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Convoy Communication

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Convoy Communication

I don’t know that anyone would (or could reasonably) argue the importance of communication with ourselves and in all our relationships. Ironically, there are many people who assume that the longer we’ve known someone, the easier communication gets. In fact, the longer we’ve known someone, the more complicated communication can become because we layer in filters of assumptions. If we are not intentional about how we are talking to one another, we can wind up experiencing quite a bit of conflict that could have been avoided had we chosen to ask for clarification rather than run on the idea that “I know them so well, I just know what they’re thinking/what they really meant by that/what they’re feeling/why they did that, etc.”.

One particularly frustrating day, I had a revelation about communication styles, the importance of knowing our roles, and staying in our lanes. My husband needed to go to the East Valley to drop off a vehicle, so he asked me to follow him so that I could give him a ride back home afterward. Knowing that he and I have very different driving styles (read: he drives faster, and changes lanes more often than I believe is typically necessary), I asked for the address of where he needed to drop off the vehicle, to which he replies, “Why do you need it? Just follow me”. Now, my irritation is beginning to bubble up because I really dislike following him anywhere, but I go with it and ask him to please be mindful of the fact that I’m following him, and that I don’t know where I’m going. Please don’t go through yellow lights and leave me hanging at an intersection, use your turn signals, etc. He says, “Of course” and within the next 4-minutes proceeds to do exactly what I’d asked him not to.

At this point my eyebrows are all the way up in my hairline, my jaw is clenched, and I am using a few choice words. Because I’m a therapist and I teach coping skills to clients while emphasizing the importance of practicing those skills “in all relevant contexts”, I chose to “practice what I preach” and do some (DBT) Fact Checking. When I really broke it down, I realized that what I was reacting to was not so much the fact that I’d lost sight of him; we have cell phones and Bluetooth, I can call him and catch up. I was upset about feeling disregarded when I’d asked for the address and asked specifically for what I needed. I felt unimportant but was able to recognize that in fact, he did not say, “Dana, you aren’t important”. If I’d continued with my assumption rather than practicing skills, I would have likely reacted by coming up with some gloriously passive aggressive plan that would have started an even more glorious argument later.

We arranged to stop at a gas station, I went inside, bought a charger for my phone (he was borrowing mine), and stated my need for the address of where we were going, rather than asking.

To be clear, I was still using (DBT) skills to assert this need. 

On the long(ish) ride, I listened to music (ACCEPTS skill), and reflected on how the literal act of driving in a convoy also works as a simile for communication. If you aren’t familiar, a convoy is a group of vehicles or ships that are traveling together. This means of travel provides additional support and protection, it can also be dangerous when done at high speeds. I became familiar with driving in a convoy from being raised as an “Army brat”; whenever we moved or went on road trips in more than one car, we followed these rules. I’ve also had my own training on this while I was in the military.

This isn’t another one of those “what’s your talking/listening style” set ups; this is more about the process of what is happening when we are communicating and what our roles are. Just knowing effective communication skills is not enough. It’s about consistent implementation, continuing to lean into curiosity about each other instead of assuming, and - one of my favorite and most frequent suggestions - talk about how you’re going to talk. Meaning that when things are calm, and communication is naturally more relaxed, talk to one another about how you plan to handle difficult interactions. Keep a list of “fair fighting rules” handy and use them as needed. This is also reflected in the preparation for a convoy…

  • Orientation: a brief overview of the destination and route. (What are we talking about and what key points we will likely need to address).
  • Situation: the person with more experience, knowledge, or authority in an area should lead. (You are the expert on yourself. No one knows better than you what you are thinking and feeling).
  • Mission: Identifying the desired outcome.
  • Execution: Discuss actual travel plans and what should happen in special circumstances. (If this starts to go sideways, this is how we have agreed to handle it).
  • Admin & Logistics: Ensuring all vehicles, drivers, passengers, and equipment are good to go. (Practice mindfulness and meet each other where you’re at. Give each other room to be human. Set realistic expectations for yourselves and each other based on the skills that you have and are practicing).
  • Communication: Establish a plan for how everyone is to communicate with the group, electronically and otherwise. (Avoid yelling, name calling, cussing at each other, shutting down, etc.).

Depending on where your vehicle is in the convoy, you’ll have different responsibilities, while other rules will apply to all vehicles in the line. As we go through them, I will list the rule that applies, then add information about how it applies to communication.

The rules that apply to everyone are as follows:

  • (Convoy): Be at the starting point on time.
  • (Communication): Sometimes we have to schedule talks.
  • (Convoy): Be sure to have enough fuel in your tank.
  • (Communication): Communication can be negatively impacted if we are tired, worn out, or overwhelmed.
  • (Convoy): Check your vehicle to ensure it is in good working condition.
  • (Communication): Be aware of vulnerabilities that you may bring into the interaction. Be intentional about using effective boundaries and coping skills to manage your feelings as needed.
  • (Convoy): Avoid tailgating.
  • (Communication): Be aware of needs for personal space boundaries and remember the rule that which ever person has the greater need for space “wins”. Avoid talking over one another and interruptions whenever possible.
  • (Convoy): If another car is trying to squeeze between vehicles, back your foot off of the accelerator to slowly and safely close the gap.
  • (Communication): Boundaries! Boundaries! Boundaries! Be careful and intentional about who you let into your relationship. Be aware of triangulation attempts.
  • (Convoy): Remain in single file.
  • (Communication): Know your role and stay in it. Focus on what you are responsible for and let others take responsibility for themselves.
  • (Convoy): Keep sight of the other cars in the line.
  • (Communication): Be aware of the other person or people that you are interacting with. Ask for clarification, seek out opportunities to increase your understanding of what they are trying to communicate rather than assuming you know.

