings up a topic on which they intend to give feedback. The receiving party switches topics, often getting defensive, and reacting by giving their own feedback to the first person, which ultimately turns up the heat in what could have otherwise been a simple exchange.
If you’ve ever found yourself saying to your husband, “This isn’t about <insert small, insignificant detail>, it’s about <insert huge concept usually involving fundamental character flaws or life altering decisions>,” then you were probably in the middle of switchtracking without even knowing it!
The good news is switchtracking can be avoided with simple presence of mind and the shelving of one’s ego. If I listen to my husband knowing he is kind and trusting his intentions are good, I won’t be thinking of last week’s cauliflower fiasco. With a clear and present mind, I can receive his caraway seed feedback for exactly what it is: good natured truth-telling, which should never be vilified. Because if I’m being honest, I kind of hated the roast, too.