When are you in the role of the lead car?

  • When you are asking for assistance.
  • When you are asking for or receiving support in pursuing something important to you.
  • If you are a group leader, supervisor, project manager, or otherwise in charge of something.
  • If it’s a “you thing” (your project, your dream, your hobby, your feelings have been hurt, you are teaching someone about your boundaries).

An example of when I've been in the lead car position is when I started Full Life Counseling. At that point, because my husband was deployed, he could only be in a middle car position. When he came back, and as I created more space for him to support me, he has alternated as needed between the middle car and rear car roles. Another example of being in the lead car role, is when I've acted as a Clinical Supervisor for new interns. Interns start out observing and learning the "back end" of the practice, asking questions, and learning case conceptualization.

Rules for the lead car:

  • (Convoy): Set the pace for the whole line.
  • (Communication): Stick to discussing one issue at a time. Call “time outs” and take breaks with a plan to circle back if needed to decrease the likelihood of disagreements or emotionally charged interactions turning into conflict.
  • (Convoy): Watch out for potential barriers or hazards ahead of you.
  • (Communication): Pay attention to warning signs that the interaction is “going sideways” and use skills and “time outs” as needed to maneuver around sticking points or danger zones.
  • (Convoy): Stop at yellow lights, “yield” signs, etc. and wait to proceed until all vehicles can safely continue together.
  • (Communication): Again, practice awareness of others in your interactions and allow time for everyone to be heard. Keep circling back as needed until you reach resolution (as best is possible). If you can tell you’re losing someone, check in.

When are you in the role of the rear car?

  • When you are offering or acting in support of another person or group.
  • When you are tending to a relationship.
  • When you are protecting a person or relationship.
  • When you are a member of a team but not the team leader.

Examples of when I've been in a rear car role are when my husband has had a goal or some other venture that is very important to him and I've been able to help with planning and logistics, asking questions to help ensure that all his bases were covered (i.e. to help clear a path for him and hold space). Another example of a rear car role is as a Clinical Supervisor working with more experienced interns. When I shift to a rear car position, they are assigned clients and allowing them to learn in a more hands on way while continuing to provide feedback and support. 

Rules for the rear car:

  • (Convoy): When a lane change needs to happen, the rear car should receive the signal being passed down the line and be the first to move over. Once the rear car has completed the lane change, they can hold space for all the cars ahead of them.
  • (Communication): We are all responsible to do our best to hold space for others, to let each other know when we need them to create/hold that space for us by signaling clearly. When we have received a signal that someone needs our attention, we can use reflective communication to let them know that we have recognized and understood that they need our attention and intend to provide it to them.
  • (Convoy): Be aware of potential hazards or dangers that may come from the sides or from behind the line.
  • (Communication): Be mindful of and intentional about containing your own aversive tendencies, blindsiding, or otherwise being hurtful to others.

When are you in the role of a middle car?

  • At work or school:
    • The commander is not often in the lead or rear car but observing and giving direction from the middle.
    • Mediators, teachers, counselors, other roles in which you are there to guide but not necessarily give advice.
    • When you are a team member but not in a leadership role.
    • When you are in a support role but primarily there to learn.
  • In a family dynamic, middle cars are likely to be:
    • Children are passengers until they are empowered to learn to effectively "drive their own cars". 
      • (Please note that children should not be made to be responsible to be the “go between” for parents).
    • Spouses or significant others when the situation does not allow for you to take a more active role, like the rear car.
  • In other types of relationships (extended family, friends, etc.)
    • You can show up to offer support but need to be mindful of boundaries, tendencies to enable or enmesh yourself.

Examples of when I've been in a middle car role are when acting as a Clinical Supervisor for senior interns, or Associate Licensed Clinicians. I am still providing observation, support, and feedback, but am allowing them to take on more and more responsibilities. 

Rules for middle cars:

  • (Convoy): Keep pace with and watch the “6” of the vehicle in front of you. Close gaps when someone is trying to squeeze in. Communicate with vehicles in front if the lead is getting too far ahead.
  • (Communication): If you need to circle back to stay on the same topic, provide that feedback. Avoid attempts at deflection. Do not involve outside participants if they do not need to be involved or if they cannot remain neutral.
  • (Convoy): Guard the flanks/protect the line.
  • (Communication): Boundaries are about protection and containment. We protect ourselves by intentionally choosing what to take personally, filtering out our assumptions and perceptions. We protect others by containing our aversive or reactionary impulses.
  • (Convoy): Maintain awareness of the situation, and signals being communicated from the vehicles in front of and behind you.
  • (Communication): Pay attention to how you are breathing, your physical sensations, emotions, boundaries, word choice. Practice mindfulness of others, attune to nonverbals, use active and reflective listening.

When we can clearly communicate to others what our boundaries are, what we need and want from them for them to earn trust and for us to feel supported, the more likely it is that they will be able to effectively take on and fulfill their role. The more we are able to understand and accept what our role is in the relationship, in a task/project, or in an interaction, and what is expected of us, the more effectively we will be able to show up for one another in a meaningful way. This creates safety in our connections, safety allows us to be emotionally nurtured so that we can grow and have more fruitful, loving relationships.

Just as a convoy is a group of vehicles or ships traveling together, we are humans living in a world full of other humans and traveling through our lives together with those we’ve chosen to connect with. We have a right to be validated, safe, sane, and self-respecting in those relationships. We also have a responsibility to others to validate, be safe for, sane with, and respectful.


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